When her nephew was fighting AIDS in 2006, Michelle Pannell turned to one of his friends, Jason Yantes, a transgender known as Lala, for support.

“Lala, he was my backbone,” the property manager in San Leandro said recently. “He was just there for me every day.”  Ever since, the two have had a tight bond.

But to Derek Holcomb, Yantes, who he met in 2000, is like a bad dream.

“He harmed me,” said Holcomb, who took out restraining orders against Yantes in February, according to court records,  “but he harmed a lot of people worse than me.”

It is these two views of Yantes that friends have had to reconcile in the weeks after September 29th when just after 8 a.m. Yantes passed out or fell asleep at the wheel of the Jaguar XJS convertible he was driving north on Mission Street near 21st.  The car jumped the curb, careened into Gaspar Caballero, and within minutes the 27-year-old café worker was dead.

A day later, the district attorney charged Yantes with felony vehicular manslaughter and unlicensed driving. On Tuesday, Yantes will be led into Superior Court in the orange jump suit of county jail for a pre-trial hearing.  If she goes to trial and is convicted, Yantes could get a maximum of 10 years.

Holcomb said he saw the accident coming, a horrific climax to a life colored by petty crime and an addiction to methamphetamines. But Pannell said that despite Yantes’ struggles—drugs, a tough family situation, emotional problems—she is fundamentally a good person.

Holcomb, who is unemployed and lives on social security in San Francisco, alleged that Yantes stole his plasma TV and Bose speakers a year ago. He also said she had used forged checks and false identification in the past to purchase a car out of the classifieds. These incidents could not be confirmed.

In 1999, however, Yantes was convicted in San Francisco of burglary, forgery, and receiving stolen property, according to court records. Before she was arrested last month, she was charged with a parole violation related to a 2006 drug-dealing conviction.

Even though she acknowledges Yantes’ criminal record, Pannell said these allegations don’t square with the person she knows. In the few years they have been friends, said Pannell, Yantes stayed at her house frequently, including the two weeks before the accident.

“He never took anything from me,” Pannell said. “He’s been here week after week, year after year, and he’s never taken anything from me. I never had to distrust him like that.”

Pannell said Yantes was clean in the weeks before the accident. Police have not released the results of blood tests, which would conclude whether Yantes was intoxicated or on drugs when the accident occurred.

Pannell also noted that Yantes’ family had trouble acknowledging he was gay. Yantes’ mother could not be reached for this article. Her aunt declined to comment.

As for the accident and current charges, Pannell was resigned. “This is just something that happened,” she said. “It’s not fair.”

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Noah Buhayar is print and multimedia student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He reports primarily on business topics. His work has appeared in the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, CBS’s business site BNET.com and MarketWatch. Before coming to the Bay Area, he taught a semester of high school Spanish in Hawaii, spent a year in southern Chile on a Fulbright grant, and interned with the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer’s online division.

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  1. I’m not sure who this Pannell person is, but the one thing I really do not like is someone making untrue statements. So for clearificaion Yantes’ family does not have a problem with him being gay. His family has never made an issue of his sexuality, believe me I have know him my entire life.