VALLEY SPRINGS, Calif. -- In this rural town southeast of Sacramento, small-town neighborliness and distance from urban life made many of its 2,600 residents feel safe. Locals say many still don’t lock their doors.
But those feelings of security have been shattered by the killing of an 8-year-old girl over the weekend. Authorities believe an intruder got into her home while her parents were away and fatally stabbed her. Her older brother discovered her body.
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 in an interview.
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 girl's 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.
The girl and her 12-year-old brother were at home Saturday when her brother heard an intruder, the Modesto Bee reported. He told investigators he saw a man, who fled on foot, before discovering his sister with what sheriff’s Capt. Jim Macedo described as “severe injuries.”
He called their parents, who Macedo said were at a “public event” nearby, and then called 911, the Bee reported. The parents also called 911.
Leila was rushed to a hospital, where Raggio said she was pronounced dead.
Multiple agencies have joined the investigation, Macedo said, and the Sheriff’s Department has been in contact with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Detectives conducted follow-up interviews with witnesses and the girl’s 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 they had received three separate suspect descriptions with some inconsistencies and that authorities had no “specific suspect.”
As questions remained, the sleepy 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,’” Dolores 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 would play basketball with Leila, whom she described as “sweet and quiet.”
“I can’t even let my kids play outside any more,” she said.
“There are no words to describe how I feel,” Kienitz added. “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.