PHOENIX, AZ — Lupe Alfonso has been plagued by nightmares ever since the murders began. Just the other night, the 55-year-old grandmother woke up in a panic at 2 a.m., having dreamt the man — people around here are now calling him the Maryvale Serial Killer — was outside with a gun. Terrified, Alfonso jumped out of bed, switched on her backyard lights, and shouted “Who’s there?! Who’s there?!”
No one was — it was just her neighbor’s dogs rummaging around in the yard. Her heart still pounding in her chest, Alfonso triple-checked that the front door was locked, made sure her two adult children and eight-year-old grandson were safe, and crawled back into bed.
In Phoenix, a serial shooter is on the loose. Since March 17, police say the killer — who is described as a white or Hispanic male in his 20s with a lanky build — has attacked nine times, murdering seven people and injuring two more. The victims have been Latino and African American, and all the homicides remain unsolved. The killer often strikes at night, picking people off as they walk down the street or stand in front of their homes.
The victims appear to have been chosen at random — males and females, ranging in age from four to 55. The attack that has received the most publicity, because one of the victims was a child, happened on June 12. That day, 33-year-old Stefanie Ellis was sitting in a red Chevrolet Cobalt parked outside of her house with her 12-year-old daughter, Maleah, and a friend, Angela Linner, 31, chatting and listening to music. Police say that around 3 a.m., a man opened fire. Stefanie was hit 14 times. All three were killed.
Though police have not released a motive, they say the killer’s method has been consistent: The shooter arrives in a car, sometimes in a black BMW or Cadillac, and draws a handgun. Sometimes he stays in the car, other times he exits. Then, he fires multiple rounds and flees the scene. On Tuesday, police announced they retrieved bullet casings from three of the crime scenes.
Sgt. Jon Howard, an officer in the Phoenix Police Department, says police have been able to link the shootings with both physical and circumstantial evidence, but declined to provide more details — including the specific type of weapon being used — citing the ongoing investigation. The department has received close to 1,000 tips, but they have not led to any substantial leads, he says.
“It’s still an active threat,” Howard says. “This is priority number one for us.”
The most prominent link tying the killings together is geography. Six of the victims have been killed in Maryvale, a predominantly Latino neighborhood situated just off the I-10 freeway in West Phoenix. Since the 1980’s, high crime rates and gang violence have beset this desert neighborhood.
Still, in many respects, Maryvale is a typical, working-class American neighborhood: There are city parks, low-slung apartment complexes, and big-box retail stores. The community’s population hovers around 200,000, and about 40 percent of the residents are under the age of 20. Children’s toys are splayed out in driveways and dusty front yards.
In the summer, Phoenix is scorching. In early August, mid-afternoon temperatures pushed past 110 degrees, turning any bit of shade into a coveted piece of real estate. It’s so hot that when one turns on the cold water faucet, warm water comes out. Most residents, if they can, stay indoors until the sun has set, when the air cools off and neighborhoods finally come to life.
It’s then — the evenings — when people spill out into yards and sidewalks to play and socialize. Some have barbecues; others chat with neighbors or tinker with car engines. On most summer nights, children are out in their front yards, squealing with delight or riding bicycles and playing games in the street.
Lately, however, Maryvale has felt like a ghost town when the sun goes down. There are no more block parties, no more kids riding bicycles in the streets. Barbecues that were once placed in front yards have been moved to backyards. The streets are virtually empty.
“It’s that boogeyman feeling,” said Lleana Frausto, Alfonso’s 31-year-old daughter, sitting in the living room of the family’s home. “You know like when you’re a little kid and you want to run and turn the lights on real quick because you think something’s chasing you? That’s the feeling you get when you come out of your car to go into the house.”
“It’s like you’re a sitting duck,” adds her mother, Lupe Alfonso.
You know like when you’re a little kid and you want to run and turn the lights on real quick because you think something’s chasing you? That’s the feeling you get when you come out of your car to go into the house.”
In response to the threat, Alfonso’s family has begun arming themselves. Alfonso now carries a sharpened, six-inch aluminum dagger, designed for fending off attackers, on her keychain. It was given to her by her 33-year-old son, Vito, who says he sleeps with his own baton in his bed. Vito’s wife, Carla Bishop, sleeps near a sword. On a recent Monday evening, the family sat in their living room discussing whether or not they should buy a gun.
“I’m gonna try and get one,” Alfonso announces, noting that her brother now carries a pistol.
“I’m all for that,” her son, Vito replies. “You gotta take those classes first, though.”
“I would go for a handgun, because I’d like to carry it [around with me],” Alfonso says.
“If I was to get a gun, it’d be a shotgun,” Vito replies. “The sound would be enough to deter him. I don’t want to kill nobody. ”
Bill Carter, the owner of B & D guns in nearby Glendale, says he’s seen a moderate increase in gun sales recently, but he doesn’t attribute the uptick to the Maryvale shooter. Instead, he credits politics with boosting with boosting his business, which he’s owned for the last 28 years. Arizona has loose gun laws, and Carter believes that gun owners are stocking up on weapons in advance of a possible victory by Hillary Clinton, who has vowed to enact gun reforms.
Standing in front of a $749 Smith and Wesson MP-15 with a holstered pistol at his side, Carter smokes Kool cigarettes as he reflected on the need for personal protection. “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” Carter says. “Not a bible. Not a prayer.”
Even before the shooter came to Maryvale, the neighborhood and its surrounding area experienced some of the highest crime rates in all of Phoenix. According to 2016 police data, there have been 732 incidents of violent crime in Phoenix’s 5th District, where Maryvale is located. From January to June, there have been 16 homicides. Daniel Ruelas, a 16-year-old Maryvale high school student, says he hasn’t always felt safe in the neighborhood, but the recent shootings have brought anxieties to a new level. Sitting under the blistering Arizona sun at a skate park on a recent Sunday afternoon, Ruelas said his father no longer allows him to walk or skate the few blocks home from the park, and instead comes to pick him up. “It’s depressing,” he says. “You can’t leave your house no more because it’s not safe out there. You gotta be home before the sun goes down. You gotta be home by like six. You just can’t trust no one.”
But some people don’t have the luxury of going indoors. Rob, a 30-year-old man originally from South Los Angeles, said he came to Phoenix two years ago to escape the city’s violence. For the past month, he says he’s been sleeping on a picnic table in El Oso park in Maryvale, close to where the shootings have happened. It’s no longer the police that scare him, he says. It’s the shooter.
“It worries me,” he says.
Concepcion Flores, a 33-year-old mother of five, lives across the street from where Manuel “Manny” Castro Garcia, 19, was gunned down on the evening of June 10. In an obituary, Garcia’s family described Manny as a “gentle giant” who loved to play pranks on his family.
The night Garcia was killed, Flores was inside her home watching a movie with her children who range in age from 3 to 15. Initially, Flores thought the gunshots were fireworks, until her husband ran inside to say that someone had just been shot.
“Before, I used to let my older ones walk into the park, and they would come back around 8 p.m.” Flores says, standing in front of her home. “I don’t let them go anymore. It’s not safe for them.”
Flores’ 14-year-old son, Ramon, says he used to play soccer in front of his home, but now he kicks the ball around in the backyard. “But if I kick the ball over the fence,” Ramon says, “I don’t go and get it,” he says.
Less than a mile away on West Flower Street, brothers Paul and Steven Moore, ages 51 and 63, live across the street from where Horacio de Jesus Pena was shot and killed on June 3.
Pena, 32, had just returned home from work at Valley Life, a nonprofit that assists individuals with disabilities. That night, he cooked a dinner for adults with cerebral palsy. He talked to them about the importance of eating vegetables. As he got out of his car, the killer drove up and fired multiple rounds with a handgun, leaving Pena to bleed to death on the blacktop while the killer drove off, according to police.
“They have no idea who it is,” said Paul Moore, noting that neither he nor his brother walks their dog after dark anymore. “That’s what’s worrying. We’re big targets.”
At any given time in the U.S., there are between 25 and 50 active serial killers, according to John Douglas, a former chief of the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. Serial shootings are not uncommon. Since 1900, more than 4,000 serial killers have killed more than 11,000 people, according to researchers at Radford University and Florida Gulf Coast University. Forty-two percent of the victims were shot.
Sgt. Howard of the Phoenix Police Department says the department is doing everything in its power to track down the Maryvale shooter. In June, the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives began assisting the Phoenix police department in the investigation. Howard says that there are “dozens” of extra police patrols in Maryvale and “dozens” more investigators assigned to this case.
He says he hopes residents come forward with any information about the killer, and he’s urging urging people to stay vigilant.
Police have released a sketch of the suspected shooter, but they have not said anything about his possible motivation. Some in the community have drawn parallels to a series of attacks on I-10 in the Phoenix area in 2005 and 2006, when two men, Dale Hausner and Samuel Dieteman, randomly shot at pedestrians, cyclists, and dogs, killing eight people. Police never determined a specific motive.
Not surprisingly, Maryvale residents are formulating their own theories about why someone is terrorizing their community. Some believe he’s specifically targeting African Americans and Latinos. Others believe he might be connected to ISIS. Some think he’s simply a lunatic with a gun.
Steven Pitt, a forensic psychiatrist based in Scottsdale who studies serial killers and has been following the Maryvale slayings, says it is “irresponsible” to guess at the killer’s motivations. However, he says it’s very possible the shooter lives in the Maryvale neighborhood. “This particular offender is operating in an area of town that he’s obviously very comfortable with,” Pitt says.
Pitt warns that cases like this can be slow to solve. “I think that television and film have done a disservice to these types of investigations because everybody thinks that you simply pull down surveillance video and facial recognition software, and just like that, you find your guy,” says Pitt. “The reality is that this is a complex investigation with a lot of moving parts.”
Some residents have taken a proactive approach to find the killer. Mike Upchurch, the Phoenix chapter leader of the Guardian Angels, recently led a patrol of about 20 volunteers through the Maryvale streets. The group handed out flyers with the suspect’s description, and urged people to get in touch with police if they had any tips.
Church, a 50-year-old mechanic, said the group’s intention is twofold: to help police find the killer, and provide a physical presence that calms people’s nerves.“We want the community to be safer and to feel safer,” he says.
Residents remain on edge. Vito Frausto, Alfonso’s son, admits he struggles with stress and fear on daily basis.
“I wake up in a cold sweat,” he says. “I check the locks. I check if everyone is OK. I feel like I’m in a daze. I feel like I’m kind of turning into a zombie. I just want him to get caught. Or something to stop. I just want it to end.”
Those with information about the case should contact Silent Witness at 480-W-I-T-N-E-S-S (480-948-6377), or call toll-free at 800-343-TIPS. There is a $50,000 reward for information that leads to the shooter’s capture.
[All photographs by Brandon Sullivan for The Trace]