OAKLAND — The case seemed open-and-shut: Yet another motorist killed in a late-night crash, this time as a tow truck slammed into a brick storefront along East 12th Street on a balmy June night.
It wasn’t until investigators pulled Tim Nielsen from the wreckage and drove him to the county coroner’s office that they discovered the fatal bullet lodged in his torso.
His death marked the opening salvo of a bloody three-month stretch in a single Oakland neighborhood, an area encompassing just a tenth of a square mile between Lake Merritt and Fruitvale. Over nearly 13 weeks, eight people were killed there — a rash of deaths that stands out even for a city gripped by violence.
The events around San Antonio Park tested the mettle of a community where children routinely pass prostitutes on their walks home from school, priests at the local Catholic parish complain of muggings and the echoes of gunfire are routine.
While other parts of Oakland have experienced a greater share of killings over the course of the year — 134 citywide as of Dec. 27 — the spate of slayings in San Antonio demonstrates the complicated challenge Oakland faces in reversing its worst spike of homicides in 15 years.
“It’s not unique to this area — it’s hood to hood,” said Andrew Park, executive director of the community nonprofit Trybe, which focuses on violence prevention efforts in the neighborhood. “It’s just, what this area is known for is you can make a lot of money on the three elements: drugs, gambling and sex.”
The killings began with Nielsen’s death in mid-June when two men allegedly tried robbing the 43-year old as he was working as a repossession agent near 20th Avenue and E. 12th Street. The encounter sent Nielsen speeding away in his tow truck. While it is not clear if he was shot during the attempted robbery or as he tried to escape, Nielsen only made it a couple of blocks before plowing into the side of a wholesale dried goods business.
His death left Nielsen’s partner, Jennifer Huff-Wensmann, in a state of shock. The two had been together for about a year, and she expected him to propose any day.
“We had already assumed we were going to spend the rest of our lives together,” Huff-Wensmann said. “And he kept his promise — he spent the rest of his life with me.”
In July, the violence intensified.
Within a 17-hour span on July 6, two men were gunned down about a half-mile from each other — one at a sprawling homeless encampment of dilapidated recreational vehicles and plywood huts along East 12th Street, and another while driving along East 19th Street.
The latter victim, Francisco Rosas-Rosales, 43, had just secured a job a week earlier driving trucks across the state — a pay bump that was meant to help him someday buy his family a house, said his sister, Maria Huerta.
“I wish there was a solution to all this,” Huerta said of the violence. “But I don’t see one to it unless people change and have a heart.”
By September, four more people were killed — two in unrelated shootings at almost the same spot along Foothill Boulevard near a local market and two more at opposite ends of San Antonio Park.
Crime is nothing new to the San Antonio neighborhood, often known by residents as Funktown.
But in recent years, illegal casinos operating out of back-alley doorways and dilapidated storefronts have grown more prevalent, as has the narcotics trade along Foothill Boulevard between 16th and 19th avenues, said Oakland Police Capt. James Beere, whose command includes the San Antonio neighborhood. Gang activity is helping fuel both underground industries. And prostitution — long a problem along International Boulevard — has spread closer to San Antonio Park and the rows of nearby houses.
“It’s like the nucleus of many problems, but situated in a very small, small area,” Beere said.
Beere said the department is committed to staffing the police beat surrounding San Antonio Park amid an officer shortage that has seen other police beats in the city go without regular patrols. And specialized units, including officers focused on human trafficking crimes, are focusing on the neighborhood.
In Nielsen’s murder, witnesses identified two 20-year-old men connected to the case, and they were arrested in late September, court records show. But for Huff-Wensmann, the arrests have only raised more questions about the broader social issues driving violence in Oakland.
“Being 20 years old, to take a life, they’re just kids. They haven’t even barely scratched the surface of life,” Huff-Wensmann said. “What did they grow up in, to lead them to the decision they made that night?”
Dagoberto Vasquez, whose son, Gener Vasquez-Orozco, was killed near the park in early August, is frustrated by the lack of arrests in the killings — so far, suspects have been arrested and charged in just two of the San Antonio murders — and said he plans to hire a private investigator in six months if there’s no movement in his son’s case.
“I’m kind of upset because they knew the crime is going, going, going, and nobody’s doing nothing about it,” said Vasquez. “Maybe it’s time to start doing something.”
The violent crime spike belies a community that, by day, can be vibrant and bustling with activity. Children routinely walk home from nearby Roosevelt Middle School in groups of two and three, sometimes accompanied by their parents. At the park, people play soccer on a refurbished field emblazoned with the words “Oaktown Proud.” Small children play around a local Head Start program, and Trybe’s youth mentors often settle in on sunny afternoons at a nearby pavilion, tutoring older students after school.
The park’s basketball courts stay lit and busy past sunset. And while the tennis courts are in disrepair, a local boxing club has turned one into a training area for people to work out outside.
By night, though, many residents stay indoors. Break-ins are common, including at the local Catholic parish, where $40,000 of equipment was stolen on Black Friday. So too are gunshots and armed robberies — one of which recently targeted a priest at that same parish.
In a city where the cost of living — and housing in particular — has skyrocketed, community leaders say the neighborhood’s relative affordability helps explain why many residents have stayed put, despite the rising violence.
“The families either do not have enough money to move out of the neighborhood to a different community, or they’re invested in the community because they’re hoping for a change someday,” said L.J. Jennings, pastor of Kingdom Builders Christian Fellowship, a church in the heart of the neighborhood.
Joseph Truehill, who works with Trybe on its violence prevention efforts in San Antonio, personally knows four people killed this year in Oakland and several others who were wounded by gunfire.
On a recent Friday, Truehill helped organize an outdoor movie and game night on the San Antonio Park tennis courts. Scores of people gathered for free tacos, an outdoor movie and a chance to meet Santa at a place that, come dusk, people typically avoid.
As the sun set, sirens could be heard from a block away. Truehill motioned to the sound and wondered aloud if another person had been shot.
Then he made a plea: Don’t pay attention to those sirens.
“Turn around and look at this, and look at all the people coming together,” Truehill said. “We got all the people doing positive things. We’ve got people who have been to jail and turned their lives around out here volunteering.
“You got to hold onto the positive because the negative is always going to be around.”