TThe city of Stockton is no stranger to shootings. There have been nearly four dozen murders in the California city so far this year, already surpassing the homicide total for all 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 – fueling fears of a serial killer in the port city of 445,000 people. And now police say two shootings in 2021 are also linked to the latest spree.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘I’m not leaving my house,'” says Tashante McCoy, community activist and founder of the Owl Movement. The independent. “My mom texted me today and said, ‘I’m so happy I don’t have to go to work at night anymore.’
The shootings that have sparked fears of serial killers in the community and investigators began July 8, when 35-year-old Paul Alexander Yaw was found fatally wounded in a park on the city’s north side. 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, he appealed on social media for information, although he admitted it was “reluctant”, but he wanted to “find the person responsible and hold them to account”.
This was even before the murders continued to occur and local serial killer theories began to run rampant.
On August 11, Salvador William Debudey Jr, 43, was shot and killed in a parking lot along a strip mall and fast food strip. Jonathan Hernandez Rodriguez, 21, was killed 19 days later. On September 21, another man alone at night, 52-year-old Juan Cruz, was shot at 4:27 a.m.
Six days later, 54-year-old Lorenzo Lopez was found dead on the sidewalk of a mostly residential area.
For the first time Friday, Stockton Police Chief Stanley McFadden said at a news conference that investigators believed the murders were “connected.”
“By definition, you might as well call this serial killing,” he said.
Police said the victims had been ambushed but not robbed and the killings were not believed to be gang-related. They released a suspect’s screen for the deaths, which occurred in dimly lit locations, either late at night or in the early hours of the morning, where cameras failed to capture any of the crimes taking place.
In the image released by police, a slim, dark-skinned 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 we believe these cases are connected: First, video surveillance shows this person of interest in some of the scenes,” said Stockton Public Information Officer Joe Silva. The independent on Monday, adding that there were no updates since last week’s news conference.
Then, he said, there is “ballistic evidence that comes in that ties all of these cases together and also … the shooter or shooters’ MO (modus operandi) . They target people who are alone in dark areas in the evening and early morning hours.”
Officer Silva would not specify whether the ballistics information matched a gun, nor would he comment on theories as to a motive. All but one recent victim was a Hispanic male.
Late Monday, however, police also announced they had linked two 2021 shootings to the same suspect or suspects. On April 10, 2021, a 40-year-old Hispanic man was shot and killed an hour away in Oakland at 4:18 a.m., Stockton police said.
On April 16, 2021, a 46-year-old black woman was shot at 3:20 a.m. in Stockton and survived. None of the 2021 victims have been publicly identified. A $95,000 reward is being offered for information leading to an arrest.
In the meantime, police are urging Stockton residents to be cautious, especially after dark.
“We’re just asking our community to remain vigilant and be very aware of the situation,” said Officer Silva. “Always be aware of your surroundings, avoid isolated areas, and if you have to travel, you know, at night or early in the morning, try to take a family member or a friend.”
He described the current investigation as an “all hands on deck” approach, with teams from the FBI and ATF working with the Stockton police and sheriff’s office.
Relatives of the victims, for their part, are communicating with each other on social media and reaffirming their commitment to getting justice for their loved ones.
“My husband, the father of my daughter, is unfortunately the second victim,” Analydia Castillon Lopez wrote on Facebook after Friday’s press conference. “We want justice for our loved one.”
In response, Greta Bogrow wrote that her son was the first known victim and wrote: “God rest their souls.”
Ms. Lopez responded: “I’m not going to let this go. I want justice for my daughter and myself. This has caused us enormous grief.”
“Every day is a struggle,” Ms Bogrow replied. “I won’t give up either.”
Another bereaved family member also stood. Facebook user Cathy Lopez Leal wrote to Mrs Lopez: “I am so sorry, our family feels your pain. My brother Lorenzo was the last.”
Meanwhile, community pages in Stockton are abuzz with conspiracy theories, from vigilantism in the face of policing shortages to hate-motivated murders.
The independent contacted the relatives of three of the victims for comment.
Mayor Kevin Lincoln II’s office did not immediately return a call from The independent about a possible serial killer preying on the citizens of Stockton.
Ms McCoy, who founded her community organization Owl Movement after her brother was killed and has been involved for a decade helping crime survivors, immediately noticed the base’s efforts to improve security.
“From Tuesday of last week until Thursday, I kid you not, 24 hours a day, [the] the phone rang,” says Ms McCoy The independent. “We’ve had conversations about how we can keep each other safe.”
He considered retiring this year from crisis management and advocacy work “and then we have a serial killer?” she says.
“It’s so weird,” he adds, noting the development comes against a backdrop of Covid, an economically struggling community, inflation, a new police chief and rising gun violence in Stockton, which is “a pandemic in itself.”
“How do you tell a grieving community … already under so much pressure, at the feet of Covid, on the heels of … inflation and a new leader, what do we say?” says about a possible serial killer.
“People are scared,” he says The independent. “They don’t feel safe. They’re worried and that’s just a high level of worry.”