VALLEY SPRINGS, Calif. (AP) — The father of a 12-year-old boy accused of fatally stabbing his 8-year-old sister said Monday he will believe his son is innocent until he sees evidence that proves otherwise.
Barney Fowler told The Associated Press the family is backing the boy, who was arrested Saturday after a crime that terrified this Central California foothill community.
"Until they have the proper evidence to show it's my son, we're standing behind him," Fowler said. "If they have the evidence, well that's another story. We're an honest family."
The boy told investigators on April 27 that he encountered a random attacker in the family home while his father was attending a Little League game. He described the man as tall with long gray hair.
The boy said the man fled on foot and he found his sister, Leila Fowler, bleeding.
Leila's death set off an intense manhunt in the rural community where some residents had moved to escape big city crime. The Calaveras County Sheriff's Office spent more than 2,000 man-hours amassing evidence and searching door-to-door.
Residents of the rural community began locking their doors and calling authorities when they thought they saw men who fit the description.
They also held fundraisers for the Fowler family and turned out by the thousands for a candlelight vigil in Leila's honor.
"We're thankful to the community and all they've done for my daughter," Barney Fowler said.
He echoed comments made earlier Monday by his son, Justin Fowler, 19, who told the AP the family was in shock and extremely sad about the boy's arrest.
"We're just in a fog," Justin Fowler said.
Rumors began spreading last week around town that the 12-year-old was a suspect. The AP is withholding his name because he is a juvenile.
"I know there were a bunch of rumors going around saying it could possibly be him but nobody wanted to say that he could do that," said Maureen Lourenco, whose children attend middle school with the boy. "I have a 12-year-old son and my daughter's 14 and I just can't fathom them doing that."
Residents say the Fowlers are good neighbors who never caused any problems. Now after fearing for weeks that a random intruder had committed a heinous crime in their midst, they're dealing with another kind of reality.
"To kill a little girl? Eight years old? I don't understand how" they handle that, neighbor Arturo Magallon said.
People across the mountain community were relieved there had been an arrest, and the crime did not appear to be the work of an intruder.
"I see a lot of people now starting to walk again like it used to be before," Magallon said.
Investigators initially maintained the boy was being questioned only as a witness.
The Fowler family is now trying to cope with what could be a double tragedy.
"We're just trying to stay positive, but it's hard," Justin Fowler said.
Days after his sister's killing, the 12-year-old brother appeared at a vigil for her. Justin was photographed with the name "Leila" written on his forearm. Barney Fowler attended with his fiance, Krystal Walters.
"We're a strong family," Barney Fowler said Monday. "We're staying strong."
On Monday, counselors were talking to the siblings' classmates at Toyon Middle School.
"Our kids are experiencing a lot of mixed emotions," said Superintendent Mark Campbell. "We have a degree of ease that it's not a random assailant, but it's a double whammy from our school perspective. We lost a student and we stand to lose another. It's a lot for our kids to process."
Barney Fowler had said he planned to address the media Tuesday at the sheriff's substation in Valley Springs, but sheriff's officials said in a brief statement late Monday that the news conference was canceled.