An Online Gaming Murder?

David Grubbs was on his way home from work Nov. 19, just a few blocks away from the site of Ashland, Oregon’s world-renowned Shakespeare Festival, where actors in elaborate costumes often parry and thrust in faux swordfights.

But on this night, just as darkness had fallen along the popular Central Ashland Bike Path, someone chose the 23-year-old for a real-life swordfight, though Grubbs carried no weapon. A passer-by found his prone body and flagged down a woman riding her bike along the path to call for help, thinking Grubbs had passed out.

Upon closer inspection, the two Good Samaritans discovered that his head had nearly been chopped off. The stuff of Shakespeare, albeit a gruesome modern-day remake.

Autopsy results confirm that Grubbs died of “sharp-force trauma” from a finely honed blade, longer than a typical knife, which struck him repeatedly. Maybe it was a machete, maybe a sword. And as shaken residents wonder whether Ashland, where the last homicides took place in 2004, is still safe enough to leave doors unlocked, the killer remains on the loose.

“There’s a lot of concern in the community,” said Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness. “We can’t put an officer on every corner.”

Despite interviewing as many as 300 people in the wake of Grubbs’s death, the police have few leads. To a man, those who knew him say Grubbs, who traversed the bike path to get to and from his job as a grocer each day, was as nice a guy as anyone, that he had no enemies, that no one who would want him dead.

“This couldn’t have happened to a more innocent and genuinely wonderful human being,” wrote Grubbs’s best friend, Garrison Mau, in a recent Facebook posting. “My world is shattered.”

And at least in part because murder is almost never random, Ashland police have turned to a new lead, one with no links to Shakespeare but tied directly to modern-day role-playing: videogames, among them a popular Ubisoft creation known as “Assassin’s Creed.”

Holderness said the game is one of many Grubbs liked to play in his free time. He battled it out with other online gamers, communicating via headsets over an Internet connection. The game includes a decapitation scene, the chief said.

“Did you game or communicate with David online?” asks a bulletin on the city’s website. “If so, where and who else participated?”

Bloggers tracking the case at also are discounting the possibility of a random killing. “I understand David was a ‘big’ kid, 6 foot something. Young and fit,” wrote one. “If we go on the premise that this was a random thrill kill, why pick a big strapping man?”

Another reason to focus on the gaming community? In the past, irate gamers who feel they have been slighted somehow in cyberspace have decided to take their grudges offline. Earlier this year in nearby Eugene, a SWAT team broke down a man’s door after one of his videogame rivals called 911, claiming he was at that address, had just shot his father, and was about to kill himself. The two gamers had an Xbox feud while playing FortressCraft, and the hoax caller found a way to obtain the victim’s identity and interest the police.

“I can see where, if you have people who may be on the edge in terms of mental stability, giving them constant exposure to something that’s violent, I can see why people may connect the dots, that they may be something someone’s trying to emulate,” said Greg Lemhouse, chairman of the Ashland City Council and a police officer in next-door Medford. “Until it’s proven otherwise, I’ve got to believe this is someone who had some type of connection to the victim.”

Holderness also is reaching out to Grubbs’s virtual pals because even the cops’ high-tech crime fighters may not be able to track down his online competitors. Grubbs used a game console, not a computer, and they do a much better job of cloaking a player’s identity than a Mac or a PC. Users go by aliases, and their participation in a particular session isn’t recorded, so there’s no archive of threatening text or emails linked to Internet Protocol addresses allowing sleuths to hunt Grubbs’s virtual enemies.

This difficulty also pours some water on the idea that it was a gamer who decided to kill Grubbs in the first place, however. If police can’t find people he played with, then people he played with shouldn’t have been able to find Grubbs, unless he somehow revealed his identity outside the game. Plus, the players Holderness has reached so far say he played Assassin’s Creed with no particular brand of snark and was unlikely to have enemies online.

“I’ve never been terribly enamored of that theory,” Holderness said.

But it remains a possibility, especially against the rarity of random acts of violence and the assertions that Grubbs got along just fine with everyone he met.

That leaves police no closer to catching his twisted killer, though not for lack of trying. Over the weekend, police interviewed a man from Fullerton, Calif., after he was picked up on an Ashland police warrant Dec. 1, a “decorative sword” in his possession and a history in Ashland that includes once threatening officers with a pair of pruning shears. But Holderness said Monday the sword isn’t the murder weapon and that the man has been ruled out as a suspect, with an alibi in Eureka, Calif., on the day Grubbs died.

The Central Ashland Bike Path probably won’t be seeing many solo travelers anytime soon.

“Don’t be there if you don’t have to be,” Holderness told the Ashland Daily Tidings recently. “But if you do, don’t go alone.”