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Small town reeling after young girl's fatal stabbing

As authorities search for a suspect in the slaying of 8-year-old Leila Fowler at her home, residents wonder how it could have happened here.

April 29, 2013|By Patrick McGreevy and Kate Mather, Los Angeles Times
  • Leila Fowler was stabbed to death in her family's home in Valley Springs, in Northern California.
Leila Fowler was stabbed to death in her family's home in Valley Springs,… (FOX 40 )

VALLEY SPRINGS, Calif. — In this rural town southeast of Sacramento, small-town neighborliness and distance from urban life made many of its 7,500 residents feel safe. Locals say many residents still don't lock their doors.

But feelings of security have been shattered by the killing of an 8-year-old girl over the weekend. Authorities have revealed few details about the crime, but local media have reported that the girl's older brother told detectives an intruder got into the home while their parents were away and fatally stabbed her.

Leila Fowler's slaying prompted a sweeping manhunt across the rugged terrain of Calaveras County and left residents searching for answers.

"We are trying to figure out who would do such a horrible thing," Keith Ashlock said during his lunch break Monday. "Things like that just don't happen here."

With no arrest made, he added, "everybody is looking at everybody else and wondering whether they know something."

An autopsy Monday showed that Leila died of shock and hemorrhaging as a result of multiple stab wounds, Calaveras County Coroner Kevin Raggio said.

Authorities have scoured the rural Sierra foothill community, combing tall grass and searching attics and outbuildings for any sign of the killer. Investigators reportedly gathered fingerprints and possible DNA from the home. The California attorney general's office and state Department of Justice have "prioritized the processing of the evidence," a sheriff's statement said Monday.

Meanwhile, family members including the slain girl's father, Barney Fowler, tied purple ribbons on posts in the downtown area late Monday to commemorate the child. "That was her favorite color, " the father said.

Fowler decline to discuss details of the case. "This is a very emotional time for us right now," he said.

Leila and her 12-year-old brother were at home Saturday when her brother heard an intruder, according to Calaveras County Sheriff's Capt. Jim Macedo. He told investigators he saw a man, who fled on foot, before discovering his sister with what Macedo described as "severe injuries."

The brother called their parents, who Macedo said were at a "public event" nearby, and then called 911. The parents also called 911.

Leila was rushed to a hospital, where Raggio said she was pronounced dead.

Multiple agencies have joined the effort, Macedo said, and the Sheriff's Department has been in contact with the FBI. Detectives conducted follow-up interviews with witnesses and the Fowler family and are pursuing tips, including some from outside the county.

The Sheriff's Department initially described the suspect as a muscular white or Hispanic man about 6 feet tall, last seen wearing a black, long-sleeved shirt and blue pants. But Macedo said Sunday that investigators had received three separate suspect descriptions with some inconsistencies and had no "specific suspect."

Macedo said authorities are interviewing all registered sex offenders in the area.

Sheriff Gary Kuntz, speaking at a Monday night news conference, said, "We will not rest until we capture the responsible person."

As questions remained, the community stepped up security.

Extra patrols were on hand Monday at Leila's elementary school and area bus stops. A reverse 911 call warned residents to lock their doors and remain vigilant. One woman called police after she saw a man with long gray hair wearing clothes similar to those of a homeless person at a shopping center in town.

"I told my husband, 'I hope he is just passing through,'" Delores Holt said.

On Rippon Road, where the Fowler family lives, neighbors were particularly uneasy. Basketball hoops and tree swings dotted frontyards along the cracked street, where residents say children are always walking, biking or skateboarding.

Gail Kienitz said her grandchildren played basketball with Leila, whom she described as "sweet and quiet." "I can't even let my kids play outside anymore," she said.

"There are no words to describe how I feel," Kienitz said. "This neighborhood is generally safe. Everybody knows everybody."

Lauretta Wanhala described the neighborhood as quiet and safe. "Ninety-five percent of the people here don't lock their doors," she said.

"It's sick," she said of the crime.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

kate.mather@latimes.com

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