Just before sunset on a recent Sunday, Alfonso Cordoba is the only street vendor left on a highly trafficked corner near 65th Avenue and Berkeley Road in west Phoenix.
Just before sunset on a recent Sunday, Alfonso Cordoba is the only street vendor left on a highly trafficked corner near 65th Avenue and Berkeley Road in west Phoenix.
Cordoba, an amiable-looking man in his 40s, is wearing sensible-looking Teva shoes and a straw hat to keep the last traces of Arizona sunshine out of his eyes. He is the neighborhood elotero, selling fresh corn, esquites, mangos, raspados, and churros out of his oversize mobile food cart.
He is friendly on approach, but also a little jumpy.
He is standing less than a mile from where Manuel Castro Garcia was murdered on June 10, and where Angela Linner, Stefanie Ellis, and Maleah Ellis were ambushed by the Phoenix Serial Street Shooter on June 12. He appears acutely aware of the fact.
“There used to be three or four guys out here in June,” Cordoba says in Spanish. “Now, I’m the only one.”
He goes into the neighborhood to sell every day, from around 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
When asked if he’s aware of a serial shooter in the area, he says he is. He admits he’s a little unnerved.
“Yes, I’m scared,” he says. “But my wife isn’t working right now, and I don’t have any other job. I have to pay bills. What can you do?”
The man that police have dubbed the Phoenix Serial Street Shooter has shot and killed seven people and wounded two since March of this year.
Although the shooter has struck as far east as 32nd Street, the most obvious connection between the killings is geography. Six of the victims were shot and killed in the Maryvale area, a predominantly Latino section of west Phoenix with a reputation for high crime, drugs, and gang-related violence. All the victims have been Latino or African-American.
Over the years, the community of Maryvale has faced almost every imaginable challenge, from shifting demographics to the panic of being branded a cancer cluster, plus all the attendant problems of an aging “inner-ring” suburb.
Now, the question is whether the sprawling village in west Phoenix can survive yet one more trauma: the first serial killer in metro Phoenix in more than a decade, a serial shooter that some residents believe struck again just a few weeks ago in their community.
For many in Maryvale, the challenge in solving this case goes beyond detective work. Community leaders and residents feel ignored and abandoned by police and city leaders. They believe their neighborhood has been underfunded and overlooked, with money and revitalization efforts focusing largely on trendy downtown, midtown, and uptown Phoenix districts. Many in Maryvale are left wondering whether anyone cares about what’s happening in their community — and if they would care more if the Phoenix Serial Street Shooter were targeting a different, more affluent, part of town.
Nancy Peña lives alone in a small, neat apartment in Maryvale, in a newer part of the neighborhood that’s dominated by beige-colored condominiums, office parks, and strip malls.
Peña is slender and pretty, and at the time of our interview, she says she’s feeling a little star-struck.
Chris Hansen, the TV journalist probably best known for the Dateline NBC series “To Catch a Predator,” was recently in her apartment.
Hansen had been there to interview her about her 32-year-old twin brother, Horacio, for a segment on his syndicated daytime TV show called Crime Watch Daily.
“He was so laid-back,” Peña says, about meeting Hansen. “He was funny — he made everything so easy.”
Nancy Peña has been interviewed a lot lately. In recent months, she has been interviewed for the Nancy Grace show, Univision’s newsmagazine Aqui y Ahora, and several local news channels and newspapers.
Normally, she says, she is much more of an introvert. But this has not been a normal year.
Peña’s brother, Horacio, was murdered in front of his family home in Maryvale on the night of June 3, shortly after arriving home from his job at Valley Life, where he worked as a caregiver for people with disabilities.
He was only a few steps away from the safety of the family living room when he was shot nine times in a violent, merciless blast that knocked him off his feet in an instant.
Horacio Peña was the third person killed by the Phoenix Street Serial Shooter this year.
His death didn’t fit any of the stereotypes of a young Latino life cut short in Maryvale. The neighborhood has a reputation as a tough place to grow up, but Peña had no ties to local drug dealers or violent gangs. Instead, his interests included long-distance running, Coyotes hockey, UFC, and his Tumblr blog, called “L4C” — Living for Christ. There, he wrote and published short, inspirational meditations on subjects as diverse as money, destiny, free will, and forgiveness.
He had suffered from mental-health issues in the past, his sister says, but he had conquered his demons in recent years.
One of Nancy Peña’s favorite stories about her brother has to do with the last time she saw him alive. She came down with a stomach virus that day, and decided to stay home from her office job. She took some medication, hoping to sleep off the sickness.
In the afternoon, she woke up in a slight daze to find Horacio standing over her bed. He was about six feet tall, lanky and handsome, looking leaner and fitter than he had in years, thanks to his recently acquired passion for running 5Ks and marathons.
He had stopped by to make sure that his big sister — Nancy was the older sibling by about 30 minutes — was doing okay. Later, she realized Horacio has been “blowing up” her phone all day with texts.
“You weren’t answering your phone, so I was just checking in on you,” Nancy remembers Horacio telling her that afternoon as he stood over her bed. Horacio knew his sister hadn’t been feeling well, and was worried her stomachache had turned into something more serious.
He offered to take Nancy’s 10-year-old son to the local Boys & Girls Club so that she could have more time to rest. The gesture was typical of Horacio, a dedicated uncle (“He never missed any kind of events. Graduations, ballet recitals. He was always there,” Nancy says).
After the two left for the Boys & Girls Club, Nancy sent her brother a thank-you text. He texted back his signature response: a winking smiley face.
It was the last time Nancy would hear from her brother. The next day, she got the call that changed everything: Horacio, a man that investigators would characterize as having no known enemies, had been killed.
Serial murders are different from other crimes. For one thing, an active serial killer in any community is pretty rare. In any given year, according to the FBI, serial murders make up less than one percent of all murders in the U.S.
The popular conception of a serial killer usually involves a loner sociopath who kills for the thrill of it.
As it turns out, the definition is more straightforward than that. Over the years, the FBI has refined the definition to encompass three basic elements: A serial killer is someone who has murdered two or more people, with incidents occurring at separate, distinct times. Crucial to the definition is that there must be a psychological “cooling-off” period between murder incidents.
In metro Phoenix, the threat of an active serial killer is not new. Just about anyone who’s lived in metro Phoenix for a decade or more will remember the city’s so-called “Summer of Fear.” The wave of killings that crashed over the city 10 years ago stands as perhaps the major serial murder case — or cases — of modern Phoenix crime history.
It was nearly 10 years ago that Dale Hausner and Sam Dieteman, and Mark Goudeau, a.k.a. the Baseline Killer, became household names in this city. Hausner and Dieteman stalked the streets of metro Phoenix at night, taking turns pointing shotguns and rifles out of Hausner’s slow-cruising sedan. They shot at least 25 pedestrians, murdered eight people, and killed at least 10 horses and dogs.
In a terrible twist, Goudeau, a.k.a. the Baseline Killer, was terrorizing the streets during the same period. He approached women on foot, often in broad daylight, and abducted them at gunpoint. He raped or murdered his victims, or sometimes both.
These cases notwithstanding, the phenomenon of a homegrown serial killer in metro Phoenix, or in Arizona, is still somewhat rare.
Local historians point to the case of Robert George Apsey as one of the earliest-known serial murder cases in Arizona history. His case is well-documented at the Pinal County Historical Society & Museum, located just a stone’s throw away from the Arizona State Prison in Florence.
Apsey, who earned the nickname of the “Jack Ripper of Ash Creek,” operated a farm out of Aravaipa Creek near Globe. According to Chris Reid, curator at the Pinal County Historical Society, workers at Apsey’s farm were known to mysteriously “disappear.” It turns out that he was burning the bodies — some believe he was roasting them to be eaten.
In Arizona, the most notorious murder cases have not been serial murder cases, but crimes of passion — violence wrought for revenge, jealousy, sex. Or else they have been murders with a more pragmatic tone — killings done for financial gain, escape, or to cover up wrongdoing.
Some of the city’s most notorious crimes are also remembered for the way they cast a harsh light on local law enforcement.
The mass murder of nine Buddhist temple members in 1991 in Waddell, one of the biggest crimes in local history, led to an investigation marred by false confessions and numerous re-trials.
More recently, the Goudeau case has been scrutinized for the mishandling of DNA evidence that may have cracked the case months before it was finally solved in September 2006.
A criminal investigation, of course, is a mystery to everyone but those working it. For now, the question hangs in the air: How long will it take before the Phoenix Street Serial Shooter case is resolved? And would there be more public pressure to solve the crime if the victims had been murdered in, say, Paradise Valley?
Phoenix police spokesman Sgt. Howard says he can’t speak for public concern over the current case.
He says a special task force, assembled back in June, is working day and night on the case.
By all appearances, the Phoenix Serial Street Shooter case is as challenging as they come. The shooter uses different cars to carry out attacks, and few have gotten a close look at the shooter.
The task force, Sgt. Howard says, is comprised of “dozens and dozens” of officers and detectives.
“I can tell you that here in the police department, it is our number-one priority,” Sgt. Howard says. “It’s the first thing I look at in the morning when I get up, and the last thing I’m working on before I go to bed at night.”
For many living in Maryvale, where most of the shootings — and fear — have been concentrated, a resolution can’t come soon enough.
The village of Maryvale is one of Phoenix’s 15 “urban villages,” and also its most populous.
More than 200,000 people live in the long, broad swath of west Phoenix that stretches roughly from 43rd Avenue to the Agua Fria River, sandwiched in between McDowell Road and Camelback Road.
Since its beginning, Maryvale has been a foothold community, a place for working people to find affordable housing, decent schools, clean parks, libraries, and recreational amenities.
Maryvale was the vision of John F. Long, a Phoenix native and military vet who parlayed a small GI Bill loan to become one the largest home builders in postwar America.
He started with one house, which took six months to build, then sold it for a tidy profit of $4,500. He replicated that formula — taking out small loans to cover the costs of building, then selling each house for profit — until he became a full-fledged developer.
Boosted by a loan from Valley Bank, Long fed the hunger for affordable housing, and kept up to demand by using mass-production building techniques. His vision grew more ambitious over time: He had a “master plan” for a community where houses would be interspersed with green spaces, swimming pools, and recreational buildings.
He named his “master plan” Maryvale, after his wife, Mary P. Tolmachoff Long. Her family started Tolmachoff Farms, which is still in operation in Glendale.
The community was built in phases, and grew exponentially. This was a period of intense growth and transition in Phoenix. Agriculture, once the bedrock industry of the Salt River Valley, was giving way to housing developments spurred by mass migration into the city.
Between 1955 and 1960, the population of Maryvale grew from 1,547 to more than 22,000. The Maryvale homes were built on bare fields, the land mapped out spatially in what builders called “subdivisions.”
Eventually, the term “subdivision” would become part of the local vernacular, a way to describe the neat and tidy Phoenix suburbs: ranch houses with square lawns, orderly rows of homes clustered along rounded cul-de-sacs, and curvilinear streets to prevent drivers from speeding through the family-friendly neighborhoods.
Metro Phoenix, in a sense, is the Maryvale model, replicated across acres of farmland and desert. Its allure was its newness and affordability — a familiar theme that has played out, time and again, in the manic growth spurts of suburban Phoenix.
In Maryvale, a family could buy a sturdily built three-bedroom, two-bathroom home for less than $10,000, purchased outright, without the burden of a hefty down payment.
Some had swimming pools, and all were outfitted with the latest electric appliances. In 1958, General Electric spokesman Ronald Reagan visited and toured Maryvale, when the sparkling new community won a recognition award from the corporate giant.
In 1958, Sandra Day O’Connor opened her first private law practice in Maryvale.
To say that Maryvale has changed since the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s would be to put it lightly, says Al DePascal, who is a co-chair of the Maryvale Weed & Seed.
Maryvale Weed & Seed, despite what the name might connote, is a federal community revitalization program launched by the U.S. Department of Justice in the early 1990s. The program was designed to weed out violent crime, gang activity, drug use, and trafficking in targeted communities across the U.S.
Once a month, DePascal and his co-chair, Rudy Nuñez, hold Weed & Seed meetings at the Adam Diaz Senior Center in Maryvale. In the past decade, they’ve organized campaigns to address everything from graffiti to home invasions to a rash of criminal beer runs at local Circle Ks.
“If you were to tell me that the demographics of Maryvale would be 95 percent Mexicans, I would probably say that you were crazy,” DePascal says.
DePascal grew up in the Maryvale of the 1960s, when he says the neighborhood was mostly populated by “cowboys and farmers.”
According to 2010 census statistics, Maryvale is actually closer to 76 percent Latino.
DePascal remembers the first big wave of new residents to come into Maryvale — Latino families, uprooted and displaced from the historic Golden Gate barrio that was demolished to make room for the expansion of Sky Harbor Airport back in the 1970s.
Over the years, many new residents have moved in and out, including immigrants from across Latin America.
Maryvale began to earn a reputation for crime and gang activity in the 1970s. The once-gleaming community began to show its age. Urban blight, lack of investment, and open-air drug markets have been documented in the village since the 1970s.
In the 1970s and 1980s, high rates of childhood leukemia were detected in Maryvale, earning the community a painful reputation as a cancer cluster that persisted well into the 1990s.
But the history of Maryvale is more complicated and interesting than its harsh nickname – Scaryvale – might suggest.
Around City Hall, Maryvale has earned a reputation as one of the most civically engaged sections of Phoenix. This is a part of town where there are more neighborhood block watches – more than 60, according to one ASU study – than Starbucks. According to Sgt. Howard, more than 1,000 community meetings happen in Maryvale every year.
There are grass-roots organizations focused on everything from graffiti clean-up to lobbying for small businesses.
In 1990, the community scored what many viewed as a victory when it won Desert Sky Pavilion (now Ak-Chin Pavilion), which was initially proposed for the north Valley. And in 1998, the neighborhood got its own spring training ballpark, Maryvale Baseball Park.
The crime rate in Maryvale, the thing most outsiders tend to associate the community with, is best described as erratic. Crime rates, according to most reports, have surged and fallen over the past decade, with the overall crime rate falling.
But it’s difficult to make generalizations about crime in the area, although many do, because the village is so large, and Maryvale statistics are sometimes lumped in with other communities. In 2014, the city of Phoenix combined the Maryvale and Estrella Mountain precincts to form the Maryvale Estrella Mountain Precinct, a mega-precinct encompassing 75 square miles of the west and southwest Valley. The consolidation was an attempt to address chronic police shortages; Phoenix police currently remains understaffed by about 600 officers, according to various reports.
By all accounts, though, Maryvale crime rates reached record highs in 2006, followed by a drop in crime around 2008. Police heat maps, though, have shown persistent criminal activity in spots around Maryvale since then.
But the real trouble spot in metro Phoenix, the most crime-dense area in the city since at least 2010, is not in Maryvale. According to Phoenix PD violent crime heat maps, the highest concentration of reported violent crime — including murders, rape, and aggravated assault — has been along the I-17 corridor, particularly in the area east of the freeway on Indian School Road.
Still, according to the latest Phoenix PD community crime maps, Maryvale in 2016 is a significantly more violent place than it was last year. Area crime stats for the Maryvale-Estrella Precinct, which includes Laveen and southwest Phoenix, show that there have been at least 30 homicides so far in 2016 — almost twice the number shown for the same nine-month period in 2015. The majority of the recorded incidents in both years occurred north of Interstate 10, in Maryvale.
DePascal and Nuñez, of Maryvale Weed & Seed, say that police have worked closely with them to help curb crime, and that officers regularly attend their monthly meetings.
They believe that one of the biggest threats facing Maryvale today is a serious case of neglect on behalf of city leaders.
“We’re represented by three city council members: We have Laura Pastor, we have Mike Nowakowski, and then we have Vice Mayor Daniel Valenzuela,” DePascal says. “But yet we’re always left in the dark when it comes to funding and programs.” (Note: Phoenix city councilwoman Kate Gallego took over for Valenzuela as Vice Mayor earlier this year).
“They would rather spend their time downtown, uptown, and in the midtown area — where the money is at. But we’re the ones that actually need help,” he says.
“The only time they ever show up is when the media’s around, and when young kids are getting shot, like right now.”
Nuñez echoes the sentiment: “The inner part of Maryvale is being neglected,” he says. “And it’s not just city council — it’s been very rare to see any of our elected representatives out here.”
For these community leaders, the street shooter case represents a whole new challenge — one that is not as easy to address as graffiti, urban blight, or even violent beer runs.
Nuñez and DePascal say they are painfully aware of the dozens of cold cases that remain unsolved in Maryvale. Nuñez worries that the serial shootings may end up becoming yet another Maryvale cold case.
“This may go on to be another one — these serial shootings,” he says. “And that is the kind of quality of life that we have been legislated. And when I say legislated, that goes back to that lack of concern from our elected and appointed officials.”
“At times, we consider ourselves collateral damage,” he says. “Acceptable collateral damage.”
If you take a walk around some parts of Maryvale on a Sunday afternoon, you might never guess that this is anything but a nice place to live.
Around the Palo Verde Library and Maryvale Recreation Center — two ultra-modern metal-clad structures that are interconnected by a pleasant breezeway — the neighborhood feels as lively and safe as any other part of town. Kids play basketball inside the state-of-the-art gymnasium, and families picnic in the adjacent park.
On certain streets, though, the air feels different.
Not far from where Alfonso Cordoba sells his antojitos every day, a longtime Maryvale resident is living in fear.
Nina Fernandez says that she doesn’t go out after sundown anymore.
Fernandez, who doesn’t want her real name used in this story because she fears for her safety, is a tanned, silvery-haired woman in her 60s. She carries herself with the reserved yet polite bearing of someone who is not accustomed to telling strangers her private fears.
She has lived in the same neat, well-tended Maryvale home for more than 40 years. In that time, she says, she and her husband have seen their west Phoenix neighborhood, situated near 65th Avenue and McDowell Road, go through good times and bad. But in all the decades she’s lived here, she cannot recall ever feeling so scared.
The fear and paranoia began to mount more than a month ago, on the night of Sunday, August 28. That’s when Fernandez says that she and her daughter witnessed a shooting in their Maryvale neighborhood.
Shootings are not unheard of in her neighborhood; Fernandez and her neighbors have heard the pop of gunfire before.
But this shooting, Fernandez believes, was the work of the man — or men — that have terrorized the neighborhood since late spring. She believes she and her daughter were recent targets of the Phoenix Serial Street Shooter.
The shooting occurred a little after 10 p.m., she says, just after she and her daughter pulled into their driveway. She was getting out of the car, when Fernandez says she noticed an older model sedan driving toward them.
It looked like a grayish Buick, possibly a model from the ’70s. She remembers getting an uneasy feeling as the car’s headlights drew closer. It felt, she says, as if the vehicle had been parked and waiting for them to come along.
In what seemed like a split second, gunfire erupted from the sedan. It was something like eight to 12 shots, says Fernandez, one right after another, a rapid-fire pop-pop-pop.
There were at least two people in the car, but she was too far away to get a look at their faces. The person shooting was seated in the passenger’s seat.
Fernandez says she dove into the opened back seat of her car. Her daughter took cover behind some trash cans in the driveway. The shooter, if he was aiming at them, missed.
The car then sped down her street, stopped at an intersection about 200 yards from her house, and then made a sudden, wild U-turn. The car stayed frozen for a few seconds, she says, as if contemplating whether to return to the scene of the shooting. But it sped away.
“They were gonna come back to finish the job,” Fernandez says.
Fernandez credits her adult son, who was inside the house when the shooting began, with scaring off the shooter. He came outside upon hearing the commotion.
According to Fernandez, her son sounded a warning call to the neighborhood. “My son seen the car turning around,” Fernandez says. “And he yelled, ‘Get inside your houses! Get inside now!’”
Fernandez’s daughter called 911, and three patrol cars and a police helicopter descended on the neighborhood. According to Fernandez, the police found spent shell casings scattered on the street in front of a neighbor’s house.
New Times reached out to Phoenix police to confirm Fernandez’s account of that night, but did not receive a response or statement. There are no media reports of a shooting happening on her street on that date.
But Fernandez’s neighbors bear out her account. Four of her neighbors say they heard the gunshots that night, and remember hearing Fernandez’s son yelling for people to take cover inside.
Whether the shooting is connected in any way to the Phoenix Serial Shooter case remains unknown. But for Fernandez, it doesn’t seem to matter.
The shooting that night was just another reminder of the violence and uncertainty that has gripped her neighborhood for months.
One of Fernandez’s neighbors, who also does not want her name used in this story, recalls hearing the pop of gunfire that night. She says she’s also been on edge.
“We don’t go out after dark anymore unless we really have to,” she says. “We are too scared.”
Fernandez says she is frustrated that police have not alerted more neighbors about the shooting on her street.
In the mornings, while tending her lawn, she sometimes warns the middle-schoolers that pass her house on their way to the local bus stop. She tells them to be careful, that there is an active shooter on the loose, and to tell their parents.
“A lot of them don’t know this happened,” she says. “The problem is, only if somebody gets killed are you on the news.”
Her neighborhood desperately needs more police presence, she says. Fernandez and her neighbors live less than a half-mile from where four of the shootings have occurred.
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Nineteen-year-old Manuel Castro Garcia was killed just down the street from where Fernandez and her husband live.
“I know they’re trying to do their best. But the thing is, just because we’re not on the Anglo side of town, you know, doesn’t mean that they should not be patrolling,” she says. “We need as much protection as anybody.”
“It’s not right, what’s happening,” she says later, shaking her head. “Everybody’s very hard-working around here. What people have here is because they worked hard for it.”