An 86-year-old woman killed on the running track of Highlands High School was trying to help her friend when she was assaulted, authorities said Thursday.
Fusako Petrus, 86, died early in the morning Wednesday as she walked on the track in North Highlands, as she had regularly done for decades. Both she and a younger friend were sexually assaulted and beaten by a stranger, authorities said. An 18-year-old arrested Thursday in an unrelated assault has been named as a “person of interest” in the case.
Sacramento Sheriff’s Department spokesman Sgt. Tony Turnbull said Petrus was walking at her own pace, a little ahead of her 61-year-old exercise partner, when the attacker jumped from a hiding place, perhaps a backstop. He attacked the younger woman first.
The attack occurred about 6 a.m. When Petrus tried to help her friend, the attacker turned on Petrus and killed her, Turnbull said.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
“She started screaming, and the 86-year-old woman came to her aid,” Turnbull said. “When she got there, the suspect turned his attention to the 86-year-old and attacked her. He sexually assaulted her and caused injuries that led to her death.”
Petrus’ longtime neighbor Lloyd Miller, 88, said she’d been walking the school’s track for at least 40 years. He became concerned when she didn’t come home Wednesday morning. “She wasn’t returning on her usual time, so we were worried,” Miller said.
Miller said he’d known Petrus since 1963, when she moved to the neighborhood. She kept an immaculate garden and liked to feed the squirrels.
“We looked out for each other,” Miller said. “She took out my trash every week for me. She was a Christian and went to church every Sunday.”
Sacramento County sheriff’s investigators on Thursday said that both women on the school track were sexually assaulted by a stranger. The sex assault was the reason for the attack, officials said.
“Absolutely that is the motive. That is how it all started,” Turnbull said Thursday.
The unnamed 18-year-old man considered a person of interest in the killing was arrested Wednesday afternoon on unrelated charges when he allegedly assaulted an elderly woman near Fair Oaks Boulevard and Howe Avenue. That incident occurred at least six hours after the attack at the high school and 12 miles away from the Highlands campus.
Witnesses to the early-morning incident at the track described the suspect as a man in his 30s, wearing black sweatpants and a burgundy sweatshirt. Turnbull said such age discrepancies aren’t unusual. Witnesses often have a hard time gauging a person’s age during a violent encounter, he said.
After killing Petrus, the attacker fled, jumping over a fence on the perimeter of Highlands High School. A search failed to turn up any sign of him.
Petrus, who was officially identified by the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office on Thursday, died at the scene.
The murder shocked students and parents at the Highlands campus, who arrived at school Wednesday morning to the sight of numerous police cars and a body covered with a tarp on the school’s running track.
The killing also shook up area residents.
Danelle Crawford, 53, another neighbor of Petrus, teared up when speaking about her Thursday.
“This is very disheartening,” Crawford said. “We all were afraid when we heard that they found a body at the high school yesterday morning.”