There’s nothing like the announcement of a serial killer on the loose to get a neighborhood buzzing. Earlier this month, authorities in Stockton, California, announced that they had linked six killings and one non-fatal shooting in the area since April 2021.
As police called on the public to check their front-door cameras for evidence and to submit tips if they noticed suspicious activity, people gathered in the digital era’s town square — Facebook forums — to discuss what was going on. One group, called Stockton Serial Killer Community News and Information, attracted thousands of members within days of its founding on Oct. 5. Now, it has nearly 4,000 members.
The killings weren’t robberies and did not appear to be linked to gang activity, authorities said during the search for a suspect, and the shootings were linked by ballistics. Five of the victims were Latino men and four were experiencing homelessness, but police said they did not believe the killings were hate crimes. A seventh victim, a Black woman, survived an attack by the killer. She told local media a man pointed a gun at her and began shooting without saying anything. Police have not revealed any theories on the suspect’s motivation for the alleged crimes.
On Saturday, police arrested 43-year-old Wesley Brownlee and booked him on five felony charges, including murder and carrying a concealed weapon in a vehicle. At a news conference, police Chief Stanley McFadden said they’d apprehended him overnight while, authorities believe, he was out “hunting” for his next victim. “Our surveillance team followed this person while he was driving,” McFadden said. “We watched his patterns and determined early this morning he was on a mission to kill.”
Long before the arrest, the amateur detectives on the Stockton County Serial Killer page had gotten to work. Some users speculated about the criminal’s method of operations or his profile. “He likely lives near the Delta College campus and uses the public transit bus route to target his victims being that each of the murders was within feet of a bus stop,” posted one user, who said they studied serial murder. “He’s also more than likely a loner who tries to blend in but has no perceivable social group and tries to place himself into positions of authority.” It is not clear yet whether the user got any of those details right.
Others speculated about the motive. Some theorized he had a vendetta against homeless people, since multiple victims had struggled with housing stability. Others suggested he must be mentally ill. “I’m thinking he’s mentally deranged,” a user said. “No normal human being would shoot strangers for no reason.”
The lifelong Stockton resident who launched the forum, and who asked to be identified only by her Facebook pseudonym Renee Myers, also urged members to contribute tips, positioning the group in a history of web sleuths trying to crowdsource solutions to crimes. “I thought, they can provide useful information, being on the ground,” she says. “Maybe they worked with this person, maybe they passed them on the street.” She and her fellow admins also compiled tips and video evidence from private messages to send to police.
Officer Joe Silva, a spokesperson for the Stockton Police Department, says he’s grateful to the social media groups that elevated the public profile of the case and encouraged tips to come in by the hundreds each day. While he declined to specify which tip led to Brownlee’s arrest, he said social media groups helped advance the investigation and he had “very good communication” with Myers’ group, in particular. “Social media certainly played a role in this,” he says. “In the olden days, it was just a phone line but now, with social media, I think there’s a bigger audience of people that wanna help in these cases.”
The suspect, Brownlee, is a Stockton resident — just like Myers and many others in her Facebook group (although membership reaches all over the world). He has a short criminal record of drug and traffic violations, but no violent crime. He is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday, where his charges will be announced. It was not immediately clear on Monday whether Brownlee had a lawyer yet.
In the meantime, Myers can’t help but wonder if he was lurking among her group’s members the whole time. There were a few odd DMs that raised flags to her and her fellow admins. In one, somebody mentioned details which had not yet been made public but were later confirmed by police. In another, a user described committing the crimes in the first person. She calls the possibility that she corresponded with a serial murderer “terrifying and disgusting.” Though police didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up question about whether the killer could have lurked in the chat, that could be one drawback of gathering online — you never know who’s on the other side of the keyboard.