Suspect in double homicide apprehended in Atascadero

Man was caught while allegedly using a crescent wrench to beat someone he knew

jlamb@thetribunenews.comDecember 25, 2010 

The arrest of a 20-year-old Atascadero man early Sunday ended a manhunt that began Christmas night after a double homicide at Santa Margarita Ranch. The search came to a conclusion three stolen cars and 10 hours later when the suspect was arrested after allegedly attempting to bludgeon a man in Atascadero.

Authorities allege that Andrew Wesley Downs of Atascadero shot to death two people at Santa Margarita Ranch on West Pozo Road on Saturday.

Atascadero police arrested Downs on Sunday morning after they responded to a call on Del Rio Road, where Downs allegedly beat a man with a crescent wrench.

He remained in County Jail as of late Sunday, where he is being held without bail on suspicion of murder, attempted murder, burglary and assault, according to authorities.

The murders

The string of events began Christmas night at historic Santa Margarita Ranch, Sheriff’s Department spokesman Rob Bryn said. Investigators have not yet determined a clear motive.

The Sheriff’s Department received a call around 6:30 p.m. When investigators arrived on the scene at Santa Margarita Ranch, a vineyard and cattle ranch, they found two people who had been shot to death in a mobile home off of West Pozo Road. Bryn said investigators think Downs acted alone.

Bryn wouldn’t say whether Downs knew the victims. He also wouldn’t give their ages or gender.

However, Karl Wittstrom, one of the owners of Santa Margarita Ranch, said the home belongs to the ranch’s cattle foreman, Jeff McKee.

Wittstrom said both McKee and his wife were unharmed, and that the victims were McKee’s mother-in-law and her sister.

“It appears to be kind of a random act,” Wittstrom said. “It’s a horrible tragedy on Christmas Day. It just makes everyone feel vulnerable when something like this happens.”

Soon after arriving on the scene, sheriff’s deputies began searching for the suspect. The man had allegedly stolen a car but did not get far.

The automobile got stuck in the mud near the crime scene. A second flatbed truck he allegedly stole was also found disabled a couple miles down West Pozo Road near Santa Margarita Lake Road.

The pursuit

A 20-man search team of sheriff’s deputies, detectives and officers from several local law enforcement agencies worked all night to catch the suspect. Residents in the area said they got calls from the Sheriff’s Department telling them to stay in their homes.

Lee Tull, who owns a 10-acre ranch about six miles down the road from the murder scene, said he got the call around

1:30 a.m. Ten minutes later, deputies were searching his yard with flashlights.

A third vehicle allegedly stolen by Downs was taken from the yard of Scott Thompson, who lives a couple hundred yards away from where Downs left the flatbed truck.

“Guy came and stole my truck, pretty simple,” Thompson said Sunday.

About 7:30 p.m., Thompson was working in his yard when his motion-sensor light went on. His wife and daughter were in the house.

Thompson saw a man in a red sweatshirt walking up his driveway and asked the man what he was doing.

“I was asking him ‘Can I help you?’ ” Thompson recalled.

The man mumbled something that sounded like “he’s outside,” Thompson said.

Then the suspect turned around and mumbled “wrong house,” Thompson said. The man reportedly jumped into Thompson’s GMC pickup truck, which had the keys inside, and drove away.

The truck reportedly sideswiped a water tank on the way out of the yard.

Thompson said he jumped in his Lexus, which he had to jump-start, and headed toward Pozo in pursuit of the stolen GMC truck.

Neither Downs nor Thompson’s missing GMC were seen until after Atascadero police were called to a report of a fight just after 3 a.m. Sunday.

According to Atascadero police Cmdr. Steve Gesell, Downs entered a home along Del Rio Road west of Alturas Road and began to beat a man in the head with a crescent wrench.

The victim — whose name was not disclosed — told police he heard someone walking up the steps and then saw a man, Downs, enter the house. Downs then started beating the victim, according to police.

The man yelled to his son, who ran to help his father subdue Downs. When police arrived, Downs — whom the victim said he knew — fit the description of the person wanted for the Santa Margarita Ranch homicides. The stolen GMC pickup was found nearby.

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