Neighborhood leery after Leila Fowler killing

By Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat May 01, 2013 12:30 pm

The Rancho Calaveras subdivision in Valley Springs remained tense Tuesday as authorities continued to hunt for the killer of 8-year-old Leila Fowler, who died after being stabbed in her family’s Rippon Road home Saturday.

A roadblock allowing only residents of a quarter-mile stretch of Rippon Road near Fowler’s home to enter and exit was temporarily lifted Tuesday. However, by 1 p.m., Calaveras County Sheriff’s deputies were turning cars away again with no explanation provided.

Calaveras County Sheriff’s Sgt. Chris Hewitt said Tuesday morning that people should keep their doors locked as a general practice but some residents had begun to mow lawns and answer doorbells from camera-toting local and national news crews.

Christy Lawson lives three doors down from where Fowler was killed and said she witnessed a harrowing scene at about noon Saturday.

Lawson said a man who she believed to be Barney Fowler, Leila’s father, came to the edge of her driveway.

“He was white as a ghost,” she said. “He had blood on his shirt, her body imprint was on his shirt, like you could tell he was cradling that little girl.”

“He said, ‘Have you seen anything?’ I said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Is she OK? Is she OK?’” Lawson recalled. “He said, ‘No. She’s not OK.’”

Lawson said she remained indoors with the doors locked for the remainder of the evening as recommended by sheriff’s deputies while a door-to-door search ensued. She said she didn’t find out the full extent of what had happened until about 9 p.m.

“I wish I could have seen that guy running through my backyard. I would have tackled him right below the knees … and held him until someone else could have come,” Lawson said.

Lawson said the crime and having a fugitive on the loose have her wary of strangers.

“If it was a stranger wielding a knife, just killing people … we’re moving and that’s it,” she said. “A lot of people come up to Hogan (New Hogan Reservoir) from God knows where. We have to be vigilant … do even more than I was doing before.”

Neighbor Don Mellen is angry and said conventional justice is too good for whoever is responsible.

“A lot of people are upset right now. This never should have happened,” Mellen said. “I want to see this guy caught. I don’t want to see him go to trial … and get 30 years and we’re paying for it. Give him to us. We got a few areas. We’ve got vultures. They’ll take care of him.”

Mellen, Lawson and other neighbors living south of Fowler’s home felt confident the suspect  — who police have described only as male, 6 feet tall and wearing a dark shirt and blue pants — must have fled north toward Hartvickson Lane. 

Lawson said her pit bull “would have pulverized him if she saw anything” and she thought Mellen’s dogs were even more likely to pick up on something out of the ordinary.

Scott Barron said his 7-year-old daughter was “good friends” with Leila Fowler and “had a tough time” but went to school at nearby Jenny Lind Elementary Monday and Tuesday.

“She said it was nice at the school. They made cards and spent time reflecting,” Barron said.

Barron said his parents have lived on the street since 1986 and have never seen a serious crime occur there.

“I still feel safe and comfortable except for this one individual,” he said. “I’ve been worried about not apprehending whoever did it. With that, I want to keep (my daughter) under wraps and inside. I want to keep her under close guard … at night, you’re seeing more floodlights on here now. You’re just kind of sleeping with one eye open, listening to noises.”

Barron said he told police about two rock formations at the edge of the property, each with an 8-foot-deep cave, and said the features are not unusual there.

“It’s rural,” he said. “There’s a lot of places to hide.”

Emanuel Ortigoza-Cardenas, 29, said he has lived on the street for 11 years. He went out to do yard work Tuesday but the rest of his family has remained indoors, he said.

“I can’t believe it, you know?” Ortigoza-Cardenas said. “For the family, it can scare them. Everybody’s scared here.”

Fowler’s family has vacated the home and gone to stay with relatives out of the county, Hewitt said. 

He addressed rumors Tuesday that the couple delayed a search of the home by insisting upon a search warrant. He said obtaining the court order is a standard procedure done to “ensure the integrity of evidence” recovered and ensure it is not thrown out by a court.

He also said a report from a Central Valley news media outlet Tuesday later picked up by national news sources is erroneous in stating the Sheriff’s Office has determined the suspect entered the home with the intention of killing Fowler.

“Right now, we don’t have any evidence that this was a targeted killing,” Hewitt said.

He added that it also does not appear to have been a burglary or robbery gone awry.

When asked what possible scenarios that leaves, he said “that remains under investigation at this time.”

Hewitt said interviews continued Tuesday with family members and their friends. Evidence including fingerprints and DNA were taken to a Sacramento forensic laboratory Tuesday morning, he said, where Department of Justice officials have told the department it will be given priority.

“I don’t know what priority means,” he said. “It may be a day, two days, a week.”