Two women were out at dawn Wednesday doing what people around the Sacramento region do every day – walking on a neighborhood high school track – when they were attacked by a strange man who began punching and kicking them, police said.
The older woman, 86, was killed in the incident at Highlands High School in North Highlands. Her 61-year-old companion was slightly injured and received treatment at the school.
As of Wednesday evening, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department had not released the names of the two women. Spokesman Sgt. Tony Turnbull said officers responded after a witness who was normally at the track, much like the victims, called 911 just after 6 a.m. to report seeing the man set upon the two women.
“It appears to be a stranger attack,” Turnbull said.
Confused parents and students arrived at school Wednesday morning to a string of patrol cars parked alongside the campus, red and blue lights flickering, as Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies stood guard.
“It was obvious something happened,” said Telly Blackwood, a local filmmaker who was accompanying his wife as she dropped off her 13-year-old sister at the school about 6:45 a.m.
Blackwood said sheriff’s deputies wouldn’t tell them what had happened. A tarp covered something on the school’s running field, he said. “I didn’t find out anybody died until I got (the student) back to her mom’s house,” he said.
It wouldn’t be until about an hour later that Sacramento County sheriff’s officials announced the body lying underneath the tarp was that of the 86-year-old woman, who had been pronounced dead at the scene.
Turnbull said officers don’t know what prompted the suspect to attack the women. The sheriff’s department described the assailant as a black man in his 30s, about 5 feet 6 inches tall, 155 pounds, with short, curly hair and a clean-shaven face. He was last seen fleeing over a fence on Walerga Road, dressed in black sweat pants and a burgundy sweat shirt.
Turnbull said police dogs searched the neighborhood and officers established a perimeter, but they could not find the suspect.
“If anybody walking or driving during that time who saw somebody who matches that description or knows that person, they should call the Sheriff’s Department,” Turnbull said.
David Lugo, interim chief of the Twin Rivers Unified School District Police Department, said arriving students initially were told by law enforcement that school was canceled. But as the investigation progressed, school authorities decided school could operate with some restrictions “once the scene was fully secured,” Lugo said.
Students were released from classrooms only to change classes, he said. Visits to restrooms required escorts. And several classes ordinarily held in rooms closest to the school track were moved elsewhere on campus.
Highlands and other area schools sent autodial telephone recordings reporting news of the crime and notifying families that classes would occur Wednesday as scheduled, said Zenobia Gerald, Twin Rivers spokeswoman.
A message posted onto the Twin Rivers Unified School District website said no students were on campus during the attack and offered condolences to both the victims and their families. Sheriff’s deputies would remain on campus until the end of the school day, the post said.
“The safety of our students and staff is our top priority, and we are doing everything possible to help students and staff cope with what happened this morning,” the message said. “We will continue to work together – parents, staff and community members – to ensure the safety of all.”
Gerald of Twin Rivers said it’s not uncommon to see people using the schools tracks and fields for morning walks, and there is no policy barring their use when schools are not in session.
Officials for the San Juan and Sacramento City Unified districts say they likewise allow members of the public to use their tracks and fields during non-school hours.
“We don’t have a lot of restrictions,” said Sacramento City schools spokeswoman Maria Lopez. “If there has been vandalism, the schools will lock the gates.”
Elk Grove Unified also reported it does not bar community members from using tracks and fields in non-school hours. Folsom Cordova schools’ spokesman Daniel Thigpen said the district does discourage trespassing. He added, however, that it is not uncommon to see neighbors using high school tracks for jogging or walking.
North Highlands has long struggled with crime and homicide. Seventeen murders have occurred in the 95660 ZIP code during the last decade, more than in most of the communities in the sheriff’s jurisdiction, according to department crime report data.
Sacramento County murders involving the elderly are rare but do occur. About 60, or 4 percent, of the 1,500 murders that occurred in the county between 1999 and 2015 involved victims over 65, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 30, or 2 percent, of the murders involved victims over 75.
Sacramento County Supervisor Susan Peters represents the district that includes North Highlands. On Wednesday, she asked anyone with information about the attack to call deputies.
“The outrageous violent attack at the school is shocking and I urge anyone who has information to contact the Sheriff’s Department,” Peters said in an email. “My heart goes out to the victims and their families and I hope the assailant is quickly caught and the full weight of our criminal justice is brought to bear on him.”
Kirin Kumar, executive director of WALKSacramento, said there are basic safety tips walkers should consider at night. He cited the need to wear bright clothing, walk with a buddy and be aware of surroundings.
He observed, however, that those tips likely could not have helped the women at Highlands High, who were victims of a person-on-person assault.
The Bee’s Phillip Reese contributed to this report.