How a serial killer destroyed a California college town’s soul: ‘You can never feel safe’
The daylilies, roses and lavender are blooming in the Central Park garden. Two blocks away, some of the flowers are already wilting on Compassion Corner at Third and C streets, where a memorial stands for a beloved Davis character.
Joggers and cyclists are still traveling the path in Sycamore Park every morning, many pausing for a minute or two to lay a bouquet and weep for a brilliant young university student. There is heartbreak, but also unease; some walkers have begun to carry bear spray and have no plans to stop.
And along the railroad tracks on the east side of town, at a bend in the road where motorists speed by homeless campers living in tents on their way to Target or the Sudwerk Brewing Co. tap room, the only indications of last week’s mayhem are the strands of yellow police tape dangling from No Parking signs.
The series of stabbings that rocked Davis struck many layers of what defines the city’s fabric: its quirkiness, its academic institution and its ongoing struggle to house vulnerable residents.
That the suspected serial killer behind the brutal attacks, Carlos Reales Dominguez, was a former student at the University of California, Davis has added another layer of tragedy to the week’s events.
His first alleged victim, David Henry Breaux, 50, was a peace-loving fixture downtown who would ask those walking through Central Park for their views on the essence of compassion. He was found dead on a park bench on April 27, likely hours after he was stabbed multiple times.
Karim Abou Najm was a 20-year-old student at UC Davis and the son of a Davis professor. A resident of a nearby home heard someone yelling around 9 p.m. on April 29 in Sycamore Park. Najm, who had been stabbed several times, was found dead next to the park’s paved path.
Kimberlee Guillory was the third victim, stabbed multiple times as she lay in her tent next to a brick wall near Second and L streets. Guillory – one of nearly 200 homeless individuals in Davis – is alert in an area hospital.
“It’s been very shaking,” Ann Moitoza-Seltzer said Wednesday as she walked through Sycamore Park, “and I don’t know when that feeling will ever go away.”
Davis is a safe city, with a violent crime rate roughly half of Beverly Hills’. The attacks of the past week targeting vulnerable residents left the sense of security shattered. The arrest of a suspect has helped calm fears, but the wounds will take considerable time to heal.
“To have two (killings) in very quick succession and what seems like an attempt at a third not too long after that, it’s just really historic here in the city of Davis,” said Dillan Horton, a member of the city’s police accountability commission. “And so it’s got, really, the entire community in a state of tension. It’s just a really unprecedented time in our community.”
‘You can never feel safe’
As police closed in on an arrest Wednesday, the city displayed a strained sense of normality.
A man played fetch with a border collie in Central Park during the lunch hour, throwing a ball in the direction of the bench where Breaux’s body was found. A young child played alone on a nearby playground. And a group of seven UC Davis students ate garlic fries and sipped beer at Burgers and Brew across the street from Compassion Corner, grilling one another over the movies of their childhood (“You haven’t seen ‘Lord of the Rings?’” one yelled at a friend).
Meanwhile, the memorial to Breaux grew. He was a gentle presence downtown for years, a college-town fixture who many residents knew. He self-published a book in 2010 titled, “Compassion: A Compilation of Concepts on Compassion.” Ten years ago, the city and Breaux helped create a bench-shaped sculpture in his honor at Third and C streets.
“It’s a town full of characters,” said Richard Houck, who lives next door to the home Dominguez and his roommates rent on Hawthorn Lane. “A college town has characters and (Breaux) was one of them.”
Across town, the student bicycle rack was full at Robert E. Willett Elementary School next to Sycamore Park. But school officials called police to report a man who they said was acting suspicious and mourners gathered nearby at the scene of Najm’s stabbing.
Moitoza-Seltzer said she had carried a canister of pepper spray on her morning walk through the UC Davis Arboretum. But it didn’t feel like enough. Even the sight of another walker – and the arboretum was unusually deserted – made her nervous. So she returned home for a can of bear spray.
“This is what I’m going to carry from now on,” she said. “I feel like reality has set in and you can never feel safe.”
The tension remained, even as word spread that the police were questioning what they referred to as a “person of interest.” More than a dozen people had called police reporting they had seen someone matching the suspect’s description walking on a quiet residential street.
At Sycamore Park, about an hour after Reales Dominguez had been detained a block away, 50-year-old Lena Pu was walking her dog, Latte, on a paved pathway. Pu, a 30-year Davis resident, said she was not ready to believe the terror was over for Davis.
“I don’t believe something until it’s final,” she said. “I try not to operate in fear, and in fact, I’m actually here to mourn.”
Pu grew emotional. She said she did not know Najm, but added, “He’s a 20-year-old young man. It’s terrible.”
“It’s a wonderful community,” she said. “I know families. I live here, so I may not know him personally, but I know that the family’s really hurt.”
Reclaiming a city’s shared spaces
A serial killers’ rampage eradicated the sense of respite Davis residents seek in their public spaces. The parks, the tree-lined streets of downtown, the bike paths. For nearly a week, none of them felt safe.
“Now the work begins in earnest to heal as a community, to take back our shared spaces and to move forward as one,” Mayor Will Arnold said during a news conference during which the suspect’s arrest was announced.
Davis, like most California cities, is also struggling to ensure its public spaces are safe for those without shelter.
A count of the city’s homeless population last year found 181 people living without permanent shelter, a slight decrease from 2019 but the second-highest number going back to at least 2009. Davis has a severe shortage of housing affordable to very low- and low-income earners; roughly 45% of the housing it needs to open this decade should be affordable to low-income families, one of the highest percentages in the Sacramento region, according to an analysis by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.
Following the third attack, Davis officials increased their outreach to the homeless community, helping 20 unsheltered people move indoors Tuesday night. Many of the small camps that are normally set up near the site of Guillory’s stabbing were gone the next day and the unhoused who remained were reluctant to leave their tents or speak with the media.
Bill Pride, the executive director of homeless services agency Davis Community Meals & Housing, said he and many others feared the city’s homeless population were the targets of the attacks. Breaux had been homeless off and on for years, Pride said, and had recently inquired about moving into permanent housing.
“There has been just this huge sigh of relief since that gentleman was taken into custody,” Pride said. “I think the real shock is that something that brutal would happen in Davis.”
Nearly 300 people attended a February ceremony when Pride’s organization opened Paul’s Place, a housing and resource center near downtown Davis. Other cities likely would have attracted the usual cadre of politicians for a similar event. In Davis, opening a new center to help the city’s most vulnerable residents turned into a community celebration.
“There’s a certain sense of compassion here that people are a little more willing to express,” Pride said. “This is kind of a different town.”