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4 Nevada killings spook neighbors who don’t know motive

The Associated Press
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A welcome sign sits at the entrance to the tight tight-knit community of Gardnerville Ranchos, Nev., Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, where two women were recently found dead in their homes. The killings of the two women and a couple up north in Reno that police say were committed by a man in the U.S. illegally have put the community on edge. (AP Photo/Michelle L. Price)
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This undated photo provided by the Carson City Sheriff’s Office in Carson City, Nev., shows suspect Wilbur Martinez-Guzman. Authorities investigating four recent Nevada killings say murder charges are pending against Martinez-Guzman, suspected of being in the U.S. illegally. (Carson City Sheriff’s Office via AP)
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This January 2019 photo shows a copy of the 2006 Reno Rodeo program with a photo of Gerald David. A man suspected of being in the U.S. illegally shot and killed several people in Nevada over the past few weeks, including David and his wife, authorities said, and the slayings added fuel to the immigration debate. On Jan. 16, 2019, the bodies of 81-year-old Gerald David, and his 80-year-old wife, Sharon, were found in their home on the southern edge of Reno. (Reno Gazette Journal via AP)
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This 2006 photo provided by Tom Cates shows Gerald David in Reno, Nev. A man suspected of being in the U.S. illegally shot and killed several people in Nevada over the past few weeks, including David and his wife, authorities said, and the slayings added fuel to the immigration debate. On Jan. 16, 2019, the bodies of 81-year-old Gerald David, and his 80-year-old wife, Sharon, were found in their home on the southern edge of Reno. (Tom Cates via AP)
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A neighborhood watch sign is seen Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, near the Gardnerville Ranchos, Nev., home of Connie Koontz, the first of two women in the community who were found dead in their homes. The killings of the two women and a couple north in Reno that police say were committed by a man in the U.S. illegally have put the community on edge. (AP Photo/Michelle L. Price)

CARSON CITY, Nev. — Nervous neighbors were shining floodlights on their property at night in a northern Nevada community where Connie Koontz and Sophia Renken were killed this month in slayings that authorities blame on a 19-year-old from El Salvador said to be in the U.S. illegally.

Residents also were on edge about an hour’s drive north, where Gerald David, 81, and his 80-year-old wife, Sharon, were found shot dead Jan. 16 in their Reno home. The Davids were prominent members and officers of the Reno Rodeo Association.

Authorities are blaming the four killings over a six-day span on Wilbur Ernesto Martinez-Guzman, who was arrested Saturday in Carson City. Two happened in the community of Gardnerville Ranchos, where the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains frame a community where neighbors used to walk into each other’s homes without knocking.

“It definitely shook a lot of people up,” resident Michael Lucas said Wednesday of the cases made part of the immigration debate when President Donald Trump cited them as evidence of the need for the proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall at the heart of a partial government shutdown.

“Four people in Nevada viciously robbed and killed by an illegal immigrant who should not have been in our Country,” Trump said in a Monday tweet. “We need a powerful Wall!”

Authorities in Nevada’s Washoe and Douglas counties, where the victims lived, have not said if robbery was a motive.

But prosecutors in the two counties have said they plan in coming days to charge Martinez-Guzman with the killings.

He will first be charged in Carson City on Thursday with burglary and stolen property crimes — amid prosecutors’ arguments that he should remain jailed while investigators keep looking for links between him and the four dead people.

“They’re continuing to look at, ‘How were these cases connected?’” Carson City Sheriff Ken Furlong said. “I have a hard time believing these were random.”

Federal immigration authorities told Furlong that Martinez-Guzman was from El Salvador and is in the U.S. illegally. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have not provided details about how he entered the U.S.

Some information about the killings could emerge during bail arguments before Justice of the Peace Thomas Armstrong. Martinez-Guzman also is expected to have a lawyer appointed to his case.

District Attorney Jason Woodbury said investigators found that Martinez-Guzman was cashing in the victims’ belongings at pawn shops, but no evidence of similar killings in the state capital city.

Furlong said that apparently stolen property retrieved from Carson City apartments associated with Martinez-Guzman made him a suspect in several other burglaries.

Lucas said the killings have chilled the friendly warmth of Gardnerville Ranchos.

“I pulled over one day to check my phone, and I got immediately flooded with spotlights,” Lucas said. “The homeowner came out with a rifle, was checking the side yard.”

Lucas worked with 56-year-old Koontz at the nearby Walmart and knew her as funny, kind and a caregiver for her mother.

Renken belonged to an antique automobile club, drove a Ford Model A and always volunteered to help. Her friend Robin Reedy said Renken seemed much younger than her 74 years.

Renken’s neighbor, Jim Gibson, told The Associated Press he was home but didn’t hear anything unusual the night investigators believe she was killed.

“I didn’t leave the house for five or six days,” Gibson said. He characterized his home as “pretty much on lockdown” with new security alarms, floodlights and a camera since Koontz’s body was found Jan. 10 and Renken was discovered dead Jan. 13.

Neighbors worry, Gibson said, because police have not said how they believe the killer entered victims’ homes.

Illegal immigration hasn’t been a problem Gardnerville Ranchos in the past, Gibson said, but added that if the suspect “snuck across the border,” it bolstered Trump’s argument.

Since the first days of his presidency, Trump has repeatedly pointed to crimes committed by immigrants in the country illegally to argue that the U.S. needs a border wall and tougher immigration policies.

Many academics and Trump’s critics have pushed back on this narrative, citing studies that have found immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States.

University of California, Irvine, sociology professor Ruben Rumbaut co-authored a recent study that said crime rates fell sharply from 1990 to 2015 at a time when illegal immigration spiked. Crime rates were low in immigrant-rich and border cities like El Paso, Texas, and San Diego.

Alex Nowrasteh of the libertarian Cato Institute, reviewed academic literature in 2015 and found, “With few exceptions, immigrants are less crime prone than natives or have no effect on crime rates … (The) research is fairly one-sided.”

Lucas said there were mixed feelings among his neighbors about Trump highlighting the Nevada killings. He said he didn’t previously support a border wall but the killings made him reconsider.

“Something has to change,” Lucas said of U.S. immigration policies. “The good people are struggling to get in and the bad people, it’s too easy to get in.”