As the shock of Tuesday’s tragic violence settles into grief, many people are writing to the Sentinel, or posting online, messages that go something like this::
Our town has been overrun by criminals, because we’ve tolerated aberrant behaviors. This so-called tolerance has not only cost two police officers their lives, but is ruining our beautiful coastal paradise.
Oh, that it was that simple.
To start with, the awful chain of events that led to the deaths of Sgt. Loran Baker and Det. Elizabeth Butler lead back into what our reporters are finding in the disturbed and disturbing life of Jeremy Goulet, the man who killed the two detectives and who died himself in a hail of bullets shortly after.
Unlike many such individuals who commit heinous crimes, Goulet’s trail is not all that difficult to follow, but, almost inevitably, there is a sense of missed chances that would have diverted him from this fateful encounter with the two Santa Cruz police officers. Goulet’s odyssey through the criminal justice system in Portland, Ore. — ironically, another city know, and often mocked, for its “tolerance” — leaves a number of “what if” questions. Why would Oregon not have a statute that would have identified him as a sex offender? Was any attempt made to separate him from his guns? Why would he have been jailed for his threatening behavior toward law enforcement officials in that city, but then be released with seemingly little follow-up? Why did he not end up in prison?
His arrest only last Friday in Santa Cruz — he bailed out of jail — may or may not have triggered alarms that a guy with a violent past involving guns and sex offenses was on the prowl here and may have led to Tuesday’s encounter with the two detectives.
While we’ll continue to dig into Goulet’s past and his run-ins with the law, what we’ve found already is unsettling — Goulet came here not that long ago, he was again apparently acting out his deviant sexual behaviors toward women, he was angry and resentful, and he owned guns. His own father told reporters today his son was a “ticking time bomb.”
It’s certainly true that in the wrong circumstances in any town, anywhere, a deranged person bent on violence will be able to carry out his wicked revenge fantasies. And while it’s also true none of what went on before made these awful events somehow inevitable, it’s hardly a stretch to look in the rear-view mirror and see the potential for something really bad happening involving Jeremy Goulet was coming this way.
So back to the thought that Santa Cruz is a mecca of sorts for criminals and disturbed individuals.
Certainly, events of the past year or so seem to indicate just that. The horrifying murder on a public street in broad daylight of local shop owner Shannon Collins by a deranged homeless ex-con last May seemed to open a new chapter of violence and fear in Santa Cruz, the city and the county. Subsequently, more violence, including a recent downtown killling, home invasions, gang retaliations, shootings, rapes, homeless encampments and assorted other crimes and situations have set the community on an even more precarious edge. Add to that recent Sentinel coverage of a mostly unregulated needle exchange program that dovetailed with increasing community outrage over an epidemic of heroin and methamphetamine use and dealing, and there began to be a noticeable shift of public perceptions. Our well-known and sometimes relished weirdness and tolerance had turned on itself.
But the truth is that this present darkness is not something altogether new.
In the early 1970s, and proceeding grimly into the ’80s, Santa Cruz, city and county, was the scene of a series of grisly and demented mass murders; some were tied to the drug counterculture, some to what has become almost commonplace in today’s news: a breakdown in the mental health system that even then allowed dangerously ill violent predators to wreak evil on a law-abiding, but often naive, local population.
The names of some of the killers still resound in a macabre and hideous hall of shame: Edmund Kemper, Herbert Mullin, John Linley Frazier, David Carpenter (aka “The Trailside Killer”). And that’s just the most infamous ones. There were others. Santa Cruz had to live down, or outlive, a sordid reputation as the “murder capital” if not of the world, certainly of California.
My point, though, isn’t that Santa Cruz, so beautiful and so blessed in terms of geography and people, has some sort of evil curse hovering about, or that the excesses of the ’60s somehow landed here and settled in to inflict more and more misery and suffering.
But clearly, several threads run through our story that continue to weave into this latest tragedy.
One is the drug culture that took root here long ago and continues today. The Sentinel has reported ad infinitum on the epidemics of hard drugs in this community and the cost in terms of ruined lives and associated crimes. But — and here’s where the increasingly reviled “tolerance” label sticks in the craw — people are still drawn here by the availability of drugs such as heroin and meth along with the prevalent street and underground culture that has caused a strong counter reaction among citizens and neighborhood groups.
Another is that while police have been supported — and the outpouring of tributes and grief toward the two slain officers is proof — this support has historically been tempered with a wariness about too heavy a presence, which might scare away tourists, or students, or people buying expensive homes. While law enforcement in this county is committed, well-trained, even well-paid, no one who lives in Santa Cruz County would ever say there are “too many cops” or their presence is too pervasive. That’s just the way it’s been for a long time
.Santa Cruz also suffers because the county jail is just off downtown and the homeless shelters are near downtown. Since the area also attracts what seems to be a higher-than-almost-anywhere-else number of backpack-toting transients — some drawn here by the drug culture, others by the high level of services — along with people with serious mental issues, the mix has created a long-standing tension downtown and in other parts of the city.
With the violent gang subculture also mixed in, along with the prevalence of guns, the results can be volatile.
The deaths of officers Baker and Butler — senseless and horrifying as they were — will not be in vain if all of us who live in Santa Cruz County are willing to have an honest and open discussion about what is acceptable — and what is not. There’s a cost in terms of saying we don’t want to be a haven for drug dealers, street criminals and people who think by coming here they can act out some sort of demented fantasy that would not be tolerated anywhere else.
Butch Baker and Elizabeth Butler can no longer speak into the Santa Cruz story. We who remain can bring meaning to their sacrifice and honor their memories if we confront even the painful chapters and begin a new narrative.