SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (AP) — In this tolerant beach town where a mayor once hosted a medical marijuana giveaway and cars sport "Keep Santa Cruz Weird" bumper stickers, there is a growing concern among residents that their laidback city is being gripped by an escalating, violent-crime wave.
The rise of seemingly random attacks, including the killings of two police detectives on Tuesday, is bringing back memories for some residents of the early 1970s when Santa Cruz was dubbed "Murderville, USA," after three mass-killers murdered 23 people.
"This is crazy, because all of a sudden there are lots of random crimes, bizarre things happening," said Deborah Elston, a co-founder of the advocacy group Santa Cruz Neighbors.
There's no simple explanation for the rise, but public safety has become a top focus. It was the priority for the winners in local elections and the 157-year-old Santa Cruz Sentinel filled an entire page Thursday with readers' letters calling the police shooting a wake-up call.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office officials said police detectives Sgt. Loran "Butch" Baker and Elizabeth Butler had been shouting with Jeremy Goulet through his closed front door for about 20 minutes, trying to get "his side of the story" about accusations of misdemeanor sexual assault, when he burst out of another door and surprised them, opening fire with a .35-caliber handgun legally registered to him.
"The detectives had absolutely no chance to protect themselves or return fire," said Sheriff Phil Wowak, his eyes red with exhaustion and tears. "They barely had time to turn and run."
Wowak said police are only now learning that Goulet had been arrested many times for sex-related crimes. The former soldier had also served two years in prison for carrying a gun without a concealed weapon permit and invasion of personal privacy.
When police killed him in a shootout, he had both detectives' guns, Baker's bulletproof vest, a passport and an airplane ticket to New Mexico.
Even before the detectives were killed, there were other crimes that have frightened residents in the coastal city of 60,000 about 70 miles south of San Francisco.
February alone saw the downtown killing of a popular martial arts instructor, an attack at a bus stop that left a young woman with a bullet lodged in her skull, an armed robbery at a small health food store and a home invasion in which assailants threatened the residents with a sword.
The crime statistics also show an increase, albeit small. There were three murders in 2012, up from one in 2011. Reported rapes increased by 38 percent to 33 cases, from 24. Arson reports rose more than 75 percent, to 21 from 12.
There had been hope for a turnaround. The police department, after five years of budget cuts, recently announced that it had returned to full staffing in a city that draws more than a million annual visitors for its boardwalk, redwood forests and beaches.
On Tuesday, the Committee Against Gun Violence was setting up a rally at the Town Clock when two patrol cars screamed past, followed by emergency vehicles rushing to a quiet, residential neighborhood. As activists began their anti-violence speeches, police chased Goulet, guns drawn.
Goulet's home sits just outside the back gate of Midtown Montessori preschool, where owner Donna Saffren said just one week earlier she wondered what she was doing in a 3-hour lockdown course offered by the County Office of Education.
"I thought I was going to a duck-and-cover earthquake class, and instead it was all about lockdowns. Never ever did I think I'd need to use those lessons," she said.
But when she saw plain-clothes detectives with guns outside her gate, she approached Butler and told her "this is not a good time, you need to come back" because parents were arriving to pick up their children.
"(Butler) seemed as if she was trying to get the guy to come to the front door," Saffren said. "It was an intense situation. They had their hands on their guns."
Butler explained they were involved in an investigation, and asked Saffren to take children inside and contact a police dispatcher. "I had already decided on a safe room, I knew what to do," said Saffren, who gathered her 14 young charges together.
Saffren heard a couple of shots, "pop, pop, pop," as the detectives were shot just outside her preschool's gate.
Saffren said a staff member had raised concerns about Goulet staring into their campus from his bicycle outside the school gate a few days earlier, and they held a staff meeting to discuss safety and reinforce the importance of calling 911 if there were any concerns.
Saffren said she followed up after the meeting, calling police to say she had found hypodermic needles and condoms in the parking lot, and that she wanted police to be aware that there were some potential problems in the area.
To some, the attacks made them remember Santa Cruz's dangerous days. Sentinel editor Don Miller wrote the "present darkness" is not something altogether new, noting that in the early 1970s and 80s, the city "was the scene of grisly and demented mass murders."
Among the killers was one who was convicted of 10 murders after saying he heard "die songs," messages to commit human sacrifices to prevent earthquakes, and another, dubbed the "co-ed killer," who was convicted for murdering eight women, including his mother.
County Supervisor Neal Coonerty, who moved to Santa Cruz in the 70s, said Thursday that back then and today, there is no reasonable explanation for such shocking crimes.
"It's a pretty natural reaction that when random violent crime happens, that people try to find some kind of logical explanation, some causation," Coonerty said. "They don't want to accept the fact that it was random."
This week's violence "is not reflective of Santa Cruz," he said. "It's more a fact that we had had evil visited upon us."