A man who authorities say used a ghost gun in five homicides in Stockton, California, from April 2021 till late last month was formally charged with murder Tuesday.
Police searching for a serial killer arrested Wesley Brownlee, 43, during a traffic stop early Saturday. Officials say he had been planning to target another victim before he was apprehended.
Brownlee was charged with three counts of murder Tuesday.
Those three deaths are among the six that police say a serial killer is responsible for. The killings took place from April 2021 to Sept. 27 of this year.
Stockton, California, serial killings
- In late September, police linked a series of fatal shootings and announced that they suspected a serial killer might be responsible
- Ballistic evidence helps tie two more shootings to the case. Both happened in April 2021.
- A number of the victims are Latino and homeless. But police say there's no evidence of a hate motive.
- Wesley Brownlee, 43, was arrested with a gun during a traffic stop, and police alleged he was looking for another victim.
The district attorney said she expects additional charges in two other murders in Stockton, as well as an attempted murder. A slaying in Oakland has been linked to the case, but the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office said it was not yet clear whether charges against Brownlee would be pursued there.
Brownlee is also accused of being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition.
A public defender for Brownlee successfully requested that his arraignment take place Nov. 14. She did not offer a denial or a defense of the allegations.
The public defender's office for San Joaquin County did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In court Tuesday, Brownlee, who appeared stoic and unemotional, was ordered held without bail, according to county inmate records.
San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar indicated at a news conference Tuesday that ballistics evidence would be crucial.
Prosecutors indicated a “polymer” weapon was the only one tied to the series of slayings in Stockton.
“We can prove with high confidence the same gun was used in the three homicides we’re charging you with today,” Salazar said at the news conference, addressing the defendant.
“We believe we have the person responsible,” Salazar said. “I’m very, very positive in the near future you’ll be hearing additional charges, as well.”
Prosecutors said the weapon is a "ghost gun," a firearm that can be 3D printed without a federally mandated serial number or the usual background check and delay that come with the retail purchase of a gun.
It is thought to be one of the first known serial murder cases in which a ghost gun was said to be the weapon.
In some instances, such guns have been used almost like so-called burner cellphones — as disposable devices. The weapons, which are now prohibited in some cities, have raised concerns among police and the Justice Department because they allow anyone to circumvent legal filters for firearm ownership.
As a convicted felon, Brownlee was prohibited from having a gun. His criminal record includes multiple drug convictions but no allegations of violence.
A law enforcement source with knowledge of the record said that in early 1999 Brownlee was sentenced to two years in prison for possession for sale of a controlled substance. He was released on parole about seven months later.
In 2001 he was sentenced to three years in state prison for transporting or selling drugs, the source said. He was released to parole in 2003 and discharged from parole in 2006.
Both cases were prosecuted in Alameda County.
NBC affiliate KCRA of Sacramento reported that his record included allegations tied to possession of crack cocaine.
Stockton police have said the serial killer's victims were predominantly Latino, as is the community. At least one has been described as Black; three were described as homeless.
Police Chief Stanley McFadden said there's no evidence of hate as a motive.
"We know this person wasn't stealing, wasn't robbing, they weren't doing other than killing," he said. "You know the motive at this point is a person who is on a mission to kill."
A fatal attack on April 10, 2021, was the only one outside Stockton, and it is believed to be the serial killer's first. It happened in Oakland, when Juan Vasquez Serrano, 39, was shot in the predawn darkness, officials said.
Police and prosecutors indicated all the attacks have some link to the weapon police seized Saturday. Investigators cited a statewide ballistics database for helping them tie the 2021 victims to the spree.
Tuesday's formal charges are connected to the slayings of Jonathan Hernandez Rodriguez, 21, of Stockton, who died Aug. 30; Juan Cruz, 52, of Stockton, who died Sept. 21; and Lawrence Lopez Sr., 54, of Stockton, who died Sept. 27.
The other victims include Paul Alexander Yaw, 35, of Stockton, who died July 8; and Salvador Debudey Jr., 43, of Stockton, who died Aug. 11.
The spree's sole survivor, a 46-year-old Black woman who lived on the street in Stockton, was shot after she confronted a man outside her tent on April 16, 2021.