ORANGE, Calif. – After sleeping with her three-month old baby girl in a friend's car for the last week, Faith Reynolds heard two words that would push her to seek refuge in a shelter: serial killer.
Police and advocates have been urging those living on the streets to head inside or buddy up since three homeless men were stabbed to death in suburban Orange County late last year.
Reynolds, a recovering drug addict and former fast-food restaurant cashier, is heeding the call.
"I'm scared that he could do anything to anybody right now — us being alone," said Reynolds, 28, while gently stroking her daughter's forehead as she slept tucked inside a stroller at a soup kitchen in Orange, Calif.
Since the deaths, the number of homeless sleeping in each of two wintertime shelters in the county has jumped 40 percent, said Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, which runs the shelters.
But he said it's tough to know whether fear, coaxing from police or cold weather is behind the surge. Nearly 7,000 people out of 3 million county residents were homeless when they were counted in January 2011.
Word of the crimes has spread quickly among the homeless, many of whom keep up with the news and pass along tidbits at soup kitchens and shelters in a county that is home to Disneyland and wealthy beachfront communities.
"The homeless grapevine has always been very active," Haynes said. "Changing behavior is another thing."
It is still dark outside when the lights are flicked on inside the cavernous National Guard Armory that doubles as a shelter in the winter in Santa Ana. Dozens of men and women sleep on thin black mats covered by thick gray blankets.
Scott Melton, 24, wolfs down a chocolate-filled doughnut and sips coffee before heading out for the day.
The unemployed loan processor from Huntington Beach was shocked to learn about the killer when he returned Monday night from working a two-week job at a mountain hotel.
"You could possibly not wake up — it's a scary thing," Melton said.
For many of those who spent the night on the Armory floor, the killer is just one more element they can't control.
Chris Clay, 50, speculated that the killer might have a grudge against sex offenders or drug addicts — who are both found in large numbers on the street. "I can't let it change the way I think," he said.
Clay was released a month ago from prison after he was convicted of making criminal threats and has had a tough time finding work except for $3 he makes each week by collecting empty juice and water bottles for recycling.
"There's what, 5,000 homeless out here? And there's just one killer stalking the homeless?"
"Just don't stalk me," he said.
The killing spree began with the stabbing of James McGillivray, 53, on Dec. 20. A week later, the body of Lloyd Middaugh, 42, was found on a riverbed trail. On Dec. 30, the body of Paulus Smit, 57, was discovered outside a library.
The way that the killer sought out lone victims in isolated places in different cities suggests these were the premeditated acts of a sociopath, said Brian Levin, a criminologist at California State University-San Bernardino.
"This person is a fairly careful planner," said Levin, director of the Center of Hate and Extremism. "For him, it's like a hunt. He's extremely dangerous and will probably do it again."
In response, police are patrolling spots frequented by the homeless and distributing fliers with safety tips. They shine bright flashlights onto the faces of men sleeping on mattresses to make sure they're OK.
Police have started a tip line and are investigating the killings with the county sheriff's department and FBI.
The Orange County Rescue Mission has passed out flashlights and whistles to help fend off attackers. Members of a Southern California chapter of the Guardian Angels have been handing out fliers to tell people about the killer.
Random violent attacks against the homeless are fairly common as they make easy targets, particularly for youths on thrill-seeking binges. A serial killer preying upon homeless men, however, is more unusual.
In Los Angeles, at least 10 homeless people were stabbed to death on Skid Row in the late 1970s. In New Mexico, for example, authorities are searching for the killer of 11 women slain between 2001 and 2005.
Since 2002, the National Coalition for the Homeless has reported a rise in hate crimes against the homeless, but attacks rarely prompt people to move inside, said Neil J. Donovan, the organization's executive director.
"Many of these individuals are not mentally healthy so they are living with demons of their own," Donovan said. "This is just one other horror story in a whole life of horror."
George Robles, 37, has been on the streets since he lost his job as a cook and couldn't make his rent. He said he hasn't gotten much sleep since learning about the murders.
So, the fan of true crime novels decided to stop sleeping in his usual spot beneath a rumbling freeway near Angel Stadium and moved to an office building's outdoor stairwell where he says no one can see him — or would even think to look for him.
"I'm just waiting for the next headline," he said, after downing a pork and potatoes lunch at a soup kitchen. "'We caught him,' or 'We got a suspect' — or, 'There's another one (dead).'"
Associated Press writer Christina Hoag in Los Angeles contributed to this report.