By George Kelly, Marisa Kendall and John Woolfolk
The Mercury News
SAN JOSE, Calif. — In a shocking burst of violence that darkened the start of the holiday week, five people were stabbed — two fatally — at a downtown church Sunday as it welcomed homeless people inside for the night to escape the cold.
The bloodshed at Grace Baptist Church across from San Jose State University left volunteers, visitors and church members shaken in what is typically a safe haven for nearly two dozen unhoused residents to find temporary shelter and a warm mattress on winter nights.
“To be honest, I’m just shocked,” said Shaunn Cartwright, who volunteers with the homeless community in San Jose and had left the church Sunday evening before the stabbing occurred without any hint of the coming trouble. “You just feel like you walked out of the room for a second and all Hell broke loose.”
San Jose Police released little information Monday but said a man was in custody in connection with the deadly stabbing that killed a man and a woman and wounded three other men. They did not identify whether the suspect was one of the nightly visitors, but Cartwright said she later learned he was one of the homeless people who frequented the church.
She would not identify the man but said she had seen him earlier in the night and he was upbeat and laughing when she left Sunday. The man didn’t have a reputation for violence, Cartwright said. She was still waiting to find out the identities of some of the victims but said that residents and staff were among those who were stabbed.
The three men injured in the attack were listed in serious but stable condition and are expected to survive, police said.
“Our hearts are torn for the victims and their loved ones in last night’s horrific stabbing at Grace Baptist Church on 10th Street,” Mayor Sam Liccardo said in a statement Monday.
Police said officers responded to the church at 7:54 p.m. Sunday. They found five people suffering from at least one stab wound each. A man was declared dead at the church, and a woman was taken to a local hospital where she died from her injuries, police said.
A tweet Sunday night from the San Jose Police Department thanked San Jose firefighters and “our first responding Officers who rendered aid to victims in the middle of a chaotic scene and undoubtedly saved lives.”
“No church services were being conducted at the time of the stabbing,” police said. “Unhoused individuals were brought into the church to get them out of the cold. The motive and circumstances surrounding the incident are under investigation.”
When Cartwright said she left the church at around 7:15 p.m. Sunday, everything was calm. The sanctuary was undergoing its nightly transformation into a shelter, as volunteers set up mattresses and chairs on the floor, and guests lined up outside the building, waiting to get in. About an hour after she left, Cartwright started getting panicked calls from friends asking if she was OK.
“It’s just completely stunning to me,” Cartwright said.
Sunday night’s homicides were the city’s 41st and 42nd of the year and the fifth and sixth this month, compared with 34 recorded in San Jose in all of 2019. While most categories of crimes in the city have trended downward due in large part to COVID-19 restrictions, homicides are actually outpacing the past few years. The city is on pace to record 44 homicides. That would put 2020 in the league of 46 slayings in 2012 and 47 in 2016, which were the city’s highest totals in about 30 years.
Luann Roberts, a pastor at the church and chaplain for the county’s Elmwood jail for women in Milpitas, said Monday it was unclear whether the Grace Solutions program to house the homeless at night would continue after the stabbing. The location is now a crime scene and cannot be accessed until police clear it after collecting evidence. The church she said was preparing a statement Monday.
The tragedy weighed heavily on homeless people and their advocates in San Jose. Earlier Sunday evening, Cartwright and six other volunteers were at the church painting 161 foam tombstones with the names of unhoused people who have died in Santa Clara County over the past year, in preparation for the memorial service they hold every year.
“Now,” Cartwright said, “we’re going to have to make two more tombstones.”
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