A mother was found buried in an SF park. Her daughter may still be alive.

The tragedy of Nicole and Arianna Fitts is one of the most frustrating unsolved cases in San Francisco

Arianna Fitts went missing from the Bay Area in April 2016 after her mother, Nicole Fitts, was killed. 

Arianna Fitts went missing from the Bay Area in April 2016 after her mother, Nicole Fitts, was killed. 

San Francisco Police Department/Handout

Around 10:30 a.m. on April 8, 2016, a San Francisco parks worker stumbled onto an unusual-looking piece of plywood atop a brushy, overgrown area in McLaren Park. They pushed the wood aside, and there, curled into the fetal position, was a woman's body. She was dead.

Seven years later, that woman’s young daughter is still missing — but family and police strongly believe she’s alive out there, somewhere.

The tragedy of Nicole and Arianna Fitts is one of San Francisco’s most frustrating unsolved cases

Nicole Fitts was 32 when she was killed. Her life had been a hard one, marked by poverty and struggle. She worked relentlessly to make ends meet for her two daughters, but high Bay Area rents forced her to send her oldest to live with the girl’s father in Southern California. Nicole and Arianna, just 2 and a half years old, bounced from home to home, and sometime before Nicole was killed, they ended up briefly in a homeless shelter.

There, Nicole’s family says she met a so-called “street pastor” named Lemasani Briggs. Nicole and Arianna moved in with her, but the relationship quickly soured; Nicole’s loved ones have alleged Briggs was emotionally abusive and controlling. 

The Fitts left Briggs’ home and found shelter with relatives in Santa Cruz. But that meant hours of driving to and from San Francisco, where Nicole had a job at the Harrison Street Best Buy. To cut down on commuting, she sometimes couch-surfed with friends. Arianna would stay for days at a time with her new babysitters, Helena and Devin Martin, at their home on Castro Street in Oakland.

Nicole met the Martins through Briggs; Helena was Briggs’ niece. When worried family members asked Nicole if she was concerned about still having ties to Briggs, she allegedly reassured them that Helena wasn’t close to her aunt. It’s not clear if Nicole knew that Helena had once been charged with murder in 2001 — then known as Helena Hearne, the 18-year-old was accused of fatally shooting the father of one of her children. She reportedly served six years for the crime.

On April 1, 2016, Nicole worked her usual shift at Best Buy and headed out for the day. Later that evening, she texted a family member with the news she was going to Fresno with someone named Sam. They thought this was odd; she didn’t know any Sams, and she also didn’t have her own car. Shortly after 1 a.m., an even stranger post went up on Nicole’s Facebook page: "Spending time with my 3 year old need this brake.” Loved ones believe this wasn’t posted by Nicole; she rarely made spelling mistakes, and more glaringly, Arianna wasn’t yet 3. 

By April 5, it was clear something wasn’t right. Nicole wasn’t responding to calls, and she hadn’t shown up to work. Her family reported her and Arianna missing; when they did so, they noted to police they hadn’t seen Arianna in person since mid-February.

San Francisco police detectives quickly homed in on Helena and Devin Martin. A police commander told reporters they believed Nicole was trying — and failing — to bring Arianna home at the time of her disappearance. Although the Martins “cooperated initially,” SFPD said they gave “inconsistent, conflicting statements” and soon stopped helping altogether.

“Nicole Fitts received a phone call on April 1st 2016 at approximately 9:00 PM.,” the San Francisco Police Department said in a missing poster. “That call lured Nicole out of her residence to ‘go meet the baby sitter.’ Nicole was never seen alive again.”

A week after that phone call, Nicole’s body was discovered near the Louis Sutter Playground. The plywood plank covering her body didn’t match anything in the area, so police believe the killer or killers brought it with them to hide the remains. It has distinctive gray spray paint on it, although the pattern could just be from construction markings. 

“She was cheerful and pleasant to be around, always just giving to people,” sister Contessa Fitts said shortly after Nicole’s death. “She always made sure whoever she was around was taken care of. She was bubbly and a really good person.”

Arianna, now 9 years old, has yet to resurface — although police believe someone out there may be raising her.

“We do not have any evidence that shows that Arianna's status is anything but alive,” an SFPD spokesperson told SFGATE on Wednesday.

Briggs died after falling ill with COVID-19 in December 2021. The Martins are believed to have moved to Las Vegas, where billboards displaying Arianna’s face went up last year.

An age-progressed image of Arianna Fitts, who went missing in 2016 from the Bay Area. She is now 9 years old. 

An age-progressed image of Arianna Fitts, who went missing in 2016 from the Bay Area. She is now 9 years old. 

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children/Handout

Age-progressed photos of Arianna have been made by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. In them, as she did at 2 and a half, Arianna has a wide, welcoming smile. Family members say she is bright and curious and loved lollipops as a toddler. 

“At this time we do not have updates to release regarding this case,” SFPD told SFGATE over email. “Due to the open investigation we are not confirming any person who may be a person of interest or a suspect. The missing person investigation for Arianna Fitts remains an open investigation.”

Anyone with information is asked to contact SFPD’s tip line at 415-575-4444 or text their tip to TIP41, starting that text with “SFPD.” Tips can be left anonymously. 

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