For two hours on Wednesday, authorities say a man terrorized neighborhoods in Santa Ana and Garden Grove.
Zachary Castaneda, 33, is accused of killing four people and wounding two others in a seemingly random stabbing attack at multiple locations.
Those who say they encountered the suspect and survived now feel shaken but lucky.
Bakery owner Dona Beltran was outside her shop, charging her phone in her parked car, when a Mercedes pulled up a little after 4 p.m.. A man got out and walked into the store.
Thinking he was a customer, she followed him inside. As she entered, she saw the man had walked behind the counter and was rummaging around, attempting to open the cash registers.
“What are you doing? What are you doing?” she screamed.
The man pulled up his shirt and motioned to his waistline at what Beltran assumed was a weapon. She ran out of the store to a dental office next door and yelled: “Call the police. He’s trying to rob my bakery.”
The dental office employees locked the door and called 911. Beltran saw the man lug away her cash registers, plop them in his car and drive away.
Beltran didn’t know it yet. But the man was in the middle of what authorities describe as a stabbing rampage through Garden Grove and Santa Ana that left four people dead and two injured.
She said “it was a miracle” she wasn’t hurt.
Forty minutes later, Castaneda, wearing a black hoodie, walked into Cash N More on Chapman Avenue and robbed a customer, police and witnesses said.
Yesenia Torres, 34, of Santa Ana was the lone employee on duty at the time. She didn’t think much of the man at first as he paced back and forth inside the store.
“I figured he was just in a hurry,” Torres told The Times.
Torres said she had just completed processing a $200 loan for a customer, who took the cash and was walking toward the door when the man approached the woman and said: “This is a robbery. The insurance will pay you back.”
He had one hand in his pocket and grabbed the cash with the other.
“This can’t be happening to me,” the customer said and stood in shock.
Torres said she averted her gaze to avoid making eye contact with the man, but after he left the store she watched him drive away and was able to get his license plate number before calling the police.
Initially, she thought it had just been a simple robbery. Hours later, she heard about the killings.
“I was in shock. What if he would have taken out a weapon on our customer? You go through all the scenarios. It’s scary. He seemed like such a normal person,” she said.
Torres said she felt “lucky,” or perhaps blessed.
“To be honest, I do feel protected by someone. It could have been something worse for me or the customer.”
Castaneda has an extensive criminal history in Orange County, including convictions for gun-related offenses, resisting a police officer, drug possession and theft. He also has several open cases in Orange County Superior Court related to vandalism, gang activity, and weapon and drug violations. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges, according to court records.
He is expected to be charged in Wednesday’s attacks on Friday.