The city of Stockton is no stranger to shootings. There have been nearly four dozen murders in the Californian city so far this year, already surpassing its homicide total for the entirety of 2021.
But even so, Stockton is on edge.
Five recent murders of men killed while alone in dimly lit areas have been linked, police say – sparking fears of a serial killer in the 445,000-person port town. Police say two shootings in 2021 are also connected to the latest spree.
On 15 October police said a suspect had been arrested. Wesley Brownlee, 43, was arrested in the area of Village Green Drive and Winslow Way in the early hours of the morning. Stockton Police Chief Stanley McFadden said the man was “out looking to kill, he was hunting”. Three days later he was charged with three murders, which police say were carried out using a “ghost gun” – a homemade weapon. Officials said two more murder charges and an attempted murder charge were expected.
Earlier this month Stockton officials released seconds-long footage of a slender figure with an uneven gait and unusually upright posture who police would like to question in connection with the shootings of seven people in and around the port city.
Six men have been shot dead under cover of darkness while alone in dimly lit areas since April 2021, Stockton Police Chief Stanley McFadden said Tuesday. One victim was white, but the rest were Hispanic males.
Chief McFadden also said that police had been able to interview a seventh victim – a homeless woman who survived an attack by what is believed to be the same perpetrator in April of last year.
The woman, who the chief described as a “light-complected” Black woman, was in her tent when she heard noises outside, he said.
“She heard someone walking around her campsite; when she came out of her tent, she encountered someone holding a gun” who then shot her, Chief McFadden said.
The female victim, who has not been indentified, described the suspect as “between 5’10 and six foot, wearing all dark clothing, wearing a dark covid-style mask that was concealing his face,” the chief said, adding that the suspect was “wearing a dark jacket as well.”
Chief McFadden said the killer had not spoken during the incident and demurred regarding whether the shootings could be hate crimes when asked by reporters – though he did say he believed the killer or killers to be “mission-oriented.”
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘I’m not leaving my house,’” Tashante McCoy, community activisit and founder of the Owl Movement, tells The Independent. “My mom texted today and she said, ‘I’m so glad that I don’t have to go to work at night anymore.’”
The shootings that sparked serial killer fears among the community and investigators began on 8 July, when 35-year-old Paul Alexander Yaw was found fatally wounded at a park in the north of the city. His mother, nurse Greta Bogrow, described the father-of-one on Facebook as a “sweet boy who grew into a man with a big heart.”
Two weeks after his murder, she appealed on social media for information, though she admitted she was “hesitant” but wanted to “find the person responsible and hold them accountable.”
That was even before the murders kept happening and local serial killer theories began to run wild.
On 11 August, Salvador William Debudey Jr, 43, was shot dead in a parking lot along a commercial stretch with strip malls and fast-food joints. Jonathan Hernandez Rodriguez, 21, was killed 19 days later; on 21 September, yet another man out alone at night, 52-year-old Juan Cruz, was shot dead at 4.27am.
Six days later, 54-year-old Lorenzo Lopez was found dead on the sidewalk of a primarily residential area.
Earlier this month, Stockton Police Chief Stanley McFadden said at a press conference that investigators believed the killings were “interconnected.”
“By definition, you could probably very well call this serial killings,” he said.
Police said the victims had been ambushed but had not been robbed, and the killings were not believed to be gang-related. They released a screen grab of a suspect in the deaths, which occurred in dimly lit locations, either late at night or in the early morning hours, where cameras failed to capture any of the crimes taking place.
In the image released by police, a slender, dark-clad figure appears to be wearing a hat. The screenshot captures the “person of interest” only from the back and does not show a face.
“The reason why we believe these cases are linked: One, video surveillance shows that person of interest at a couple of the scenes,” Stockton Public Information Officer Joe Silva told The Independent.
Next, he said, there’s “ballistic evidence that’s coming that’s linking all these cases and also ... the shooter or shooters’ MO (modus operandi) . They’re out targeting people who are alone in dark areas in the evening hours and early morning hours.”
Officer Silva would not elaborate on whether ballistic information matched a weapon, nor would he comment on theories as to motive. All but one recent victim has been a Hispanic male.
Later, however, police also announced that they’d linked two 2021 shootings to the same suspect or suspects. On 10 April 2021, a 40-year-old Hispanic man was shot dead an hour away in Oakland at 4.18am.
On 16 April 2021, a 46-year-old black woman was shot at 3.20am in Stockton and survived. Neither of the 2021 victims has been identified publicly. A $125,000 reward is being offered for information leading to an arrest.
In the meantime, police are urging Stockton residents to be cautious, particularly in the dark.
“We’re just asking for our community to remain vigilant and have really good situational awareness,” Officer Silva said. “Always be aware of your surroundings, avoid isolated areas and, if you have to travel, you know, at night or early morning, try and take a family member or a friend.”
He described the current investigation as an “all hands on deck” approach, with task forces from the FBI and ATF working with the Stockton police and sheriff.
Victims’ relatives, for their part, have been reaching out to each other on social media and reaffirming their commitment to getting justice for their loved ones.
“My husband my daughters father unfortunately is the second victim,” Analydia Castillon Lopez wrote on Facebook following Friday’s press conference. “We want justice for our loved one.”
In reply, Greta Bogrow wrote that her son had been the first known victim and wrote: “God rest their souls.”
Ms Lopez responded: “I am not gonna let this go. I want justice for my daughter and myself. This has caused tremendous grief for us.”
“Every day is a struggle,” Ms Bogrow responded. “I will not give up either.”
Another bereaved family member also weighed in; Facebook user Cathy Lopez Leal wrote to Ms Lopez: “I’m so sorry, our family feels your pain. My Brother Lorenzo was the latest.”
Meanwhile, community pages in Stockton are blowing up with conspiracy theories, everything from vigilantism in the face of policing shortages to hate-motivated murder.
The Independent has contacted the relatives of three of the victims for comment.
The office of Mayor Kevin Lincoln II did not immediately return a call from The Independent regarding a possible serial killer preying on Stockton’s citizens.
Ms McCoy, who founded her Owl Movement community organisation after her brother’s murder and has been involved for a decade with helping crime survivors, immediately noticed grassroots efforts to improve safety.
“From Tuesday of last week up until Thursday, I’m not kidding, 24 hours a day, [the] phone rang,” Ms McCoy told The Independent. “We were having discussions about how we can keep one another safe.”
She had been considering retiring this year from her crisis management work and advocacy “and then we have a serial killer?” she says.
“It’s so bizarre,” she adds, pointing out that the development comes against the backdrop of covid, an economically struggling community, inflation, a new police chief and increasing Stockton gun violence, which is “a pandemic in itself.”
“How do you tell a grieving community ... already under so much pressure, on the heels of covid, on the heels of ... inflation and a new chief, what do we say?” she says of a possible serial killer.
“People are scared,” she tells The Independent. “They don’t feel safe. They worry, and that’s just a high level of concern.”