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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Stockton knew hard times, but nothing like an ‘unimaginable’ killing spree

A memorial for Jonathan Hernandez Rodriguez, who was murdered in August, in Stockton, Calif., Oct. 14, 2022. A suspect was charged Tuesday, Oct. 18, in a series of murders in the California city, which has faced municipal bankruptcy, crippling crime waves and decades of setbacks.

By Livia Albeck-Ripka, Shawn Hubler and Holly Secon

Stockton, a city of about 320,000 in California’s Central Valley, has spent decades enduring some of the state’s hardest knocks, from municipal bankruptcy to crippling crime waves.

And it plunged into a deepening anxiety in recent weeks with reports that a serial killer was stalking its streets. Police linked six killings in the city and one in a nearby county to a single perpetrator. Some residents stopped buying gas after sunset. Others would not let their children out at night.

At a hearing in San Joaquin County Superior Court on Tuesday, a suspect in the killings, Wesley Brownlee, was charged with three counts of murder. Police said they arrested him around 2 a.m. Saturday, while he was armed and “out hunting.” Brownlee also faces weapons charges, with prosecutors saying he had used an untraceable firearm known as a “ghost gun.”

“The firearm is linked to those three murders,” said Elton Grau, a deputy district attorney in the San Joaquin District Attorney’s Office. Cellular data associated with Brownlee, he added, had also placed him at the locations of the three killings.

In a news conference after the hearing, the county’s district attorney, Tori Verber Salazar, said her office was still processing evidence for the other three killings and the attempted murder of a woman who was shot but survived. Additional charges were likely in the near future, she said.

At the hearing, Brownlee appeared stone-faced as Judge John Soldati read his charges. The surviving victim and families of those killed were present, and some appeared on the verge of tears.

“I couldn’t even look at him,” Jerry Lopez, the brother of one of the victims, Lorenzo Lopez, said of Brownlee after the hearing. Of the killing, he added, “It’s something unimaginable.”

Soldati ordered that Brownlee be held without bail. The minimum sentence on convictions for the charges, he said, would be life in prison. The maximum, the death penalty.

Brownlee, 43, whom prosecutors described as a truck driver who had moved to Stockton over the summer, requested that a public defender be appointed to represent him.

South of Sacramento and east of Oakland, Stockton has struggled since the 2008 financial crisis, despite being the site of a major inland port and civic assets like the University of the Pacific. Unemployment and foreclosure rates were among the nation’s highest after the housing bubble burst. Local businesses collapsed and tent cities sprang up; crime soared as police officers left for better pay in other cities. By 2011, Stockton had topped Forbes magazine’s list of “America’s Most Miserable Cities” twice in three years, and a year later, Stockton filed for bankruptcy protection, the largest American city to do so up to that time.

The misery lingers. One out of six Stockton residents was living in poverty in 2020, according to the census, compared with 1 in 8 statewide, and the city’s median household income was $58,393, more than 25% below the state median.

Into that fraught landscape strode a figure with a covered head and a distinctive gait, seen in grainy video footage released by police from surveillance cameras near at least one of the homicide scenes. That hooded figure, police said, may have been responsible for seven shootings since April 2021, the first in Oakland and the rest in and around north Stockton. Several of the victims, police said, were homeless at the time they were attacked. They were ages 21 to 54. Five men who were killed were Hispanic, and one was white; the victim who survived is a Black woman.

Hearing that a serial killer was at large left many Stockton residents unnerved and desperate for answers. Was a gunman targeting the homeless? Were the shootings racially motivated? Some residents doubted that police were leveling with the public, or that the depleted police force — short by more than 100 sworn officers out of the 485 needed to fill its ranks, officials have said — was up to the task of solving the case and safeguarding the city.

“I can’t stand this place — it’s a jungle,” Raymond Debudey, 40, a warehouse worker and Stockton native whose older brother Salvador Debudey Jr. was among the victims, said Tuesday. “It’s been one thing after another. There’s no human kindness here.”

Local officials have expressed pride that the suspect was caught so quickly.

“This crime was solved because we’re Stocktonians,” Verber Salazar, the district attorney, said at a news conference announcing Brownlee’s arrest over the weekend. “Because you don’t come to our house and bring this kind of reign of terror.”

For many vulnerable Stockton residents, and those who work with them, the killings have been just a variation on a kind of darkness that has long plagued the city.

“For us, it was like, what’s the difference?” said Anthony Robinson Jr., CEO of Echo Chamber, which works with marginalized communities in Stockton. “Poverty itself is violence.”

Stephanie Hatten, a community activist and leader who works to prevent gun violence, described the assailant as a “silent predator.” She added, “I feel like he said: You’re not paying attention. Watch what I do.”

Police have said that the sole surviving victim in the linked shootings, a 46-year-old woman, had been emerging from a tent encampment at 3:20 a.m. when a masked gunman shot her several times without saying a word. She told authorities that the gunman was wearing a hooded jacket and a dark face mask, so she did not get a good look at his face.

While they sought the gunman, police said they were reaching out to people in high-risk areas of Stockton with warnings about him in English and Spanish. But just south of downtown, in a park fringed by palm trees and tents, several homeless people said in interviews before the suspect was arrested that they had heard nothing directly from authorities about the shootings.

Juan Esparza, a farmworker, lives on Stockton’s south side, where relations with police have been checkered for generations. He said he had taken to hiding a machete in a potted plant a few steps from his door, in case anyone might be lurking when he leaves for his job in the predawn darkness. His wife watches from the window to see that he reaches his car safely.

Luz Sauceda, a health educator at El Concilio California who does outreach in the Latino community, made a plea to authorities: “Walk at night with us. See if you feel safe.”

On the more manicured north side of the Calaveras River, where at least five of the shootings happened, some homeowners would not venture out late at night. But other residents said the threat felt more distant.

In a neighborhood of freshly watered lawns dotted with American flags, campaign yard signs and Halloween decorations, Adam Bourez, a construction worker, said the police reports didn’t really worry him, and he shrugged off the effect of the killings on his city’s image. “I don’t know if you could get a worse reputation than Stockton,” he said.

These days, about half the homicides committed in Stockton are solved by police, officials say. At a municipal golf course where families from other parts of the state gathered Oct. 8 for a youth tournament, the city’s stake in solving the serial killer case quickly became clear.

Eric Giza, a parent and an orthopedic surgeon from Sacramento, said the killings were “probably furthering the image that people from other parts of California have about Stockton.”

Stockton Mayor Kevin J. Lincoln acknowledged that his city had an image problem.

“One of the challenges that we’ve dealt with is the narrative of Stockton that people on the outside put on us,” he said. But he added, “What we’re dealing with, it’s just not isolated to Stockton.”

This latest bad news, he said, could have happened anywhere.

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