In this storybook Southern Oregon town, murder is commonplace on the stages of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where sword fights are carefully choreographed entertainment, and the blood that spurts is fake.
The real-life slaying of a young grocery clerk nearly decapitated by an apparent stranger wielding a sword or machete has sent a shiver of horror through residents and visitors alike, and stumped investigators desperately searching for clues.
A small shrine is growing on the side of the bike path where 23-year-old David Grubbs was killed last weekend while walking home from work, the way he had countless times, just as darkness was falling. It's an open place next to a parking lot where the path goes through a park with ball fields and tennis courts _ and past an elementary school _ where parents bring their small children to play.
"I'm freaking out," said Zhawen Wahpepah, who came to the shrine Friday morning with her boyfriend, August Haddick, to burn sage and leave a booklet of music that she and Grubbs had played together as members of a school chamber orchestra. She added it to the candles, flowers, carrot cake, NY Times Sunday crossword puzzle, music CDs, photos, and lyrics from the song, "Stairway to Heaven." They were all carefully placed on the ground next to a green metal cross painted with the name David and driven into the ground.
"I think it was a thrill kill," said Wahpepah. Grubbs "was not into anything bad. He was just really shy and really nice," she added.
"I used to walk this way home, and now I don't anymore because of this," said Haddick, who worked stocking shelves at the Shop'n Kart grocery with Grubbs. Living in the same student neighborhood, they often walked home together, but the night of the slaying, Haddick's schedule had him working three hours later, so Grubbs walked home alone.
When Haddick drove by last Saturday night with a friend, the spot was cordoned off by police, blue lights flashing in the darkness. Haddick didn't know until the next day, when the "Rest in Peace" tributes appeared on Facebook, that Grubbs had been killed.
"It's hard to imagine it could just as easily have been me," he said.
Ashland is a liberal outpost in conservative rural Oregon. The town of 20,000 just a few miles north of the California border is known for good schools, good restaurants, high housing prices, and deer that walk freely through town. Many residents are happy to work at low-paying jobs serving tourists for the chance to live here.
"It's like this little paradise," said Brenna Heater, who knew Grubbs growing up and now works behind the counter of a downtown pizza joint. "The fairytale land is like the definition to us. I always use the word magical _ our little magical Ashland. New people are coming here every day. The Shakespeare festival keeps this town upbeat and hip."
Police have little to go on. No one has come forward to say they witnessed the slaying. No weapon has been found. The 911 call came from a woman riding her bike down the path, who was stopped by a man who found Grubbs lying in the bike path. They initially thought Grubbs was passed out, but on looking closer saw the deep wounds around his head and neck, said Police Chief Terry Holderness. Investigators don't think either of them had anything to do with the slaying. The woman saw a man leaving the area, but didn't get a good look at him. Police have not found him.
"This community has very little crime of any type, especially violent crime," said Holderness. "To have this type of thing happen anywhere is very rare. We are contacting most major police departments up and down the West Coast looking for similar situations and haven't found any yet."
There was a machete attack about 100 miles north in the small town of Sutherlin, but police have ruled out any connection.
"Most homicide involves a person who commits the crime with some relationship to the victim," Holderness said. "This might truly be random, which is very unusual for this type of crime. It makes it more likely to put other community members at risk."
A random attack ending with near-decapitation is so rare that investigators have been unable to find an expert, Holderness added. There is not even enough information to develop a profile of the killer.
Friday morning, Jackson County sheriff's Det. Colin Fagan stopped by to look over the killing ground again, hoping that something new might catch his eye. He found a branch lying on the ground, which might have been cut by a big blade before being broken off. But the cut looked old. Fagan stood in a bed of Oregon grape bushes where a killer might have hidden, looked behind a nearby shed, and examined trees for cut marks. Finding none, he drove away.
The attack did not stop joggers and bikers from using the path. David Steinfeld, a forest restoration specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, stopped to look at the shrine while jogging with his two sons: Joel, who works in public relations in Portland, and Logan, an industrial designer in San Francisco.
David Steinfeld said he was making a point of not locking his doors at home, not wanting this apparently random attack to take away the feeling of safety that he loves about Ashland.
Violence on the stage or on TV doesn't put the viewer at risk, added Logan Steinfeld. But real violence in a beautiful local park brings the risk terribly home.