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At Close Range

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A random witness to random violence

By John Yewell

A MAN EMERGES from the bushes and shoots another man he does not know with a .380 semi-automatic pistol. It's on a busy street in broad daylight, in view of a dozen witnesses. The shooter then uses the Sheriff's Department driveway as an escape route, where he is immediately apprehended.

A more bizarre, meaningless, stupid crime would be hard to imagine, and I would have rejected the scenario as preposterous. We learned later that the alleged gunman, Moricio Guadian--who, according to news reports, has confessed to the shooting--came to Santa Cruz intending to choose a stranger at random and shoot him. According to SCPD Detective Rudy Escalante, Guadian bought the handgun on the streets of Watsonville, and had been planning the shooting for several days.

I was about halfway across the Water Street bridge on the south side, walking toward the county government center, when suddenly I heard four quick pops. Something about the pacing of the pops was too slow for a firecracker string, too quick for anything else. When I looked in the direction of the sound I caught a glimpse of a man on the opposite side of the street, about 50 to 60 yards away, moving down the jail driveway. Another man got up off the sidewalk and pursued the first man.

I grabbed my notebook out of my back pocket, jumped over the sidewalk barrier, ran across the bridge, and jumped over the opposite barrier onto the north sidewalk. As I ran toward the scene, another thought occurred to me: "You're running toward a man with a gun." Right. As I paused to considered another route, two sheriff's deputies, guns drawn, came down the sidewalk from the opposite direction and turned into the driveway. I resumed running.

I was not on the scene more than a minute before dozens more police and sheriff's officers began converging, on foot and in squad cars, from all directions. Traffic became snarled as Water Street was blocked off between Front and Ocean streets. As the number of spectators grew, officers put up yellow crime scene tape to keep them back. Cameras arrived. As one cop ordered people back, I held up my notebook and identified myself as a reporter and a witness, hoping it would buy me some access and time. It did, although not much and only for a few minutes.

About 20 yards away, Robert Nicholson, a 52-year-old homeless man, lay on the blacktop with three bullets in him. He was conscious, moving, and talking to sheriff's deputies. It was as far as Nicholson got in pursuit of his attacker. On the sidewalk next to me was Nicholson's rucksack, dropped where he was shot. There was no blood. Guadian was out of sight, apparently already hustled into the jail and being booked for attempted murder.

Nearby, Escalante conferred with his boss, Lt. Howard Skerry. Soon the ambulance arrived as another officer waved frantically, directing the driver to where sheriff's deputies were huddled on the ground around Nicholson. On the sidewalk just outside the yellow tape, a little fraternity of witnesses formed and compared notes. Some of us had heard four shots, others five, one six. Gradually we were moved further and further away behind widening circles of yellow tape.

I first came here in 1972, the year before the town gained national notoriety as the murder capital of the world, and returned very recently after a long absence. It would be alarmist to suggest that what happened to Robert Nicholson is the harbinger of some new wave of random crime. But Guadian chose his victim at random, deciding to shoot the first person that walked by, and I came uncomfortably close to being that victim. As someone not accustomed to gunplay, it rattled me, and brought back memories of 1973.

According to Escalante, investigators are still searching for a motive--what brought Guadian to Santa Cruz, what pushed him to attempt homicide and why he acted like a man who wanted to get caught. For Robert Nicholson, a Vietnam vet, Guadian must have been a horrifying reminder of a conflict that changed Nicholson's life forever. For me, Guadian is a useful-- if scary--reminder of my own mortality. For all of us who love Santa Cruz, Guadian is a snake that has slithered into the garden.

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From the June 18-24, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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