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Fear Grips Neighborhood as Police Search for Killer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As police helicopters hovered overhead, Linda Gatlin, a mail carrier whose once-a-week beat is Clairemont, shook her head and sighed.

“I don’t feel safe, and I’m always dubious around here. This is one of the worst areas in the city for mail theft,” she said, casting a glance at a passing patrol car. “People in the area are really nervous. They try to laugh it off with gallows humor, but a lot of people won’t even open their doors for me. It makes it hard to deliver a package.

“I ring the doorbell and say, ‘I have a package.’ And the person inside says, ‘So?'--without even opening the door. One woman said she thought I was the murderer.”

Gatlin stood beside her van in the 3100 block of Cowley Way, where a 20-year-old woman was stabbed to death Jan. 12. On Feb. 16, a 21-year-old woman was stabbed to death two blocks away, in the 3300 block of Clairemont Drive.

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On Tuesday, 18-year-old Holly Suzanne Tarr, a high school senior from Okemos, Mich., was stabbed to death in an upstairs apartment at 3410 Cowley Way. Tarr, whose body was returned to Michigan on Thursday, had come to San Diego to visit her brother during spring break.

Police have launched a manhunt for a black male in his late teens, 5-foot-8 to 5-foot-11, who, with a knife in his hand, was seen fleeing the apartment where Tarr was stabbed.

Thursday, the mood in the neighborhood was edgy and guarded.

Police on foot, in patrol cars and flying in helicopters, were visible and numerous. So was a five-person foot patrol of Guardian Angels, whom the neighbors seemed to welcome.

Lynn Cullers, 20, and her mother, Roberta Cullers, walked toward a rental unit on nearby Knapp Street with frowns on their faces.

“I moved in yesterday (Wednesday) and hadn’t heard about any of the murders,” said the younger Cullers. “Now I want out. The security guards told us they’re escorting every female tenant up to the door and inside their apartments--if they want them to--but it doesn’t lessen my fear.”

“I want my daughter out of here,” said Roberta Cullers. “We want our money back. I want her back home with me.”

Suzanne Rosborough, who manages the sprawling Buena Vista Gardens complex in which two of the murders occurred, said rental refunds are “being evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

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A spokeswoman for Anza Management Co., which oversees Buena Vista Gardens and the adjacent Canyon Ridge, where Tiffany Paige Schultz was murdered Jan. 12, said 10 tenants have asked to leave. She said a minimum of 30 days’ notice is required of any renter wishing to void the month-by-month agreement.

“At the very least, we have a lot of concerned tenants,” the spokeswoman said.

One of those is Kelly Shattuck, 28, who moved here only a week ago from Palos Verdes.

“I’m so devastated, I can’t even sleep,” Shattuck said. “I’m hearing things all the time. I’m really shook up. I’d like to leave, but I just moved in.”

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Shattuck said she has exhausted herself checking her doors and windows at night.

“I mean, how many times can you check them?” she said. “The night after it happened, I went to bed, and it was raining. I couldn’t believe how scared I was. . . . Right here in this neighborhood, where I’m living, three women were stabbed to death. I keep thinking, I believe in God, and I have to believe he’ll protect me.”

Shattuck said many women in the neighborhood refuse to enter or stay in their apartments alone. She said “dozens” had exercised the option, offered by the rental office, of calling ahead, from work or wherever they happen to be, for a security-guard escort, up to and beyond the entrance to their apartments.

Robert Reedholm, 23, who shares a nearby unit with Crystal Thrasher, 21, said the fear in the neighborhood has “ really intensified” since the third murder Tuesday.

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“But the pattern has been that everyone gets to feeling safe, and, about a month later, another murder,” Reedholm said. “There’s nothing to do but lock your doors and be careful. Everyone’s on the alert. In fact, I’d say everybody’s freaked out. It’s especially hard on women living alone. They seem to be more fearful than anybody.”

To help lessen that fear, the San Diego Police Department is patrolling the area around the clock. Apartment manager Rosborough said police plan to set up a mobile unit on a nearby street this weekend.

Police Chief Bob Burgreen has called the investigation the department’s “top priority.” Investigators say that, in addition to the mobile command unit, they have assigned full-time to the case two homicide teams, a homicide lieutenant and captain, 10 additional officers and a sergeant from the night robbery and vice units.

Anyone with information about the crime is asked to call 235-TIPS. Crime Stoppers is offering a $1,000 reward and the Police Department a $5,000 reward for anyone offering clues leading to the arrest and conviction of the suspect.

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But concerns have been raised about police interrogating anyone living in the area who happens to be black, male and looks 18.

“We’re interviewing people who fit the description,” said police spokeswoman Dorothy Powell. “In this case, it’s black males. One reason we interview people is to eliminate them as suspects. Once we eliminate them, we hope we won’t have to contact them again.”

Powell said police are checking the possibility that the suspect may have let himself into the apartment where Tarr was murdered by using a passkey, the distribution of which the rental office controls.

“It’s all speculation at this point, but he got in somehow,” she said. “To say he had a passkey, to say the door was unlocked, you can guess at all of these things. The one thing we do know is that there was no forced entry in any of these cases.”

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Rosborough said she did “not wish to disclose” how many Buena Vista Gardens employees have passkeys. But Richard Williams, the maintenance man who briefly confronted the suspect, unlocked the door to Tarr’s brother’s apartment by using a passkey.

“The passkey policy is being reviewed,” Rosborough said.

Rosborough said the suspect was definitely not a gardener at the complex, despite the fact that he wore a red T-shirt and black Levi’s, an outfit similar to that worn by the landscaping crew.

“The company just doesn’t have any black gardeners,” she said. “It’s not that they don’t want to. It’s just that none of their employees, past or present, have been black. So that eliminates the suspect as a gardener.”

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Rosborough said a small number of tenants at Buena Vista Gardens are black males who come close to matching the description.

“And I feel badly for the young black males who live here,” she said. “They’re probably being harassed to death right now, especially with the Guardian Angels walking around. But I hope they understand and won’t take it personally.”

Patrol officer P. B. Smith, who was cruising the area Thursday afternoon, said the police are considering “any and all suspects.” She had stopped on Clairemont Drive to question a “suspicious-looking” white man. She said she has also fielded a lot of tips, some of which haven’t made sense or offered no relevant information.


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