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updated: 4/30/2013 10:50 AM

Rural Calif. town on edge as girl's killer sought

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  • Patrick Foley, head custodian at Jenny Lind Elementary School, puts up a sign about a candlelight vigil to be help for Leila Fowler, in Valley Springs, Calif., Monday, April 29, 2013. Authorities are searching for the killer of Fowler, 8, a third-grader at Jenny Lind, who was found dead by her 12-year-old brother in the family's Valley Springs home Saturday.

      Patrick Foley, head custodian at Jenny Lind Elementary School, puts up a sign about a candlelight vigil to be help for Leila Fowler, in Valley Springs, Calif., Monday, April 29, 2013. Authorities are searching for the killer of Fowler, 8, a third-grader at Jenny Lind, who was found dead by her 12-year-old brother in the family's Valley Springs home Saturday.
    Associated Press

  • Teacher Cecilia Richardson helps a student tie a ribbon honoring murder victim, third-grader Leila Fowler, at Jenny Lind Elementary School in Valley Springs, Calif., Monday April 29, 2013. Authorities are searching for the killer of Fowler, 8, who was found by her 12-year-old brother in the family's Valley Springs home Saturday.

      Teacher Cecilia Richardson helps a student tie a ribbon honoring murder victim, third-grader Leila Fowler, at Jenny Lind Elementary School in Valley Springs, Calif., Monday April 29, 2013. Authorities are searching for the killer of Fowler, 8, who was found by her 12-year-old brother in the family's Valley Springs home Saturday.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

VALLEY SPRINGS, Calif. -- A region of oak-studded hills in California, where big-city dwellers come to get away from crime, remained on edge Tuesday, three days after an 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.

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"Nobody is staying alone," said Barci, a truck driver and parent volunteer at Jenny Lind Elementary 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.

Later Monday, authorities identified the girl's parents while also saying a witness saw a person running from the family home that had a similar description of a man who ran from the home when the girl's brother confronted him.

Calaveras County Sheriff Gary Kuntz said it appears the unknown intruder intended to attack Leila, and her slaying did not stem from a botched robbery or other crime, the Modesto Bee reported.

In a hastily called news conference, Calaveras County sheriff's Capt. Jim Macedo identified the father of Leila Fowler as Barney Fowler and the mother as Krystal Walters.

The names of the parents hadn't previously been released.

As Macedo spoke, Fowler and Walters -- both solemn and declining to speak, and with Walters near tears at times -- stood in the background. Macedo said Leila's parents wanted to convey their requests that their privacy be respected, but also that a memorial fund had been set up for their daughter. A vigil is also planned for Tuesday night.

No suspects have been named, but officials said a second witness saw someone with a description similar to one provided by Leila's brother of a man who ran from the home when the boy confronted him.

Investigators have also checked registered sex offenders in the area and parolees.

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.

"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 sheriff's office has released little information about the killing other than a vague description of a man with long gray hair. 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 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.

The parents were at a Little League game at the time their daughter was attacked, Campbell said. Leila's brother found her and notified the father, who called 911 and went home, he 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.

Campbell said officers will have a presence at the school at until the 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."

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