CECILIA RICHARDSON, a teacher at Jenny Lind Elementary, helps a student… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)
VALLEY SPRINGS, Calif. — On any given day, this is a quiet, rural town surrounded by miles of hills stacked with golden hay bales.
But on Sunday, the sun was hot and weeks of fear had pivoted into confirmation of a sickening suspicion: the brother of a slain 8-year-old girl, Leila Fowler, was now the suspect in the April 27 stabbing death. The community of 7,500 southeast of Sacramento let out a collective breath now that a suspect was in custody.
Longing for normalcy, most people took their children to the nearby lake.
"I think everyone just wanted to get the kids to the water and let them play," said Christina Armstrong, grocery shopping with her four swimming suit-clad daughters.
Residents here were torn — relieved that no child murderer was on the loose, but saddened that a local 12-year-old boy stood accused of the unthinkable: murdering his young sister.
But many were not shocked by the news.
Fidel Taylor hadn't kept his suspicions to himself. "When it first happened, it was a shock — a stranger coming into a home and slaughtering a little girl," he said Sunday. "But the story didn't make sense."
Taylor told his two children that they were safe, that he suspected the boy was responsible, and warned them to stay away from him.
As the days passed with no arrest, Taylor said he grew angry at law enforcement. "I was like, 'Come on — do you really think there's a knife-wielding stranger out there, or are you keeping our kids scared to death for no reason?'"
Authorities were looking for an intruder the boy had identified as the killer, said Calaveras County Sheriff's Capt. Jim Macedo. The boy told investigators he saw a man, who fled on foot, before discovering his sister with what Macedo described as "severe injuries."
The boy called his parents, then 911, officials said.
The intruder was described only as a tall man with long gray hair. A neighbor told detectives she saw a man flee the home, but she later recanted the story.
The events sent a chill though the town, leaving adults and children on edge. The day Leila's body was found, Armstrong heard her 5-year-old daughter hysterically screaming at her sister who was playing in the yard: "Come in, come in, or someone's going to kill you," Armstrong said. "We all slept in the living room together for a week."
Now that an arrest has been made, Armstrong said she could admit to herself that she had questioned the boy's story all along.
"I pushed the thought out of my mind, just kept pushing it away, but it would come back," she said.
Sunday night at Good Friends Chinese Buffet, residents again gathered to consider the boy's story. Some in the past had sided with him, but others had characterized him as a bully.
"The story didn't make sense — a long-haired stranger, the dogs didn't bark," said waitress Fian Ngo.
Police released no information about what led them to arrest the unidentified boy. Following the crime, investigators did a door-to-door sweep of homes, storage sheds and stables scattered across the oak-studded hills foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Divers also searched two nearby reservoirs in search of clues.
The slaying made national headlines and had authorities warning residents of the area where the crime occurred to lock their doors and remain vigilant.
Leila and her brother were home together on the night of the attack. Their parents had gone to a Little League game.
Police said there was no sign of a burglary or robbery. As part of the investigation, authorities seized several knives from the Fowler home, where Leila lived with her father, stepmother and siblings.
An autopsy determined that Leila died of shock and bleeding as a result of multiple stab wounds.
Calaveras County Sheriff Gary Kuntz said authorities spent more than 2,000 hours on the investigation before they arrested the boy at 5:10 p.m. Saturday.
Times staff writer Julie Cart and the Associated Press contributed to this report.