VALLEY SPRINGS, Calif. —(KTVU: Ken Wayne-AP-FOX11)
A region of oak-studded hills in California, where big-city dwellers come to get away from crime, was on lockdown on Monday, two days after a mysterious intruder stabbed an 8-year-old girl to death at home before being spotted by her 12-year-old brother.
With the suspect still on the loose, some of the kids in this enclave nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills were hunkering down after school at James Barci's ranch.
"Nobody is staying alone," said Barci, a truck driver and parent volunteer at Jenny Lind School, where victim Leila Fowler was a popular third-grader. "I told my work I'm not coming in, and I'm just going to have all of my kids' friends at the house until this is over."
The apparently random attack has the tightknit community on edge. Parents such as Barci spontaneously showed up Monday at the school of 500 students to give hugs or tie purple and pink ribbons — Leila's favorite colors — to trees on campus.
In a pastoral place where fat horses swish their tails in knee-high grass and few people had ever bothered to lock their doors, residents now say their guns are loaded and they aren't afraid to use them.
"My husband wanted me to put one in my car so I'd have it in my hand when I entered the house," Tabatha Camden said as she dropped off a neighbor's children at the school. "I drew the line at that. We've always had one gun loaded in the house at all times, but now we have four."
The Calaveras County Sheriff's Office has released little information about the killing other than a vague description of a man with long gray hair who fled when the boy confronted him. Calaveras County Deputy Coroner Steve Moore said the girl died from multiple stab wounds.
The Fowler family's hillside street is blocked off as a crime scene, since nobody knows for sure yet how the intruder arrived or where he went.
Violent crime is so rare in the community of 7,400 people that even law enforcement officers have to stop and think when asked about the last time there was a stranger killing in the area.
"Probably five years ago was the last one I can remember," said Officer Rebecca Myers of the California Highway Patrol, who was assigned to block access to the neighborhood of one-acre ranchettes.
The killing of the little girl known for her sweet smile, generous hugs and friendly demeanor has hit the community hard. It's a place where parents read about tragedies in other places and give thanks that they live in Calaveras County, which makes the news only when the jumping frog contest celebrated by Mark Twain is taking place at the county fair.
"I don't know how our children are going to adjust to this," said Kathryn Danielli, who moved here from Stockton with her sixth-grade daughter to escape crime.
Danielli was among about 20 parents who drove their children to school then stayed to lend support. Sheriff's deputies patrolled the area and sheriff's volunteers stood guard at the entrance.
"Everybody up here who has kids moved up here because your kids can go outside and play," said Kim Hoeke, who moved from Antioch in the San Francisco Bay area seven years ago.
Calaveras Unified School District Superintendent Mark Campbell said at least two therapy dogs and 10 counselors were on hand for students, teachers and staff to guide them through the grieving process.
Campbell said he met with Leila's parents Monday when they came to the school to thank teachers and staff for the support they had offered since learning their daughter had been killed.
The parents, who have not been named by authorities, were at a Little League game at the time their daughter was attacked, Campbell said.
He said Leila's brother found her and notified the father, who called 911 and went home.
The parents have not made any public statements.
Sherri Reusche, a school board trustee whose daughter is in class with Leila's brother, said her daughter is having a tough time after the killing.
"They are too young to process something like this," Reusche said.
Part of the school-guided grieving process included classrooms taking turns writing notes to Leila and hanging them on the fence at the entrance to the school. They came in somber groups and attached their notes one by one.
"Dear Leila: You were a fun person and very smart. I enjoyed being around you every minute," one girl wrote.
"I know you are in heaven looking down at us but you will always be in my heart," wrote another.
Sheriff's deputies have advised residents to lock their doors and keep an eye out for the attacker. Campbell said officers will be at least the school at until this case is resolved.
The suspect is the subject of a broad manhunt by the sheriff's departments of Calaveras and surrounding counties, the California Highway Patrol and the state Department of Justice. Sheriff's officials say investigators collected fingerprints and what they believe is DNA from the home on Sunday.
"Our normal has changed and we will move forth and heal by coming together, as we all are here today," said Linda Stoes, whose daughter dressed in purple Monday to honor her friend. "Our perspectives have changed forever."