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‘Like a ghost town’: Possible serial killer has Phoenix families hiding at home

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Lately, when evening comes, crowds in West Phoenix start to clear from neighborhood grocery stores. Concerned parents call their children inside and then some hunker down in back bedrooms to stay safe.

All because there may be a serial killer who’s terrorizing their town.

Unarmed volunteers patrol the streets searching for signs of trouble. “We met up at a grocery store parking lot on a Friday evening, which is payday for people so it should be crowded, but that parking lot was like a ghost town,” Mike Upchurch, with the Phoenix chapter of the Guardian Angels, told NBC News. “People are afraid of what’s going on.”

Police say there have been five unsolved homicides in the Phoenix neighborhood of Maryvale since April that have too many similarities for investigators to ignore.

In each case, the victims were gunned down at night in front of their homes, Phoenix police said in a statement, and in each case, a killer got away.

“Detectives are working around the clock but no significant leads have yet been uncovered,” Sgt. Jonathan Howard, a spokesman for the Phoenix Police Department, told The Washington Post in an email.

“We believe this is a series of homicides committed by the same suspect or suspects,” he said.

The Arizona nonprofit group Silent Witness is offering up to a $11,000 reward for information leading to the killer’s capture, according to police.

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Since April 1, there have been four separate shootings in which five people were killed and one was severely wounded in Maryvale, according to authorities in Phoenix, prompting police to reach out for the public for help in solving the crimes.

On Thursday night, community members gathered for a candlelit vigil to honor those who were killed, according to the Arizona Republic.

“We need you to keep your eyes and ears open,” Maryvale Estrella Mountain Precinct Cmdr. Sean Connolly told residents, according to the newspaper. “It is extremely impactful and powerful that you come out here and send a message to stay involved.”

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Diego Verdugo-Sanchez, 21, was shot in an apparent drive-by on the evening of April 1, while standing outside a home in Maryvale, police told the Arizona Republic at the time. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died.

In his obituary, his family wrote that the soon-to-be father was killed “due to senseless gun violence,” and added that he was “full of life at every second.” It states:

“Diego, was a beautiful soul that was absolutely adored by everyone that he came in contact with. He was extremely loved by all those that knew him. Nothing can describe him better than being a Gentle Giant.”

On June 3, police said, 32-year-old Horacio De Jesus Pena was shot just before 10 p.m. as he arrived at his home, according to the Arizona Republic.

“He wasn’t even two feet away from his car door,” his sister, Nancy, told NBC News, adding: “I just thought he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

She said she worries about more deadly shootings.

“For not one person to have more information is mind-blowing,” she told NBC News. “This person is still out there. We need to get them off the street.”

Police told the Arizona Republic that Manuel Castro Garcia, 19, was shot about 9:30 p.m. June 10 after he had a “brief conversation” with someone who approached him in his car.

Then, police said, the person shot and killed him.

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Two days later, 12-year-old Maleah Ellis was sitting in a car outside a West Phoenix home, listening to music with her mother, 33-year-old Stefanie Ellis, and a family friend, 31-year-old Angela Linner, when the three were sprayed with bullets.

Maleah Ellis and Linner were killed in the 3 a.m. attack.

Maleah’s mother was the only one to survive and was rushed a hospital in critical condition, police said.

It was the most recent shooting in a series that has shaken the community, according to NBC News.

“They didn’t even know what hit them,” the girl’s grandfather told NBC affiliate KPNX. “They can do that to anybody, anywhere and they’re still out there.”

“It wasn’t no drive-by,” Dewayne Ellis, Stephanie Ellis’s brother, told CBS affiliate KPHO. “They walked up to that car, and they shot — they executed — for whatever reason.”

That’s my baby, and that’s my sister,” he added as he started to cry. “My little niece didn’t do nothing to nobody; my sister didn’t do nothing to nobody.”

Linner’s mother, Theresa Maupin, told the Arizona Republic that Linner was a “quiet and loving person” who will be missed.

“That’s my baby, that’s my first baby,” Maupin told the newspaper. “I’ve got four, but that’s my baby. I’m just hurt right now.”

Neighbors say the recent series of fatal shootings have put the community on edge.

“All the kids used to come (out) and play all night,” resident Theresa Anderson, 52, told the Arizona Republic. “No more.”

“There’s just too much shooting around here,” she added. “Too much shooting.”

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