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Vulnerable homeless men try to foil Orange County killer

Cary Singletary is 6-foot-2, an ex-boxer who once worked nightclub security, alternating coffee and water to stay alert through the small hours. Now, encamped on the streets of downtown Santa Ana, he's the unofficial sentry for what he calls "my people," a group of homeless whose wary existence is now shadowed by a new peril: a serial killer.

"Hopefully, they'll get the sick-minded coward," said Singletary 52, speaking of the string of stabbing deaths of middle-aged homeless men in Orange County that began just before Christmas. Singletary stood in a parking lot Thursday night clutching a safety kit — a whistle and flashlight, both donated by the Orange County Rescue Mission.

Singletary said he fears that the killer, who has attacked in neighboring Anaheim, Placentia and Yorba Linda, might strike next in Santa Ana. So he is up all night, drinking coffee, keeping watch for strangers. For company, he listens to R&B on his headphones. He sleeps in two-hour shifts on the public bus.


FOR THE RECORD:
Homeless killings: In the Jan. 6 LATExtra section, a caption accompanying a photo of volunteers spreading awareness about the slayings of three homeless men in Orange County said that the attacks occurred between Dec. 21 and Dec. 30. The first attack occurred Dec. 20. —


"If that serial killer wants to come at us, he'll have his hands full," said Singletary, who has been homeless for six months. "We've got some soldiers out here. I'm just one of them. If that whistle goes off, you'll have a whole army of homeless on him."

Across the county, at the urging of authorities, many of the homeless are seeking beds at emergency shelters, or making sure to sleep in groups outdoors, and taking pains to make themselves less conspicuous on the streets and riverbeds. Many say it is just another version of a skill they have practiced for years — survival — in a dangerous milieu. In some cases, efforts to help are complicated by mental illness, paranoia and a deep-seated fatalism.

Each of the three homeless stabbing victims, authorities say, was alone when he was attacked. James Patrick McGillivray, 53, was killed near a shopping center in Placentia on Dec. 20; Lloyd Middaugh, 42, was found near a riverbed trail in Anaheim on Dec. 28; Paulus Smit, 57, was killed outside a Yorba Linda library on Dec. 30.

What motivates the killer is a subject of furious speculation. David Deisher, 52, who has been homeless in Santa Ana for about a year, said his first thought was that the killer must be a Satanist making blood sacrifices. Or maybe it's a "thrill killer" who will have to keep escalating the attacks to achieve satisfaction, he added. Others on the street said the slayings might be a gangland initiation.

Sgt. Mike Lynch is one of eight cops at the Anaheim Police Department assigned to warn the city's homeless to be vigilant. He said he's seen some success. Some are pooling their money to rent motel rooms. Around the parole office on Coronado Street, there are usually dozens of transient sex offenders camped overnight in old cars and trailers, but on a recent night he found only a few.

Making his rounds Thursday afternoon, Lynch found 39-year-old Ronnie Zupsic, homeless and suspicious, sitting alone under a shelter at a city park. He had a knife wound on his arm and a fractured hand from a recent fight.

"Have the cops talked to you in the last couple days?" Lynch asked.

"No."

"Have you heard about the murders?"

"No."

Once informed, Zupsic offered an immediate theory about the killer's identity: the guy he'd recently tangled with. "I bashed him in the head, and he sliced me with a knife," Zupsic said, but his description left the nature of the dispute impossible to make out.

The sergeant dutifully wrote it down, one tip among many, and urged Zupsic to seek a bed at one of Orange County's armories. There are two, in Santa Ana and Fullerton, with 400 beds between them; they have seen a reported 40% spike in usage in recent days.

"I don't stay at the armory. They try to hurt me," Zupsic said. "I hide behind bushes, mostly, because I have people after me." He said he avoided the company of other transients too. "I don't stay in packs with these people. They're nutty."

He insisted he could handle himself, though, hinting at a military background. "I'm secret co-op. I can't disclose. You see 'Jarhead'? You're looking at him."

The sergeant searched his belongings, found no illegal drugs or weapons and again urged him to be careful.

"So I'm in danger out here is what you're telling me?"

"You're in potential danger, yes."

Along the riverbed trail where Lloyd Middaugh was stabbed to death, the sergeant found bicyclists and joggers, but few homeless people. "I think word is out," he said.

Not far from the crime scene, however, a 64-year-old man named John Berry, with a scraggly white beard and a fisherman's cap, lay on his back under a tarp on the riverbed trail. He's been living here for months, the sergeant said, immovable despite repeated warnings. Berry said he avoids shelters and isn't afraid of being knifed.

"I just like to stay outdoors," he said. "A guy can get killed crossing the street. I've been as careful as I can, watching and everything."

On his patrol, Lynch found two men who camp in a strip mall behind a Magnolia Avenue liquor store. He urged them not to be predictable and to keep hidden at night. "Try to tuck yourself away," he said. "Maybe mix it up. Move around a little bit."

One of the men, Steven Scott, 51, had two black eyes because of what he said was a fight with a guy who tried to steal his shoes. He said someone always kept lookout at night. "If I can help it, I'm not gonna let my friends get slashed," he said. "If it looks kinda snaky, we check it out."

Some, like Dan Warner, 55, who stood in line for a bowl of donated chili Thursday night in a downtown Santa Ana parking lot, said he was braced for a confrontation, and not especially worried about the killer. "I got my belt to wrap around his neck. I got the Lord. Believe me, he ain't gonna come around me."

Larry Haynes, the director of Mercy House, which works with the National Guard to run the seasonal shelters, said that in more than 20 years of working with the homeless, he has never seen a crime in which a predator targeted such a vulnerable population.

"If we don't create some sort of housing solutions for these guys, they are going to die," he said.

There are few shelters specifically for single men in Orange County, and the region lacks a year-round emergency shelter, with the winter armories open just 149 days a year.

Randall Lee Hooper, 54, has been homeless since his teens and has been staying at the Fullerton armory for the last two weeks. He said he was recently released from a hospital where he was treated for a beating he received during a vodka blackout. When sleeping outdoors, he said, he picks spots where people can't sneak up behind him, and where he can hear leaves crunching as people approach.

"It's inevitable," Hooper said of the killings. "I'm surprised there's not more." He said he used to work as a guitarist and a night watchman, but doubts he'll ever work again. He's not looking, anyway.

He was heading to the 91 Freeway in Anaheim, ready to raise a sign for food.

"I'm not scared of anything," he said. If a killer found him, he said, he'd have no complaints. "I just figure if it's my time, it's my time."

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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