Hunting for Humans in Stockton

Wesley Brownlee booking photo, courtesy of Stockton Police Department

Stockton residents have spent the past six months afraid to walk out of their front door. Especially at night. Since April 21, 2022, a man wearing a black mask has gunned down seven seemingly random people in the early morning hours. He shot one in a park; another in an apartment complex’s parking lot. Another victim lay dead inside his parked car. Six people died, and the survivor was seriously injured. Based on ballistics, the same perpetrator was also suspected of shooting and killing a man in Oakland in April 2021.

Here is a timeline of events:

  • April 10, 2021: Juan Vasquez Serrano, 39, was shot multiple times in Oakland, California, at about 4:15 a.m. Three daughters, ages ten to seventeen, are now without a father.
  • April 16, 2021: Forty-six-year-old Natasha LaTour told law enforcement that she was in her tent in Stockton around 3 a.m. when she heard noises and went outside to investigate. Without saying a word to her, a man wearing dark clothes, a hood, and a black face mask shot her several times. She was lucky to survive.
  • July 8, 2022: Thirty-five-year-old Paul Yaw was ambushed at a park. He left behind a young son, William, and a devastated mom.
  • August 11, 2022: Forty-three-year-old Salvador Debudey Jr. was shot in a parking lot just before 10:00 p.m. He was a father of a fourteen-year-old daughter and a wife of twelve years.
  • August 30. 2022: Twenty-one-year-old Stockton native Jonathan Hernandez Rodriguez, the youngest victim, was gunned down while sitting inside his car at 6:41 a.m.
  • September 21, 2022: Juan Cruz, 52, was fatally shot in his car at an apartment complex. His devastated mother set up a memorial near the parking spot where he died.
  • September 27, 2022: Fifty-four-year-old Lawrence “Lorenzo” Lopez was shot in a residential area just north of downtown, leaving behind grieving parents and six children aged sixteen to thirty-eight.

Some things about the crimes were consistent. They took place within a relatively small radius of downtown Stockton. All the victims were alone in poorly lit areas with no surveillance cameras when they were murdered. None of the victims were assaulted or beaten.

But why these victims? Investigators struggled to find any connection between the victims. They didn’t know each other. As far as they could tell, they had no shared friends or acquaintances.

Profilers wondered if the connection was more direct; five victims were Hispanic men. Were these hate crimes? Most victims were unhoused. Did he have some kind of vendetta against the homeless? Could these be mission-oriented serial kills, i.e., the motive behind them being the desire to target and eliminate a particular group?

The mystery might soon be over. Around 2:00 a.m. on Saturday, October 15, forty-three-year-old Wesley Brownle e was arrested for the serial shootings in Stockton over the past six months.

During a press conference, Police said the credit for his arrest goes to a combination of “community tips and good, old-fashioned police work.” They also noted that they thought he was trolling for his next victim based on his suspicious behavior the night he was arrested and the fact that he was carrying a gun.

He will be arraigned in court on Tuesday, October 18. He will also likely face charges with the 2021 Oakland murder.

Here’s What We Think We Know About Wesley Brownlee

Brownlee was born in San Francisco. He grew up in an apartment in Oakland until he and his mother moved to Stockton when he was eighteen. His parents lived together on and off for sixteen years but split up when Brownlee was in his early teens.

In May 1994, two weeks before his fifteenth birthday, Brownlee and two other teenagers were hauled into police headquarters on suspicion of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl. Brownlee denied involvement in the sexual assault and blamed it on his two friends. His mother supported him, insisting that the victim didn’t finger Brownlee until her second interview with Police. He was never convicted.

In October 1995, when Brownlee was sixteen years old, his seventeen-year-old brother, Dale, was shot and killed in what Police called a “drug-related” killing. Dale’s close friend, eighteen-year-old Kojo Upshaw, had been stabbed to death at the same location six months earlier. According to court records, Wesley Brownlee became so depressed over his brother’s death that his mother sought out mental health treatment for him.

Brownlee also appears to have had some intellectual vulnerabilities. He was reportedly diagnosed with a learning disability in elementary school and dropped out of high school as a junior. A probation officer’s report authored by a juvenile probation officer when Brownlee was in his mid-teens mentions that Brownlee suffered from “innate mental limitation.” It is unclear what evidence this latter statement is based on.

Six months after his brother died, Brownlee was arrested on suspicion of selling crack cocaine. He was placed on house arrest with a curfew. In 1997, at age 18, Brownlee was arrested and charged with possessing 67 bindles of crack cocaine. Again, he received a three-year probation term. His luck ran out in 1998 after he sold cocaine to an undercover cop. He was convicted and sentenced to two years in state prison. He did his time in San Quentin.

In 2014, Brownlee was arrested again for selling crack cocaine just one block from where his brother had died nearly twenty years earlier. It was less than a mile away from where Vasquez Serrano was shot and killed in 2021. He pleaded no contest and received jail time and three years probation.

What Stands Out

The case against Wesley Brownlee is evolving. We don’t know all the facts. It’s hard to separate rumor from the truth, especially when trying to get a sense of an accused perpetrator’s background. Virtually everything is tainted by the crimes of which he is accused.

I have never evaluated this defendant nor talked to anyone who knows him. But two things strike me in the court documents released so far. One is the seeming disconnect between what Brownlee wants and what he can achieve. For example, he tells his juvenile probation officer that he wants to attend college for computer science and earn a basketball scholarship with the hopes of one day playing in the NBA. Neither of these seems viable, given his dropping out of high school and his difficulty with academic subjects. In one report, his probation officer remarks, “He seems either unable or unwilling to assume meaningful responsibility for himself. He appears to have difficulty settling into any kind of positive activity.”

The other is that his criminal history — while concerning — certainly doesn’t scream “future serial murderer.” We don’t see a steady progression from simple assaults to more serious ones to murder. Forty-three is old to start a career as a serial killer; are there murders we don’t know about?

So why did police zero in on this suspect?

What’s the Evidence Against Him?

Law enforcement has cited video evidence and ballistics tests as evidence of Brownlee’s guilt. Once Brownlee appeared on investigators’ radar (due to community tips), a surveillance team began following him whenever he got behind the wheel. They noted his behavioral patterns were eerily similar to previous reconnaissance and attacks. They also say that when he was arrested, Brownlee was wearing dark clothing, a black surgical mask around his neck, and was carrying a gun. These are things the serial murderer also did.

Then there’s the geographical closeness between Brownlee and the murders. Evidence indicates that the serial murderer would drive to an area, park, and then look for victims on foot. This modus operandi suggests a familiarity with neighborhoods where he was hunting his victims. According to Stockton police chief Stanley McFadden, Brownlee lived “not too far from one of the homicides,” and none of the murders were far from residences associated with either Brownlee or his relatives.

The Bottom Line

We will know much more about these murders as the criminal case unfolds — about motives and triggers and guilt or innocence. What we already know, though, is that children have senselessly lost fathers, a community has been needlessly terrorized, and innocent lives have been stolen.

Originally published at https://joniejohnstonpsyd.substack.com on October 18, 2022.

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Forensic psychologist/private investigator//author of serial killer book. Passionate about victim’s rights, the psychology of true crime, and criminal justice.

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Joni E. Johnston, Psy. D.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy. D.

Forensic psychologist/private investigator//author of serial killer book. Passionate about victim’s rights, the psychology of true crime, and criminal justice.