Man pleads guilty in railroad spike killings of San Diego homeless men

Jon David Guerrero
Jon David Guerrero, in San Diego Superior Court on Monday, pleaded guilty to a string of 2016 attacks, mostly on homeless men. Defense attorney Whitney Antrim stands near him.
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A mentally ill man accused of impaling several homeless men with railroad spikes admitted on Monday to murdering four people and assaulting nine others during a six-month period in 2016.

Jon David Guerrero, 42, whose mental competency to stand trial was an issue for years, agreed to be sentenced on May 1 to four consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole and an additional 143 years to life in prison.

He pleaded guilty to 15 charges involving 12 men and one woman: four counts of murder, four counts of attempted murder, five counts of assault with a deadly weapon likely to cause great bodily injury and two counts of arson for setting fire to two of the victims who died.

He admitted a special-circumstance allegation of committing multiple murders. He could have faced the death penalty for that, but prosecutors had not decided whether to seek it.

The only clue to a motive for the 2016 assaults came from Guerrero’s first victim, who survived a knifing and asked his attacker, “Why did you do this to me?”

“Because you’re a bum,” Guerrero replied, according to the victim’s statements.


Guerrero was raised in Coronado and, suffering from schizophrenia, was in and out of jail and institutions for much of his life. Between 1999 and 2008, he was convicted of burglary, grand theft and possession of stolen goods. He had mental health cases filed in 2008, 2009 and 2011. He was living in a low-rent apartment at the time of his arrest.

His change of plea ends a more than three-year journey through the courts, with mental competency hearings and treatment at Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino County. In 2018, he was declared mentally competent and the criminal case against him went forward.

Jon David Guerrero is arrested July 15, 2016.
(San Diego News Video)

“It’s a huge, huge relief to have finality to this,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Makenzie Harvey said after the hearing in San Diego Superior Court. “I think it’s a very, very great thing to the victims and their families.”

One assault victim who survived Guerrero’s final attack, Michael Papadelis, attended the Monday hearing and afterward said, “I think he did the right thing,” by pleading guilty.

“I’ve been homeless. I know there are a lot of mentally ill on the streets. I don’t hate Jon,” Papadelis, 58, said.

He told the same thing to Guerrero’s parents and shook hands with them outside the courtroom.

Papadelis was left blind in his right eye and his left eye was damaged after Guerrero drove a railroad spike into his face while Papadelis slept on a sidewalk on July 15, 2016. Guerrero was arrested a short time later, riding a bicycle with a mallet and spikes in his backpack.

He carried several identification and credit cards from two of the earlier victims who died, the prosecutor said.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Kenneth So speaks to Jon David Guerrero and defense attorney Whitney Antrim, making sure Guerrero understood his guilty plea.
(John Gibbins/John Gibbins)

The prosecutor said the agreed-upon sentence means Guerrero will go to state prison and not to a mental hospital.

The string of attacks in the spring and summer of 2016 sent fear among the homeless in San Diego and shocked the community at large.

It tookpolice a while to connect the seemingly random assaults that included several people being whacked on the back of the head by a passing bicyclist while they sat a bus stops or stood on sidewalks. Most, but not all, of the victims were homeless.

Molly Simmons, 83, who had a husband and a home, was struck on the head while walking to a North Park bus stop, on her way to volunteer at a YMCA on July 13, 2016. She suffered a skull fracture and died at a hospital about three weeks later.

The first fatal assault took place on July 3. Anthony DeNardo, 53, was sleeping near Interstate 5 and Moreno Boulevard when he was impaled with a railroad spike and set on fire. Video from a security camera in the area showed the attacker carrying a gas can.

On July 4, Manuel Mason was blinded when a spike was driven into his nasal cavity in the Midway District. He died last July. Harvey did not add a murder charge against Guerrero for Mason’s death. She declined on Monday to say why.

Also on July 4, Shawn Mitchell Longley, 41, was impaled and killed while he slept in an Ocean Beach park.

Dionicio Vahidy, 23, was lying near some downtown San Diego condominiums on July 6 when a man on a bike set fire to a towel atop the sleeping man. Vahidy died from his burns four days later. Another man was assaulted the same day.

Simmons, the North Park woman, was the next victim on July 13, and a man was attacked that day.

The final two victims were attacked on July 15, including Papadelis. He said he was startled awake by the assault but couldn’t see because his eyes were swollen shut and bleeding. He yelled for help and two San Diego Harbor Patrol officers in the area came to his aid.

The prosecutor said on Monday that she believes even more people were assaulted by Guerrero, but she charged the 13 cases she believed she could prove.

Repard writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.