Until late July, the Monterey County village of San Ardo was a quiet community where everyone knew their neighbors and little newsworthy happened.
But two murders, a kidnapping and an attempted murder last month have shaken this tight-knit farm town of about 600 residents, pumping a palpable fear into their hearts. Although some say the recent violence is an anomaly, others worry it could be a sign that San Ardo won’t escape the crime and violence afflicting cities to the north and south.
Either way, San Ardans will not soon forget the bloody mayhem that has beset their home.
“We’re shocked because this crap does not go on in San Ardo,” said longtime resident Willie Lopez. “For me, it’s hard to believe that this actually happened,” the 67-year-old volunteer fire department chief said in a telephone interview.
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It’s easy to understand why someone like Lopez feels the way he does about his hometown.
Home to a mostly Latino and poor population, San Ardo sits along a lonely stretch of Highway 101 along the east bank of the Salinas River about 20 miles north of the San Luis Obispo County line, equidistant from King City and San Miguel. There are no stoplights, only a handful of corner stores, a one-room branch library, an elementary school and the water district office on Main Street.
That’s about it. The town offers so little that most people shop and work in the King City or Paso Robles areas.
The only activity is the motion of the ever-rocking oil derricks that populate the hills to the south and the slowly growing row crops on the valley floor.
Until the night of July 28, no one had been murdered in San Ardo for a quarter- century. That night, a run-down duplex on Railroad Avenue on the east side of town, a block off Main Street, became a bloody crime scene.
When the residents, the Serratos, arrived home around 10 p.m., they were confronted with the bodies of two men in their bathroom, both shot to death. Even more worrisome, their 16-year-old daughter, Eunice Serrato, was gone. Few other details from that night have emerged.
Soon, yellow police tape cordoned off Railroad Avenue as detectives and crime scene analysts went to work in the cool summer air.
The victims — Hector Reyes and Daniel Fraga — were not from San Ardo and had little connection to the town. They came from King City.
But two locals, Juan Manuel Salazar Sr. and his 19-year-old son, Juan Manuel Salazar Jr., who is Eunice Serrato’s boyfriend and a Paso Robles resident, were named as “persons of interest.”
On the run for about a week, Salazar Jr. and Eunice Serrato did not surface until Aug. 4, when they turned themselves in at the U.S.-Mexico border. Salazar Jr., who was booked on suspicion of homicide and kidnapping, was released Saturday and no charges were filed.
No explanation was given.
Meanwhile, Juan Manuel Salazar Sr., who turned himself in to authorities and was released the day after the murders, is still a person of interest. Salazar Jr.’s mother, Paso Robles resident Maria Delia Aviles-Rodriguez, was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping, among other charges. She pleaded not guilty Thursday.
Serrato was reunited with her family Aug. 4 unharmed. She is not a suspect in the murders. Investigators would not elaborate on whether Serrato willingly left town with Salazar Jr.
Rogelio Aviles, who was believed to be traveling with Salazar Jr. and Serrato on their way to Mexico, is also a person of interest. Aviles is not related to Maria Delia Aviles-Rodriguez.
The investigation remains open. Details about the crime’s possible motives and why it occurred in the Serrato home are not being released at this time.
The July 28 murders came just four days after another violent crime in San Ardo.
Alfonso Salazar, 33, uncle of Juan Manuel Salazar Jr., allegedly broke into a San Ardo home to rob it and was confronted by a resident whom he shot in the chest with a shotgun.
The resident survived, and Alfonso Salazar was arrested soon after when he was discovered in a Merced motel room with a loaded, sawed-off shotgun. He was booked on suspicion of felony attempted murder.
The Railroad Avenue neighborhood was quiet Tuesday afternoon except for a barking dog or a passing work truck. The Serrato home stood empty. Next door, neighbor Claudia Garcia stood in her rose-bush-filled yard. She was not home on the night of the crime but said no such violence has happened in the two years she has lived in town. But now she said it has “all of us scared.”
Maria Carvallo, 32, lives in the adjoining apartment to the Serratos. She said she wasn’t allowed into her house until the morning after the homicides.She was as shocked as anyone else. For the quiet town she has called home for the past 12 years, this is abnormal, she said.
Elisama Carvajal, 22, who was walking her infant in a stroller with Carvallo past the murder scene Tuesday, said she is frightened by the crime. “I’m scared. I’m scared.”
“It’s like a family town here,” Carvajal said. “Everybody knows everybody.”
The lifelong San Ardo resident, who said she knows Salazar Jr., would not have seen this coming: “He was a nice person, like anyone else you would know.”
At least three Monterey County sheriff’s cruisers drove around town Tuesday as part of an effort to beef up patrols in the wake of the homicides. One of the deputies on duty that day, Lloyd Foster, said the recent violence isn’t a sign of changes to come.
“I think this was an anomaly,” he said.
“Most of the people in this town have grown up together,” Foster said, adding that they don’t feed off one another in San Ardo like they do in bigger towns.
Still, for Lopez, who many around town say is the go-to man if you want to know what is going on, the homicides have not left a good feeling in his gut.
“This thing is not over yet,” he said, noting that there are still a lot of loose ends in this case.