12-year-old's arrest brings mixed reactions in Calaveras County

05/11/2013 9:05 PM

06/26/2013 2:35 PM

RANCHO CALAVERAS -- Reaction in Leila Fowler's hometown to her brother's arrest on suspicion of her murder ranged from disbelief to anger Sunday.

From some people, what started as whispers of conjecture last week turned into proclamations that they knew all along something didn't add up about the story of a muscular, gray-haired, 6-foot-tall assailant.

The description by Leila's 12-year-old brother had put the foothills towns of Rancho Calaveras and Valley Springs on lockdown following her death. He told police he saw the man run from their Rippon Road home on April 27 before finding his 8-year-old sister suffering from multiple stab wounds.

One neighbor told police she, too, saw a man running from the area of the crime scene but recanted less than a week later, leaving only the brother's version of events.

"That morning I was out here in my garden; nobody came out that door," said one neighbor, gesturing to the Fowler house.

The brother's name has not been released since the arrest was announced Saturday. Calaveras County Sheriff's Department officials did not respond to multiple inquiries Sunday.

Because the boy is 12, he cannot be prosecuted as an adult for murder.

During the search, the department had warned residents to stay inside and lock their doors as deputies looked in homes, yards and crawl spaces for the killer. At least 20 law enforcement and fire agencies provided support, including the Stanislaus County Sheriff Department's dive team, which searched a nearby lake.

For nearly two weeks, Rippon Road was closed to everyone but residents, who had to show identification to deputies at either end to get past barricades.

Arrest relieves fear, spurs anger

Neighbor Aaron Plunk said that in the days that followed Leila's death, he and his family were more vigilant in locking doors and windows, even though he said, "I think we were the safest house in the county," given the police presence.

But after what Plunk described as a shocking arrest, he said that for the first time since Leila's death, he felt comfortable opening windows at night to cool down his home.

His mother, Carla Plunk, agreed: "It's a relief knowing there is not some crazy person running around. It's the first time I ever held a gun."

An outpouring of support for Leila's family came from the community in the wake of her death.

Hundreds if not thousands attended a candlelight vigil in her honor at Jenny Lind School, including her 12-year-old brother. Ribbons in her favorite color, purple, adorn a fence at the school, signs and mailboxes around the community.

Some people donated clothes to Leila's family, who couldn't go inside their home once it was deemed a crime scene. Others donated to a memorial fund.

Jim Rebstock was part of a group that had organized a spaghetti dinner to support the family. He canceled it following the announcement of the brother's arrest by Sheriff Gary Kuntz during a press conference Saturday.

"When news hit last night that it was the brother, by the time I left here and got home we already had people calling and wanting their money back," Rebstock said in the parking lot of the shopping center that includes the sheriff's office substation where the press conference was held.

He said people were angry on a variety of fronts. Some felt they'd been deceived and kept in the dark by police. Others felt Leila's family no longer deserved the money.

Rebstock said the anger and aggression played out mostly on a private Facebook page following Saturday's announcement. He said it got ugly but that it was a select few spewing most of the hatred.

"They want to be judge, jury and executioner," Rebstock said. "They think this poor 12-year-old kid should have the death penalty."

On Saturday, Kuntz said, "Citizens of Calaveras County, you can sleep a little better tonight."

Authorities spent more than 2,000 hours on the investigation "to provide Leila Fowler's family answers to her death," the sheriff said.

Kuntz said the investigation was ongoing. He declined to provide further details.

Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at etracy@modbee.com or (209) 578-2366. Follow her on Twitter, @ModestoBeeCrime.

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