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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
MacKenzie Ryan

‘Keeps me up at night’: fear of serial killer petrifies California communities

Views of Oakland and San Francisco
The still unknown serial killer was likely responsible for shooting six people in Stockton and one in Oakland. Photograph: Glenn Moore/Getty Images/EyeEm

Kimberly Warmsley does not remember the last time a string of homicides so deeply affected her community as the seven slayings that have rocked the cities of Stockton and Oakland.

“All of this keeps me up at night,” said Warmsley, who serves as a city council member in the northern California city of Stockton. “It’s caused some of our residents, especially in our Hispanic community, to be a little disturbed and uneasy.”

Authorities said this month that a serial killer was probably responsible for the shootings of six people in Stockton and one in Oakland since April 2021. Ballistics tests and some surveillance video have linked the shootings – nearly 70 miles apart – and Stockton’s police chief, Stanley McFadden, called the shooter “mission-oriented”. Officials have not said whether they believe there’s a motive behind the killings or if victims had been targeted, and have not provided a detailed description of the shooter, but five of the victims were Latino men ranging from ages 21 to 54, which has left the community reeling.

blurry black and white image of a person taken from the back
After reviewing surveillance footage, detectives located an unidentified ‘person of interest’ in the killings. Photograph: AP

The first known victim was Juan Vasquez Serrano, 40, who was shot and killed at 4.18am on 10 April 2021 in Oakland. Six days later, an unsheltered Black woman, 46, heard someone walking around her tent around 3.20am in Stockton. She told investigators a man about 6ft tall, wearing a black Covid mask, dark-colored hoodie and dark-colored pants, shot her multiple times. She is, thus far, the sole survivor, the only Black victim and the only female victim. The woman was able to defend herself by going toward the shooter, who lowered his gun, police have said. On 8 July, Paul Yaw, 35, was shot and killed around 12.30am in a park off Kermit Lane. He is the shooter’s only white victim and was also unsheltered.

Since Yaw’s death, several other deaths have been linked to the killing spree: Salvador Debudey Jr, 43, and Jonathan Hernandez Rodriguez, 21, in August; and Juan Cruz, 52, and Lawrence Lopez Sr, 54, in September.

While the same gun has been used for all homicides, authorities have not ruled out multiple shooters. However, video surveillance released by the Stockton police department shows a single man who they have identified as a person of interest in the murders.

Stockton police did not immediately respond to interview requests by the Guardian.

Man in a police uniform animatedly talks from behind a lectern
Stanley McFadden, the Stockton police chief, updates reporters on the investigation into the killings. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

“This is pretty critical right now,” Warmsley says. “And people are afraid, as they should be.”

‘Victims of convenience’

Father Nelson Rabell preaches at Santa María Peregrina, Stockton’s independent Lutheran Spanish-speaking church, where the majority of church members are in some way connected to farm work. Most families are from the Michoacán state in Mexico; many have mixed status.

The shootings have occurred late at night or in the early morning, presenting a fear-inducing public safety issue for Stockton’s large farm working population, who often wake up early to commute to the Central Valley, return home after dark and are largely Latino.

“Anxiety, yes. I can’t deny it,” said Rabell in response to how his congregation felt about the serial killer. He said mothers with young children had to drop off their children at friend’s houses during the dark, early morning hours, and then commute to work in the fields. As the days shorten and get darker, people’s concern about their exposure to a serial killer, who strikes at night and in darkness, is growing.

“[It is] no doubt inhumane,” he said. “I wouldn’t venture to say what the motivation is. No doubt hate is behind it. Whatever form of hate it is. It’s inhuman, and should not be tolerated regardless of motivation.”

Robert Schug, a California State University criminology professor, said the majority of the victims were homeless or people who were out in the middle of the night. The victims were vulnerable, he says, and the killer was going out and shooting whomever the person could find.

“Serial killers don’t target 300lb linebackers,” he said, adding that the Stockton victims were “victims of convenience”.

Schug, a forensic psychologist, said the shooter appears to have “his life set up to where he has a job that lets him be out in the middle of the night. Or, he doesn’t have a job.” He uses a gun, which Schug says represents a lack of physical investment, and proximity seems to be important due to the closeness of the Stockton crime scenes. “He seems to know where the dark streets are, which might suggest some familiarity.” It’s also possible the killer lives in the area between Stockton and Oakland, and commutes into the city to commit murder, Schug said.

“We have to get over this notion that there is one singular mindset of a serial killer,” he said, calling such people a heterogeneous group with significant variability in their approaches and ideology.

Officials’ comments on the shootings being “mission-oriented” signal there must be some evidence indicating the killer is targeting people specifically for being homeless or for their ethnicity, Schug suggested.

“Police have way more info than they are letting us know,” he said.

But crimes within and against unhoused populations are exceptionally hard to investigate, Schug says. California’s unsheltered are vulnerable and transient, he says. Some individuals don’t necessarily want to cooperate with police for fear of being investigated for other crimes, he adds. Police are also walking a fine line between informing the public and not exposing investigative tactics.

Warmsley said Stockton police were out communicating with the city’s unsheltered communities, a daunting task considering the city’s growing numbers of people who live in encampments. After San Joaquin county’s most recent Point in Time Count, which attempts to quantify the number of homeless people in each city, ABC 10 reported that Stockton is home to two-thirds of the county’s unsheltered people.

“At the end of the day, there’s only one race and that’s the human race,” Warmsley argues. “No matter what your living situation may or may not be, it can never mandate how people should treat you. The fact that individuals may or may not be targeted because of their living conditions or economic status … doesn’t mean they are less than a human being. It’s totally unacceptable.”

Stockton police department is offering a $125,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer at-large.

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