It's been nearly a decade, but Betty Arwood still remembers the day Ernie Hernandez Jr., who was then in his late 20s, showed her the first paycheck he had ever earned. He burst into her office at the Howard Training Center beaming with pride.
"It was a paycheck totally in his name and money he had made," said Arwood, the center's director of vocational services. "He felt like that made him like anyone else. To him, it represented independence."
Hernandez, 37, was a fixture at the training center, which serves the developmentally disabled. He was a friendly man with a big smile who liked to joke, but went out of his way to help others and was a hard worker.
He was stabbed to death Saturday night near Vintage Faire Mall. Police believe he was walking to his group home when he was attacked behind Babies R Us and then fled to the Humphreys College parking lot, where he collapsed about 7:30 p.m.
His Saturday routine was to walk to the mall, pass time with friends and then walk home. Police said Hernandez signed out of his group home Saturday indicating he was going to the mall. Co-worker and friend Justin Frazier said he and another friend had made plans to meet Hernandez at the mall, but he never showed up.
"We walked around but couldn't find him," Frazier said.
Modesto police continue to investigate and ask anyone with information on the slaying to come forward.
Arwood said staff and clients at the Howard Training Center in Ceres are dealing with grief and fear over a senseless death. The center plans to bring in grief counselors and hold a memorial or vigil to honor Hernandez.
Two of the 73 clients in the vocational services program had to go home Monday because they were too upset to work. Arwood sent a staff member to the J.C. Penney store at Vintage Faire to reassure the four clients who work in the department store's stockroom.
She said they were upset because they work near where Hernandez was killed.
"It made it very fearful for some of my people when they came to work today," she said Monday, "because we know so little. Was it random or was it because of his developmental disability? Are they part of the target?"
Arwood said this is the first serious act of violence against one of the Howard Training Center's clients during her more than 12 years with the nonprofit, although she said one client was beaten up about a year ago as he walked home from a bar.
She said clients are subject to taunts and teasing from teenagers and young adults while riding the bus and out in public. She said about two such incidents are reported to staff in a typical month, although some clients are too embarrassed to speak up about being harassed.
"We've had our people teased and taunted," Arwood said. "Our population carries a stigma."
Hernandez's mother spoke Sunday about her son's pain when he was taunted and called "retarded." She said she reassured him by telling him he was smart and not to listen to those who wanted to hurt him.
Hernandez's family gathered Sunday at the Modesto Police Department to enlist the public's help in solving this crime.
Monday, some of Hernandez's co-workers and job coaches remembered him.
Hernandez had worked cleaning and maintaining rest stops before working on a landscape crew in Ceres for the past five years. The work is grueling and performed in all weather.
Arwood said most training center clients wash out after about a year. Hernandez was one of the few who lasted.
"He liked everyone and wanted to be liked by everyone, and he was," job coach Steve Kelly said.
"I can't imagine anyone doing something that brutal to a man like this," Arwood said. "This is a mild-mannered man who would not hurt anyone. I'd do anything to have him back, to have 10 more like him. My heart goes out to his family."
Police ask anyone with information about the stabbing to call Crime Stoppers at 521-4636. Tipsters can e-mail tips through the Crime Stoppers Web site, www.stancrimetips. org, or text tips to CRIMES (274637) by typing "Tip704" plus a message. Callers to Crime Stoppers can remain anonymous and are eligible for a reward.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2316.