A homeless man was set on fire in downtown San Diego on Wednesday, the fourth attack on transients in as many days — possibly by the same assailant.
Police said that a person seen in surveillance images released earlier this week was considered a suspect in the crimes that have left two men dead and two others critically injured. Homicide Capt. David Nisleit said the department had received many leads but needed the public’s help.
“I truly believe that’s how we’re going to make this case,” Nisleit said. “Someone’s gonna recognize this person and give us who it is, and we’re going to find him and arrest him.”
Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman called the case the department’s highest priority. Officers and activists have been informing homeless people of the attacks, showing them photos of the suspect, working to connect people with services and shelter, and advising them to be particularly aware of their surroundings.
“These evil acts of violence are some of the worst I’ve seen in my 34 years in law enforcement,” Zimmerman said.
These evil acts of violence are some of the worst I’ve seen in my 34 years in law enforcement.
Nisleit stopped short of calling the assailant a serial killer, but described the attacks as a series. “We consider him extremely dangerous,” Nisleit said. “We need to have him removed from the community as soon as possible.”
The spree began Sunday. Police said the victims all suffered similar and significant trauma to the upper torso, but they would not detail the injuries. Three of the four men had been sleeping at the time; all were alone.
Angelo De Nardo was the first victim. He was found about 8 a.m. Sunday, ablaze under a freeway bridge in the Bay Park neighborhood. An autopsy concluded the 53-year-old had suffered extensive injuries before being set on fire, officials said.
Police said a man was seen carrying a gas can while running across northbound lanes of Interstate 5 about two blocks away. He was described as 30 to 50 years old, wearing a tan or brown jacket or sweatshirt and a baseball cap and carrying a backpack.
The victims of Monday’s attacks were identified Wednesday. Manuel Mason, 61, was found critically injured in the Midway District about 4:50 a.m. He is expected to survive. Shawn Longley, 41, was found dead at a sports facility in Ocean Beach about 6:10 a.m.
Witnesses to Wednesday’s attack heard a commotion and saw one man crouched over another behind an apartment building south of Broadway at Columbia Street. One man ran to help the victim and yanked a flaming towel off him, Nisleit said.
He said the towel had been soaked in a flammable liquid and placed on the 23-year-old victim, who was not named. The man also suffered “significant trauma” to his upper torso, Nisleit said.
Michael McConnell, who works with San Diego’s homeless community, said Wednesday that some people he’s spoken with were aware of the attacks — and were afraid and angry. But plenty of others, he said, didn’t know or didn’t care.
“I think there are a lot of people that are so beaten down,” McConnell said. “They’re existing but they don’t care. It’s really sad.”
James Johnson said he sleeps by himself, but he’s close to the Broadway police headquarters and doesn’t believe an attacker would strike so close to law enforcement.
“I’m not a social person,” he said. “I’m more of a loner. I always try and find a good spot.”
A number of transients said they had armed themselves in the wake of the attacks. One man brandished a pink bat.
“If someone comes up and I don’t know them at nighttime, with people going around beating up the homeless and taking them out … I’ll tell them to back away, and come out with this” bat, John Henry said.
David Hernandez at the San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this story.
8 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional information
10:17 a.m.: This article has been updated with news about a fourth attack.
This article was originally published at 8:32 a.m.