by Natalie Hanson
posted Nov. 5
Shootings at Chico’s Teichert Ponds has some residents worried that unhoused people are facing increasing violence -– perhaps linked to rising levels of “dehumanizing” speech targeting them.
A shooting at the Ponds killed an unhoused man and left another seriously injured last year, and a shooting last month in the same preserve nearly killed another unhoused man. Both shootings involved people entering the Teichert Ponds encampment with the likely intent to “start a fight,” in District Attorney Mike Ramsey’s opinion.
In September 2021, around 2:30 in the morning, a teenage boy shot two unhoused men in Teichert Ponds after entering the site with a group of friends heading home from a nearby party, according to the district attorney’s office. The teen, whose name has not been disclosed because he is a minor, was accused of killing 53-year-old Guy Vanzant.
Ramsey prosecuted the case in Butte County Juvenile Court, and his office presented surveillance and social media videos, photographs, and testimony from 15 witnesses and experts.
But in October Judge Kurt Worley dismissed all charges against the now 17-year-old assailant, ruling the teenager’s actions were committed in self-defense -– before any defense evidence was presented.
“It’s the prosecution’s burden to disprove a self-defense claim beyond a reasonable doubt,” Ramsey said in an interview with ChicoSol.
Ramsey said evidence indicated the four teenagers were affiliated with a fairly new local street gang suspected of criminal activity. The teenager who shot at the two unhoused men used a semi-automatic handgun with a green laser attachment.
But Ramsey said there was conflicting evidence, including what the teenagers said as they were on the bike trail near an encampment. Up to eight unhoused people said they left their tents and more than one was also armed, which a defense attorney said showed the teenager only shot to protect his life, according to Ramsey.
Vanzant died from a gunshot wound to the abdomen, while the other man survived gunshots in his leg and pelvis. There were eight spent bullet casings with an additional unspent casing found on the trail.
Ramsey said he thinks this indicated the teenage assailant chambered his semi-automatic weapon to prepare to fire while walking, before reaching the encampment. No gun was recovered.
Ramsey said they built the case based on the facts that the teenagers were drinking, with the teenage assailant having already loaded his weapon. He said prosecutors hoped to defeat the self-defense claim by proving the assailant had been “looking for a fight.”
But he said Judge Worley cited inconsistencies between the testimonies from the various witnesses. Worley only found the teenager guilty of a probation violation from a 2020 attempted robbery conviction -– which the suspect was sentenced for on Oct. 26.
“No matter how strong you may think a case is, a self defense argument is always a difficult thing to overcome,” Ramsey said, explaining that California’s “stand your ground” laws are typical of states “west of the Mississippi.”
He said Eastern states require proof that a suspect retreated, but in California, “You can pursue the person you felt was about to attack you and dispatch them.”
“We weren’t pleased with the outcome of this, but we also will continue to seek justice for everyone, no matter whether they’re housed or unhoused,” Ramsey added.
An unhoused person camping on the city-owned land was also shot at around 10 p.m. on Oct. 15 of this year.
According to the DA, Keyna Osorio, 38, and Demetrious Brown, Jr., 19, were accused of shooting and seriously injuring a 25-year-old unhoused man. Ramsey said the suspects entered the park searching for and calling the name of an unhoused person, and when that person answered from within his tent, they shot at him through the tent walls. The two suspects used a semi-automatic weapon, he said.
Ramsey said that this case is different because it involved two adults with no known gang affiliations. It also involved Osorio’s 18-year-old daughter, who was arrested on suspicion that she acted as a getaway driver for the two.
Ramsey said the investigation includes testimony that, “Those people went specifically hunting for a specific unhoused person.”
“There was a claim by the two folks that had the guns that they went there with the view to take revenge upon this particular unhoused man, whom they believed had stolen from a recently deceased relative,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey was asked to comment about access to semi-automatic weapons, given nationwide concern about the issue. “It’s a matter of people that are housed or unhoused, who have various grudges and conflicts with each other,” Ramsey responded.
Osorio and Brown entered not guilty pleas in court on Nov. 2 and will face a preliminary hearing on Dec. 9. The man shot is recovering from gunshots in the arm and leg, according to Ramsey’s office.
‘Dehumanizing’ leads to violence
Advocates and an elected official are upset to learn that unhoused people could be targeted.
That concern has grown as posts across Chico Facebook pages, including on the Citizens for a Safe Chico PAC page, often showcase and allow many comments insulting homeless people or wanting to see them removed from the city. For example, in a Jan. 21 post about removing trash from Comanche Creek Greenway, a user commented, “Why can’t a group of very large persuasive men and or women unzip each tent and politely ask each occupant to come out and pick up their crap? I think around 6 am would be a good time.”
With the PAC in support of a City Council policy to enforce anti-camping rules, homeless people are being removed from city parks. And some say they think these enforcement policies have produced anti-homeless messaging that is stirring anger and violence among the public.
Councilmember Alex Brown said she did not find it surprising to hear there is legitimate evidence showing that some are targeting people experiencing homelessness. As someone who works in and studies social media communication, she directly connected the incidents to how homelessness is widely discussed in Chico, particularly during the current and 2020 election cycles. She said while “vitriol” against homeless people is nothing new, political messaging has grown more “dehumanizing” with the goal of labeling people without shelter as the City’s primary problem.
“When you do that to other people, you set a tone, you set a culture in your community for how to treat and think about other people,” Brown said.
“The fact that this has escalated into violence, aggression and threats being made online, and those ideas then being acted upon behaviorally, should be a surprise to nobody,” Brown said. “That culture permeates, and that narrative finds its way to the people living in our communities. It makes the most vocal feel it is OK to spread vitriol, and in some cases, as we’ve seen, make threats of potentially inciting violence against people who have nothing.”
Brown said the city -– like most American cities -– has not been able to solve the problem of homelessness, despite choosing an approach centered on enforcement that “inherently dehumanizes people experiencing poverty and actually does nothing to solve the problem or make it better.”
She noted that several members of the City Council have refused to discuss these shootings or broadly, national issues like gun safety.
“I see that as hateful and a symptom of leadership that refuses to define people as people, no matter what their resource level is,” she said. “The mere silence of the majority of this Council, and the candidates running on a platform of ‘cleaning Chico up,’ should speak volumes to everybody. It’s fear-based thinking, it’s dehumanizing thinking.”
North State Shelter Team advocate Charles Withuhn said many random shootings from cars at unhoused people take place, but are not reported out of fear and trauma. He said a senior living in the park told him, “It is like they are forcing us to live in life threatening conditions.”
“It has been my experience that campers tell me often that they live in fear of burglary, rape, beatings and shootings at night,” Withuhn added.
Natalie Hanson is a contributing writer to ChicoSol.