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.