The word spread slowly Saturday morning, quietly passing from neighbor to neighbor on the streets around Edmondson Elementary School in Norwalk.
"Oh! Poor Nick," said a young woman who had struck up an acquaintance with the pleasant older man who worked as a janitor at the school. With a gush of tears, she turned and ran into her house across the street from the school.
Sometime the previous day, Nicholas Karaponas, 59, had been stabbed to death in a second-grade classroom. His body was discovered by security police who had been called by his anxious wife.
"He was a very nice, gentle man," said Christine Lira, whose children attend Edmondson. Tina Lira, 12, said: "He always tried to help my little brother cross the street."
Sheriff's deputies said Saturday that they had few clues in the killing of Karaponas, who apparently was stabbed in the upper back several times as he cleaned Classroom 62 on Friday. Karaponas' keys were missing, but it was not clear whether anything had been stolen from the school, said Deputy Jerry Jansen. No weapon was found, he said.
Karaponas, who had been at the school for more than a year, was scheduled to work until 4 p.m. Friday, Jansen said. At 11 p.m., Karaponas' wife called school security police to report that he had not returned home. They found his body on the classroom floor about midnight.
Several "defense wounds" were found on Karaponas' body, indicating that he had tried to fend off the attack, Jansen said.
"When you come over here, you should get combat pay," said a man who identified himself as a janitor at another school in the Norwalk-La Mirada School District. "There are a lot of custodians working in these lonely schools. They should have at least two guys working."
Saying that he feared reprisals from gang members, the janitor declined to give his name, as did another who accompanied him to the scene Saturday. Both said they were terrified of gang members, who use school grounds after hours, sometimes to drink and take drugs.
They said they look the other way when gang members come around, or face retaliation. "You do whatever they want you to do," said one.
Attempts to reach school officials Saturday were unsuccessful. Deputies said summer school classes at Edmondson ended Tuesday.
Residents of the quiet neighborhood said they have little doubt that gang members are to blame. However, they said, they knew of no trouble between Karaponas and local gangs.
Neighbors said Karaponas, who was Greek, spoke little English, but always said, "Hello!" when they passed, or greeted them with a wave.
"He just goes about his work and doesn't hurt anyone," said 12-year-old Michael Lopez. "He tried to keep the school clean. He was a nice guy."