SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (AP) — In this tolerant beach town where a mayor once hosted a medical marijuana giveaway and cars sport "Keep Santa Cruz Weird" bumper stickers, there is a growing concern among residents that their laidback city is being gripped by an escalating, violent-crime wave.
The rise of seemingly random attacks, including the killings of two police detectives on Tuesday, is bringing back memories for some residents of the early 1970s when Santa Cruz was dubbed "Murderville, USA," after three mass-killers murdered 23 people.
"This is crazy, because all of a sudden there are lots of random crimes, bizarre things happening," said Deborah Elston, a co-founder of the advocacy group Santa Cruz Neighbors.
There's no simple explanation for the rise, but public safety has become a top focus. It was the priority for the winners in local elections and the 157-year-old Santa Cruz Sentinel filled an entire page Thursday with readers' letters calling the police shooting a wake-up call.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office officials said police detectives Sgt. Loran "Butch" Baker and Elizabeth Butler had been shouting with Jeremy Goulet through his closed front door for about 10 minutes, trying to get "his side of the story" about accusations of misdemeanor sexual assault, when he burst out of another door and surprised them. He opened fire with a .45-caliber handgun legally registered to him.
"The detectives had absolutely no chance to protect themselves or return fire," said Sheriff Phil Wowak, his eyes red with exhaustion and tears. "They barely had time to turn and run."
A memorial is planned for next Thursday in Santa Cruz, with thousands of mourners expected.
Wowak said police are only now learning that Goulet had been arrested many times for sex-related crimes. The former soldier had also served two years in prison for carrying a gun without a concealed weapon permit and invasion of personal privacy.
When police killed him in a shootout, he had the detectives' guns, Baker's bulletproof vest, a passport and an airplane ticket to New Mexico.
Even before the detectives were killed, there were other crimes that have frightened residents in the coastal city of 60,000 about 70 miles south of San Francisco.
February alone saw the downtown killing of a popular martial arts instructor, an attack at a bus stop that left a young woman with a bullet lodged in her skull, an armed robbery at a small health food store and a home invasion in which assailants threatened the residents with a sword.
The crime statistics also show an increase, albeit small. There were three murders in 2012, up from one in 2011. Reported rapes increased by 38 percent to 33 cases, from 24. Arson reports rose more than 75 percent, to 21 from 12.
There had been hope for a turnaround. The police department, after five years of budget cuts, recently announced that it had returned to full staffing in a city that draws more than a million annual visitors for its boardwalk, redwood forests and beaches.
On Tuesday, the Committee Against Gun Violence was setting up a rally at the Town Clock when two patrol cars screamed past, followed by emergency vehicles rushing to a quiet, residential neighborhood. As activists began their anti-violence speeches, police chased Goulet, guns drawn.