Sasha Fleischman, an 18-year-old senior at Maybeck High School, is alive and in stable condition after hours of major surgeries this week, including extensive skin grafts due to the severe burns. The suspect in the attack is now identified as Richard Thomas of Oakland, who is being charged as an adult. Originally, the youth was only being held on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and mayhem, but hate crime enhancements have been added to crimes with which Thomas is charged.
Fleischman was wearing a skirt while sleeping in a rear seat on the bus Monday evening when the incident occurred. The line 57 AC Transit bus was passing near I-580 at about 5:20pm when surveillance video from the bus shows a suspect setting the skirt on fire with a lighter, then fleeing when the driver pulled over to call for help. The surveillance footage allowed police to track down Thomas and arrest him Tuesday.
Upon waking, Fleischman attempted to extinguish the flames, but was unable to do so alone. Two passengers—whose actions police have referred to as “heroic”—rushed to assist in putting out the flames, but were unable to do so before second- and third-degree leg burns were inflicted. After the attack, emergency personnel immediately rushed Sasha Fleischman to St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco. The 18-year-old is listed as being in stable condition, but had major surgery on Wednesday and will require more, including massive skin grafting.
Though referred in some reports by the birth name Luke, Fleischman is said to prefer the first name Sasha. Fleischman identifies as agender, considering that identity to fall under the umbrella term nonbinary, for genders other than male or female. In fact, the politically active teen had gathered 27,000 signatures on an Internet petition asking President Barack Obama to recognize nonbinary gender. “Australia and New Zealand both allow an X in place of an M or an F on passports for this purpose,” the text of the petition stated, “and the UK recognizes ‘Mx’ (pronounced ‘Mix’) as a gender-neutral title.”
Police are now saying that Sasha Fleischman’s appearance and agender identity prompted the teen’s “homophobic” attack on the bus that day, and that Thomas’s admission of this motivation was why hate crime charges were added. According to police, Thomas and Fleischman had never even previously met.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley’s office filed the charges this afternoon. “Richard Thomas’ violent and senseless criminal conduct resulted in severe and traumatic injuries to a young and entirely innocent victim,” O’Malley said. “The intentional and callous nature of the crime is shocking and will not be tolerated in our community.”
Though most media outlets and quoted statements use male terms like “he” to describe the 18-year-old, sources indicate Fleischman prefers neutral pronouns such as “they” and “them.” Debbie Fleischman says Sasha first asked to be referred to as neither male nor female two years ago, saying that wearing a skirt is how the teen “feels comfortable dressing.” She also said her child, who is such a fan of public transportation that they volunteer at San Francisco’s Market Street Railway, rides the bus regularly, often in a skirt, and they have never previously had a problem.
Thomas appeared briefly in court Thursday, but did not enter a plea. His mother has expressed sympathy for Fleischman and apologized, saying her son wished to do the same. “My son is not a hateful person,” Ms. Jackson said. “He’s not homophobic. He’s a kid. Kids joke around. I think he will learn his lesson. He’s very remorseful. I’m sorry for it.”
The online fundraising page “Helping Sasha Have a Speedy Recovery” was started on Tuesday and by Wednesday evening, donations were already closed, with the effort having exceeded its goal, raising over $21,000. Though the donation page is no longer accepting money, cards and other gifts or messages for the teen can be directed through the Maybeck High School office.
The school’s director, Trevor Cralle described Fleischman to KTVU News as “a wonderful, exceptional student,” then added, “Of course, we all wish Sasha a speedy recovery.”
The community, and even police, remain in shock after the attack. “Why?” asked police spokesperson Johnna Watson. “Why would any human being think it’s okay to set another human being on fire? That’s horrific.”
In official statements, Watson has also discussed the passengers who helped Fleischman and prevented them from suffering more severe injuries. “They’re not only witnesses, but we’d like to recognize their heroic efforts,” she said before the hate crimes charges were added, and as of this report, police were still calling on the good Samaritans who aided the agender teen on the Oakland bus after the attack and put out the fire to come forward.
By: Jeremy Forbing
Photo By: Derrick Coetzee