Sixty small white candles illuminated the steps of Stockton’s City Hall on Wednesday night to remember six men who were fatally shot in a series of killings in Stockton and one in Oakland.
Police said the string of shootings from April 2021 to September of this year have been linked by ballistics and claimed the lives of Juan Vasquez Serrano, Paul Yaw, Salvador Debudey Jr., Jonathan Hernandez Rodriguez, Juan Carlos Carranza-Cruz, and Lawrence Lopez.
A suspect, Wesley Brownlee, 43, of Stockton, was arrested last weekend in connection with the deaths. Brownlee was charged Tuesday with three counts of murder, one count of possession of a firearm by a felon, and one count of possession of ammunition by a felon, according to the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office.
The vigil Wednesday evening began with Mayor Kevin Lincoln, Stockton Police Chief Stanley McFadden, San Joaquin County District Attorney-elect Ron Freitas and San Joaquin County Sheriff Patrick Withrow thanking the victims of the families for being present and giving condolences for the lives lost.
“Thank you for your courage and your strength during this very difficult and challenging season,” Lincoln said. “Thank you for believing and trusting in your community, and those that have been elected and appointed to serve each and every one of you … My heart is with you, your city is with each and every one of you.”
While officials spoke, some of the victims’ families held photos of their loved ones close while others cried, looking down at the posters displaying the faces of the victims.
“Thank you for your courage and your strength during this very difficult and challenging season.”Stockton Mayor Kevin Lincoln
“This is very, very, very hard for me, this is the hardest thing anybody can ever go through is losing your son or your daughter to violence,” Lopez’s mother, Pauline Lopez, said in a low shaky voice. “He was a wonderful person, he would have given his shirt off his back to anybody.”
According to Lopez’s nieces, the family found out that their uncle had been killed because someone had left a note on their grandmother’s door informing them what had happened. Lopez’s family said their family member was unhoused at the time of his death.
Four of the seven victims of the shootings were Hispanic, and some were unhoused at the time of the killings, according to police.
Waiting for justice
In the back of the crowd watching was Natasha LaTour, the only known survivor of the serial killings. LaTour was shot multiple times on April 16, 2021, at Park and Union streets, according to police.
LaTour attended the court arraignment Tuesday and said she was angry that so far there are no charges for what happened to her.
However, District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar said an attempted murder charge against the suspect is still awaiting pending evidence.
The district attorney’s office said additional charges are expected against Brownlee, but that he can only be charged with three counts of murder based upon current evidence.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said Brownlee had been sentenced in January 1999 to two years in prison in Alameda County for possession of a controlled substance for sale.
Brownlee was released on parole in August 1999, but he was convicted again in 2001 in Alameda County for transporting and selling a controlled substance.
State prison officials said he was sentenced to three years, paroled in May 2003, and was discharged from parole in May 2006.
Salazar said Brownlee was a truck driver who had moved to Stockton this past summer.
Brownlee was stopped by officers about 2 a.m. on Oct. 15 in the area of Village Green Drive and Winslow Avenue in Stockton before being taken into custody, McFadden said.
Police said he was wearing dark clothing, a mask around his neck and allegedly had a firearm at the time of his arrest.
In court it was revealed that Brownlee was arrested with an unserialized ‘ghost gun’.
He was told by the judge that the minimum punishment if convicted would be life in prison without the possibility of parole and the maximum punishment would be death.
Victoria Franco is a reporter based in Stockton covering San Joaquin County for Bay City News Foundation and its nonprofit news site Local News Matters. She is a Report for America corps member.