VALLEY SPRINGS, Calif. – A day before a 12-year-old boy was arrested for the stabbing death of his 8-year-old sister, his mother described him as "protective" of his younger sibling.
Leila Fowler's killing last month shook the quiet community of Valley Springs, southeast of Sacramento, and set off an intense manhunt. Her brother was in the home at the time and told police he saw a man run from the scene.
Days later, the boy appeared with his father and stepmother at a vigil for his sister. On Friday, as speculation in the community built that perhaps the boy was involved, his biological mother told Sacramento television station KOVR her son "could never hurt his sister."
"I've never seen him be mean to her," said Priscilla Rodriquez.
Less than a day later, police delivered the stunning news: The 12-year-old boy had been arrested and will be charged with homicide.
For a community still reeling from the killing, the news was another blow.
"It's bad enough to lose a child. I can't imagine losing a child by one of my own children," Patti Campbell, a longtime area resident and owner of Campbell's Country Kitchen, told The Associated Press.
Campbell, a resident of the area for 33 years and the operator of the Valley Springs restaurant for 15 of them, said she had served Leila and her family in her restaurant.
"It's just shocking. I don't know what else to say," Campbell said.
Other residents in the community of about 7,400 people expressed similar feelings of disbelief.
"I did not want to believe it. You kind of thought so, but it's not something you want to believe," resident Tammy Ainsworth told Sacramento's KCRA-TV.
Aaron Plunk, a neighbor of Fowler's, said the arrest was staggering but he could rest easier now. He said he and his family had been extra vigilant about locking windows and doors, even though the street was being closely guarded by deputies.
"I think we were the safest house in the county," Plunk told the Modesto Bee.
Plunk's mother, Carla Plunk, said she had been scared enough to arm herself.
"It the first time I ever held a gun," she said.
Calaveras Unified School District Superintendent Mark Campbell said counselors will be available Monday at all schools.
The district "stands ready to provide whatever level of support and assistance is necessary to the Fowler family" and the community at large, he said Sunday.
Police released no information about what led them to arrest the unidentified 12-year-old for the April 27 attack. Following the crime, investigators did a door-to-door sweep of homes, storage sheds and horse stables scattered across the oak-studded hills foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Divers also searched two nearby reservoirs in search of clues.
Leila's brother told police he found his sister's body and encountered an intruder in the home while their parents were at a Little League game. He described the man as tall with long gray hair. A neighbor told detectives she saw a man flee the home, but she later recanted the story.
Police said there was no sign of a burglary or robbery. As part of the investigation, authorities seized several knives from the Fowler home, where Leila lived with her father, stepmother and siblings.
Calaveras County Sheriff Gary Kuntz said authorities spent more than 2,000 hours on the investigation before they arrested the boy at 5:10 p.m. Saturday.