Three brutal stabbings spark fears of serial killer in Davis

A police cruiser sits at a blocked-off street following a third stabbing in less than a week in the small city of Davis, Tuesday May 2, 2023. A massive police response came around midnight after a 911 call reported that a woman living in a camp of unhoused people had been stabbed repeatedly through the fabric of her tent. Police combed the surrounding area but didn't locate the attacker.
A police cruiser sits at an intersection of a blocked-off street after the third stabbing in less than a week in Davis, Calif. (Jessica Garrison / Los Angeles Times)

A third stabbing in less than a week prompted an hours-long shelter-in-place order for the sprawling UC Davis campus and large swaths of downtown Davis early Tuesday as authorities conducted a yard-to-yard search for the assailant.

They came up empty, and by late morning, as FBI agents arrived to assist with the investigation, Davis Police Chief Darren Pytel was warning residents of this bike-loving city of 68,000 to avoid going out at night or walking or biking alone until the perpetrator is caught.

The spate of seemingly random and brutal attacks has left two men dead and one woman in critical condition, sending a chill through this normally low-key college town just west of Sacramento. Until last week, Davis had not had a reported homicide since 2019, according to local officials.

The suspect, based on witness descriptions and the nature of the attacks, was behaving in a manner that was "particularly brazen," the chief noted, "and that obviously causes us significant concern."

Monday's attack — the third stabbing in five days — was the most brazen yet, as described by police.

The chief said the suspect had been spotted by several homeless people camping near the intersection of 2nd and L streets. He engaged in conversation with them before walking away, then returned a short time later and stabbed a woman repeatedly through the canvas of her tent.

"The suspect didn't seem to care that there were several witnesses" nearby who had seen him earlier in the evening, Pytel said.

The woman screamed and the attacker ran off. The victim and another person who heard her cries called 911, and police quickly arrived. The woman, who police said was in her 60s, was taken to UC Davis Medical Center, where she underwent surgery and remains in critical condition.

The latest attack triggered a heavy law enforcement response. Around midnight, police issued a shelter-in-place order and commenced house-to-house searches, aided by drones and a canine unit.

The assailant was seen running west toward the town’s commercial area. He was described as between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-9 with curly hair and a thin build, wearing a black or blue sweatshirt, black adidas pants with white stripes and black shoes, carrying a brown backpack. The physical description is similar to one provided by a witness to Saturday night's fatal stabbing.

When hours of searching yielded nothing, the shelter-in-place order was lifted shortly before sunrise.

Police said Tuesday that the FBI and homicide detectives from across the region are now assisting in the investigation.

"People are scared," said Mayor Will Arnold. "We are using every available resource to solve these crimes, to bring an end to this violence, and to keep our community safe."

The series of attacks appears to have started last Thursday, when a beloved town character, David Henry Breaux, was found stabbed to death at about 11:30 a.m. on a bench in the town's popular Central Park. Breaux, 50, was also homeless and frequently slept in the park, according to police. He was well-known around Davis as the "Compassion Guy,” a Stanford graduate who in recent years had become an evangelist of sorts, encouraging people to embody a spirit of peace and forgiveness.

Two days later, in another park along Davis' extensive bike path network, 20-year-old Karim Abou Najm was attacked about 9:15 p.m. Saturday as he biked home from an event at the university. He was savagely stabbed, and despite efforts at resuscitation, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Abou Najm was a UC Davis student and 2020 graduate of Davis Senior High School. He was described by family and friends as kind-hearted, playful and dedicated to his studies. In recent months, he had posted to social media expressing joy about getting a job as a software engineer.

Police said they were sorting through hundreds of tips from the public and processing physical evidence from the crime scenes with the help of the FBI, the state Department of Justice and the Sacramento district attorney's office.

After residents were awakened by automated warnings in the predawn hours Tuesday, many took to Facebook to share their fear and shock about the spate of violent attacks.

“Shelter in place as of 1:10 a.m,” one woman posted on a local parents group page. “I’m so scared.”

“A real serial killer in our town,” added another parent. “This is so scary.”

The town's usually bustling streets were quieter Tuesday. Bikers and joggers were out in far fewer numbers, and police cars cruised city streets at regular intervals. Davis Senior High and North Davis Elementary School were briefly locked down in the morning after someone reported seeing a person with a knife in the vicinity. Police responded, found no such person, and the order was lifted. Some businesses, including the local rock-climbing gym, announced they would be closing early so that staff and patrons wouldn't have to venture home after dark.

And from homeless encampments tucked along the railroad tracks that cut through downtown to the cafe-lined streets near the UC Davis campus, people spoke about altering their routines amid a growing sense of foreboding.

Josh Lopez, 22, a UC Davis senior majoring in engineering, said he has moved numerous study groups that usually meet in person in the evenings to online forums, because no one wants to be out at night. He hasn't told his parents about the recent events, he said, because "I don't want them to start freaking out."

Many of the city's homeless residents said they are feeling hunted, noting two of the three victims were homeless. Several said they had come to Davis from other cities precisely because it felt like a safer place to live on the streets. After being rousted early Tuesday by law enforcement officers searching for the attacker, many said they were trying to figure out where they could sleep without fear.

At Paul's Place, a homeless services center near the railroad tracks in central Davis, workers hauled mattresses into the building Tuesday afternoon, setting up temporary shelter for people to spend the night.

One woman, who asked that her name not be published because she was afraid of being targeted, said she knew the woman stabbed Monday and that she was a kind person who never fought with anyone. It was unnerving, she said, to know someone out there is "randomly stalking people."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.