A Serial Killer's Random Murders Are Haunting Phoenix
People of color can't help but wonder if cops would have pinned the spree on someone already if victims were rich or white.
Sgt. Jonathan Howard of the Phoenix Police Department posing with a sketch of the Phoenix Serial Street Shooter in February of 2017. All photos by Michael Lundgren
Sylvia Ellis followed the sound of quavering voices into the 3 AM darkness outside her house, where she saw what was left of her daughter's red Chevy Cobalt. Members of her family had thrown the doors open in a failed attempt to save the people inside, and the dome light glowed, illuminating a portrait of carnage and broken glass. Ellis's 33-year-old daughter, Stefanie, lay slumped against the wheel, soaked with blood and barely breathing. She would die about three weeks later, after falling into a coma. Thirty-one-year-old Angela Linner, her daughter's partner, lay by her side, dead.
Later that morning, Ellis would learn that her 12-year-old granddaughter, Maleah, who was lying out of sight on the back seat, had been murdered, too.
The man believed responsible for the murders has been dubbed the Phoenix Serial Street Shooter by police and the local press, and is thought to have started his spree in March 2016. In total, he killed at least seven people in at least nine attacks over the course of about four months, stretching until July 11, when he abruptly went dark. The murders at the Ellis residence, which took place June 12, 2016, were his last known fatalities.
All of his victims, whether wounded or killed, were black or Hispanic, although police do not suspect a racial motive. There was no other discernible pattern to their ages or genders—he shot women, men, children, and adults ranging from teenagers to 50-somethings. Most of them were standing outside their homes or the homes of a loved one doing something mundane like making a phone call, or listening to the car stereo, as Ellis, Linner, and their child were the night they were murdered.
"My eyes open every night at three now, the same time as when the murders happened," Ellis told me from her dining table, her dark eyes gazing toward the sunlight coming through the kitchen window. "It happens almost like an alarm clock."
Phoenix's Serial Street Shooter has carried out most of his attacks in Maryvale, a gritty working-class neighborhood that produced NFL safety Darren Woodson. Here, residents are inclined to wonder aloud if a suspect would have been caught some time ago if his victims were rich or white. In my own brief time in the city, black and Hispanic residents near the sites of the shootings were generally aware of his reign of terror, while whites living around the strip-mall streets of the city's more affluent neighborhoods—with their robust central air-conditioning and bland, new American architecture—had either forgotten or never heard about the bloodshed in the first place.
Meanwhile, Phoenix police sergeant Jonathan Howard, the public information officer for the case, told me that the possibility of the suspect being Hispanic has created added headaches for his detectives—police worry that people who might have knowledge about the case are reluctant to speak out of fear of being deported. To get tips, police are using Silent Witness, a program that allows people to remain anonymous even while claiming a $75,000 reward for accurately naming the killer. But for those who fear their families being torn apart, such promises can seem like a trap.
To be sure, cops haven't ignored the Phoenix killer's body count. In fact, the start of the attacker's apparent hibernation came not long after police alerted the national media that a serial killer was on the loose. That's led some to fear he has simply entered a dormant stage, not unlike the "BTK killer," Dennis Rader, a Kansas-based menace who killed at least ten people during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, mostly by strangulation. Rader famously taunted police with sinister letters to papers like the Wichita Eagle and spaced his murders out for years at a time.
The Phoenix shooter mostly approached victims face-to-face, and in at least two incidents, witnesses and survivors claim the killer spoke before firing his weapon, although it is unclear what he said. He often unloaded nine or ten rounds at his victims at close range. Police call this "intent to kill," but to a lay observer it just looks like video-game-style excess.
The Phoenix metropolitan area, sometimes called the "Valley of the Sun," is a flat and sprawling desert city that grows hotter and drier every year. It also has an unsettling recent history with serial murder and gun violence. Dale Hausner—a serial killer who overdosed on the antidepressant Elavil while awaiting execution in 2013—and his accomplice, Samuel John Dieteman, killed at least eight people here in drive-by shootings between 2005 and 2006. Hausner has been connected to somewhere between 29 and 38 other shootings, in which he targeted pedestrians, cyclists, dogs, and even horses. At the same time the pair operated, another man, Mark Goudeau, also known as the "Baseline Killer," murdered nine people and sexually assaulted over a dozen victims at gunpoint. This past June, while the current serial killer was still at it, a judge upheld nine death sentences and more than 60 other felony convictions against Goudeau, following his appeal.
Phoenix's population includes the same eclectic mix of young progressives, libertarians, law-and-order conservatives, Mexican immigrants, and retirees that are trademarks of several southwestern cities. A fierce pro-gun mentality—what some people might describe as a "Wild West" vibe—is palpable in the local culture. Many of the people I met here owned and carried a gun at all times. Eleven nonfatal shootings took place on I-10, the city's most vital freeway, between August 29 and September 10, 2015, in which someone, or a group of people, opened fire seemingly randomly at cars, horrifying the city's commuters. The case was never solved.
Cops believe the serial killer who emerged last year is a lanky, light-skinned Hispanic male in his early 20s, but unfortunately no witnesses have gotten a clear look at his face. Police circulated a composite sketch of him last summer, but it was generic enough to trigger an eternity of false identifications. Among them was a 27-year-old man named Frank Taylor, who was shot by a woman in Glendale, Arizona, after attempting to rob her of a holstered gun. Police were able to connect him to the Maryvale area but could not link him to the shootings.
Should the cops be wrong, and the killer turn out to be white, Arizona's polarized racial politics will inevitably cast a very long shadow. Ebony already ran a story about the murders in August that highlighted the minority status of the victims. And the state has an unsavory reputation with which to contend: Public Enemy's Chuck D once painted Arizona with fury and contempt in the song "By the Time I Get to Arizona," a diss track written after residents shot down a proposal to create a holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in November 1990. (Voters approved a state King holiday two years later.) Dossie Ellis Sr., Stefanie Ellis's father, told me the anger voiced in that song is very much alive in the city's black community, and that he trusted his own family members to investigate the killer's identity by asking around in the streets better than he did the cops.
Police, for their part, claim to have a very strong relationship with Maryvale residents of all races.
For the city's Hispanic community, things are even more urgent: While I was staying in Phoenix, the deportation of Guadalupe García de Rayos, who may have been the first person removed from the country as a direct result of President Trump's immigration policies, drew emotional protests outside ICE headquarters downtown. Meanwhile, Joe Arpaio, the 84-year-old former sheriff of Maricopa County and a controversial opponent of undocumented immigration who once jokingly referred to his jail for undocumented immigrants as a "concentration camp," lost his bid for a seventh term in November. But hostility toward Hispanics crossing the border still runs hot in parts of the state. Trump won Arizona by close to 100,000 votes, and driving through Phoenix these days, you might see a giant billboard thanking the alleged human rights violator Arpaio for his service looming heavily over the coarse desert floor and cars zipping by below.
Nine days before the shooting at the Ellis residence, Nancy Peña, 32, was at work when she got the call from her sister that her twin brother Horacio de Jesus Peña had been shot. She assumed the violence was self-inflicted. Horacio, a caregiver for people with disabilities, led a difficult life, tormented by shyness and schizophrenia, and had attempted suicide at least three times before that night, she told me. But when Peña arrived at the family home to see her brother, she knew it was murder: Horacio lay by the curb of the street, utterly deformed by gunshots. Peña described him as looking "like a puddle." Police later attributed his murder to the Phoenix Serial Street Shooter.
Nancy Peña says she's suffered debilitating panic attacks since that night last June. She now occupies her mind with close to 60 hours of work each week, split between a retirement community and the position her brother left behind at Valley Life, an organization that cares for the disabled. She has tattoos up and down her arm that are tied to moments when her twin ran away or attempted suicide; now she keeps a wall of pictures devoted to him, showing me remembrances in a box, including signed artifacts from local sports franchises like the Phoenix Coyotes or Arizona Diamondbacks offered to the family as gifts following his death.
According to Peña, the strain and horror of her brother's killing shook the foundations of her family. "People say that tragedies like this bring people together, but for us, it's been the opposite," she explained, exhaling from a Marlboro Light.
Because the shootings were spaced out over several months in an area where gun violence is a well-known problem, police didn't determine they had a serial killer on their hands until June—after Diego Verdugo Sanchez, Krystal Annette White, Horacio Peña, Manny Castro Garcia, Stefanie Ellis, Angela Linner, and little Maleah Ellis had already been killed. Howard told me that a "sick feeling" ran through everyone in his department when they finally connected the murders to one individual.
Since the killer stopped working, there's been a fragile sense of relief among officers, mixed with a struggle to unearth new evidence. More than anything, police sought a way to keep word of the investigation alive in the community. But internal frustration mounted, with one source close to the probe telling me the case sparked a good deal of departmental infighting, although no formal changes have come as a result. As Andy Hill, who served as the public information officer during the Baseline Killer attacks but is now retired, put it, "Nobody puts more pressure on the police than themselves" in investigations like this one.
Some Hispanic and black residents in the city beg to differ.
"To say that I've spoken with any officers about this case recently would be a lie," Ellis told me. "No, I'm not satisfied with the work they've done." Nancy Peña and the family of Manny Castro Garcia expressed similar frustrations with the efforts of police and told me that they worried the case had grown cold in the months that passed since the killer went dormant.
Howard expressed empathy for the families of victims and seemed to know them personally, especially Peña, who contacts him regularly looking for updates. He flatly denied that the races of the victims contributed to any lack of urgency on the part of police. Most recently, word of a new person of interest in the case gave Peña a feeling of hope that the killer could be apprehended, but it was coupled with a feeling of frustration that she had heard the news first from local media and not police.
Meanwhile, cops have been forced to hang onto the few details they do know about the killer and try to isolate what makes him tick.
The shooter may be comfortable with a variety of weapons. Dossie Ellis Sr., for example, claims to have found 9mm bullets on his property in the aftermath of the shooting. Mel Nicholson, a 63-year-old man who lived outside of the house where one of the murders took place, showed me the holes where 40-caliber bullets tuned up his car and house, slicing through the garage and then several layers of wooden shelving used for cat food and cleaning supplies. Police have said only that the shooter preferred semi-automatic handguns, capable of firing as many as 15 or 16 rounds at a time. He may have also changed cars, having possibly been seen in a late-1990s brown Nissan with a spoiler, a black BMW, and a white car—most likely a Cadillac or Lincoln.
It's possible that the shooter traveled with other people, and one witness—a teenager who was staying at the Ellis house when the murders took place—puts him alongside as many as two accomplices. Police would not confirm or deny that account.
Whether or not the city's black and Hispanic communities' fears about police devotion are warranted, the killer's crimes live on in the grieving family members he left behind.
Sylvia Ellis's insomnia, a symptom she shares with Gisela Castro, the mother of Manny Castro Garcia, is coupled with horror-movie visions of her daughter's death: She still sees Stefanie collapsed on the steering wheel of the Cobalt, struggling to breathe, a bullet hole warping her eye.
"Every day the shooting plays in my head like a video," Ellis said. "I'm still living inside of that nightmare."
Update 5/9/2017: On Monday, May 8, the Phoenix Police Department announced it was arresting 23-year-old Aaron Juan Saucedo as the lead suspect in the Serial Street Shooter killings. They believe he shot and killed nine people and wounded two others, and has been charged with 26 felony counts of homicide, aggravated assault, and drive-by shooting.
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