The investigation into a spree of assaults that left three homeless men dead and a fourth gravely injured in various San Diego neighborhoods continued Tuesday -- one day after a man arrested in connection with the attacks was set free following the discovery of what police described as exculpatory evidence.
Anthony Alexander Padgett, 36, was released from jail shortly before he was expected to be arraigned Monday in connection with the attacks, during which two of the victims were set on fire. Authorities cited new evidence that casts doubt on the suspect's guilt in the case.
Police had initially believed that Padgett was the person seen in surveillance video buying gasoline at a convenience store shortly before the body of the first victim, 53-year-old Angelo De Nardo, was found in flames in an open area off Morena Boulevard in Bay Park on the morning of July 3. Detectives remain convinced that the man depicted in the images is the killer, San Diego police Capt. David Nisleit told reporters.
The man seen in the video was believed to have killed De Nardo; 41-year- old Shawn Longley, who was found dead at a park on Bacon Street in Ocean Beach the following day; and 23-year-old Dionicio Vahidy, who was gravely injured early Wednesday morning in the area of Broadway and State Street and left with a towel burning top of him. Vahidy died in a hospital Sunday afternoon.
Authorities said the same person was also responsible for an attack that severely wounded 61-year-old Manuel Mason near Valley View Casino Center in the Midway district shortly before 5 a.m. on the Fourth of July.
Padgett's "strong resemblance" to the subject in the footage, coupled with the fact that he had been convicted of a similar assault, led detectives to conclude that they had good reason to jail him, Nisleit said.
There is fear on the streets, according to Alpha Project president Bob McElroy.
"Everybody's back to where we were last week; living in fear, distrust, keeping an eye on everybody; we're creeped out because somebody is targeting our population," McElroy said.
In 2010, Padgett, who is homeless himself, was convicted of assault and mayhem for setting a sleeping fellow transient ablaze in Chula Vista and was sentenced to four years in prison. He blamed drugs for the attack and claimed that he only intended to scare the victim.
Nisleit had said that detectives had legitimate probable cause to arrest Padgett last week, but later discovered "exculpatory evidence," and releasing the suspect was "the appropriate decision" in light of the developments. The captain declined to disclose the nature of the new findings.
Nisleit said investigators may come across evidence "that might point the finger back to Padgett, or to someone new."
San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said in a statement her office would continue to assist in the investigation.
"Our common goal is justice for the victims in this case and the safety of San Diego's homeless as the investigation continues," she stated.
Authorities asked anyone with additional information on the attacks to call Crime Stoppers at (888) 580-8477 or contact the agency online at sdcrimestoppers.org. Tipsters may remain anonymous and could be eligible for a reward of up to $1,000.