Stockton Knew Hard Times But Nothing Like An Unimaginable Killing Spree

Stockton Knew Hard Times, but Nothing Like an ‘Unimaginable’ Killing Spree

Stockton Knew Hard Times But Nothing Like An Unimaginable Killing Spree

A suspect was charged Tuesday in a series of murders in the California city, which has faced municipal bankruptcy, crippling crime waves and decades of setbacks.

STOCKTON, Calif. — 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. The 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 the San Joaquin County Superior Court on Tuesday, a suspect in the killings, Wesley Brownlee, was charged with three counts of murder. The police said they arrested him around 2 a.m. on Saturday, while he was armed and “out hunting.” Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Brownlee appeared stone-faced as Judge John Soldati of the San Joaquin County Superior Court 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 Mr. Brownlee after the hearing. Of the murder, he added, “It’s something unimaginable.”

Judge Soldati ordered that Mr. 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.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Mr. 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.

While the arrest has brought some sense of relief to the city, a lack of answers regarding Mr. Brownlee’s motive, and the number of lives lost before an arrest was made, has left many on edge.

“I really want to know his motive,” said Ruby Roeung, 21, who lives in Stockton. “It’s sad and sickening for all the families that lost their loved ones. And why didn’t they ever stop him before? That’s what’s crazy.”

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 one in eight statewide, and the city’s median household income was $58,393, more than 25 percent below the state median. Michael Tubbs, the mayor who tried to address that poverty in 2019 with an innovative, privately funded guaranteed-income program — a plan that has since been widely copied — was defeated for re-election the next year. Some residents said that Mr. Tubbs, who gained much national attention as a Democratic rising star, had failed to develop deep enough relationships with his own constituents, while others said the decline of the city’s main newspaper, The Record, allowed an upstart blog to sway the electorate against the mayor.

Into that fraught landscape strode a figure with a covered head and a distinctive gait, seen in grainy video footage released by the police from surveillance cameras near at least one of the murder scenes. That hooded figure, the 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, the police said, were homeless at the time they were attacked. They were aged 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 the 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.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

“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 on 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,” Ms. Verber Salazar, the district attorney, said at a news conference announcing Mr. 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., chief executive 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.”

The 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 the 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, the 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 the authorities about the shootings.

Juan Esparza, a farmworker, lives on Stockton’s south side, where relations with the 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.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Luz Sauceda, a health educator at El Concilio California who does outreach in the Latino community, made a plea to the 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 the 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’s 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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