When Bob Lee, a 43-year-old technology executive, was stabbed to death in the small hours of the morning on a San Francisco street, it looked like a brutal instance of the Californian city’s urban decay.
Commentators including Elon Musk said the case was yet another example of “horrific” crime in the city and others said they feared for their safety.
The story quickly unravelled, however. Lee was attacked in a relatively quiet part of town and, despite its problems with theft and open-air drug use, the city’s murder rate is relatively low.
The truth turned out to be stranger. US prosecutors allege that Lee, a cryptocurrency executive best known for inventing the Cash App payments service, was not killed in a random and unfortunate encounter, but by a fellow tech worker. Nima Momeni, a 37-year-old acquaintance of Lee, confronted him over a relationship with Momeni’s sister, the wife of a prominent local plastic surgeon, before allegedly stabbing him with a four-inch kitchen knife.
Instead of acting as a symbol of a city in decline, Lee’s murder has instead shone a light on a different aspect of San Francisco – an underground scene of extramarital affairs, casual drug use and partying, and the tech elite that participates in it.
Lee and Mr Momeni’s sister, Khazar, were both active participants in what insiders refer to as “The Lifestyle”, people close to the pair told The Wall Street Journal.
Lee, who was separated from his wife Krista and had recently moved out of California, was “hanging out with people who weren’t great people… a lot of swingers, cheaters and liars in that crowd,” one friend, Dana Wagner, told the newspaper.
Silicon Valley has lost much of its countercultural appeal in recent years as its companies have become impossibly wealthy, house prices have soared and more questions have been raised about the downsides of the technology invented there. But there is still a side of it that harks back to the free love for which the city was once known. The internet boom of the last decade has created a fusion of data-driven millionaires and an established alternative nightlife.
“There’s a lot of people from the tech community who would either come to voyeur, just to sort of see it in a state of shock,” says Stefanos Tiziano, who organises BDSM events in the city, and which he says draws a different crowd to the swinging scene (BDSM is an umbrella term that covers bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism).
“There were folks from some of the big companies that are still there that I partied with, and a lot of them knew each other.” Tiziano says his events are particularly popular when big tech conferences, such as video game expo GDC, are in town, and that many spaces used for the events have only been able to stay open because of the largesse of wealthy techies.
One San Francisco native who has attended swingers’ parties in the city says that while the pursuit has a seedy, underground reputation, techies who participate in The Lifestyle practise an analytical, premeditated approach.
“In the past, people would exchange keys at the front door for swinger parties. Now people can use apps to check each other before the party.
Bronze, an exclusive swingers’ community in San Francisco, was set up by Ben Fuller, a tech executive who sold his first company for $5m (£4m) and runs Modern Lifestyle, a ticketing software company for discreet events.
The group holds parties roughly twice a month at Twist, an inconspicuous club in the touristy North Beach area, and a warehouse dance centre in an industrial part of the city. Membership is exclusive – couples and single females only – with prospective members granted access only after submitting high-quality photos that are screened. Rules are strictly enforced – cameras are banned, rudeness is not tolerated, and members are asked to “respect the neighbourhood”.
Laurie Segall, an author who chronicled Silicon Valley’s underground in her book Special Characters, wrote that the check-in software at one swingers club was created by a former executive at IT giant Oracle. An iPhone app developer said he was working on overhauling it for a version 2.0.
Many of Segall’s sources were surprisingly candid: leading an unconventional romantic life was simply the rational thing to do. Chris Messina, a tech executive best known for inventing Twitter’s hashtag, laid out his polyamorous philosophy in a public blog in 2015.
“Out here, we’re data-positive and solution-oriented and if your product (i.e. marriage) is failing for 50pc of your customers, then you need to fix your product or offer something better,” he wrote.
“So when I discovered polyamory and non-monogamy as I headed off to Burning Man in 2013, I realised I’d stumbled onto another way.”
While drugs and excessive drinking are banned at San Francisco’s lifestyle clubs, Lee had both cocaine and ketamine in his system when he was killed, according to an autopsy. The party attendee says they saw little evidence of widespread use.
“That is not what I saw. It honestly felt like being at a venture capital mixer. And then everyone took their clothes off. It was kind of dorky.”
Lee’s lifestyle was no secret to many of his friends, but news to his separated wife, who told The Wall Street Journal that he was not a “party boy”. She said that she believed he was microdosing ketamine to treat depression.
Lee was also a regular at Burning Man, the bacchanalian summer festival in the Nevada desert that is a pilgrimage for techies.
While the clear rules of the San Francisco Lifestyle scene are meant to ensure safety, the partying turned dark on the night of Lee’s death. Prosecutors say Momeni confronted Lee at the house of a friend, asking whether Khazar Momeni – Mr Momeni’s sister and Lee’s alleged lover – was doing drugs with him. Later, the three met up at Ms Momeni’s San Francisco apartment. CCTV footage shows Lee and Mr Momeni going down a lift and entering a white BMW in the building’s garage at around 2am.
Prosecutors say Mr Momeni then drove to a quiet nearby street and repeatedly stabbed Lee, who called for an ambulance and died after being rushed to hospital. Mr Momeni has pleaded not guilty, remains in custody and is due to appear in court Tuesday May 30.
Ms Momeni allegedly texted Lee: “Just wanted to make sure you’re doing ok Cause I know nima [Mr Momeni] came wayyyyyy down hard on you” after the pair left her home. Her lawyers have said: “There are many rumours circulating around this case, many of them untrue.”
A lot of San Francisco’s partying shut down during the pandemic, and it suffered an exodus of local residents to cities such as Austin and Miami. Lee, who was working at a cryptocurrency company, had moved to the Florida city and was returning to see his family.
The city’s Lifestyle practitioners are still going. Last week, Bronze emailed members about a late night 10th-anniversary party, scheduled for Sunday May 28.
However, it also offered members tickets to an “Xcape” event in Miami. If techies are leaving Silicon Valley, The Lifestyle is moving with them.