NORTH HIGHLANDS, CA (AP) — A young man was identified Friday as the suspect in the sexual assault and beating death of an 86-year-old California woman remembered as a hero by investigators and neighbors after she used a walking stick to try to stop an attack on her friend.
Neven Glen Butler, 18, was arrested the same day he was detained in an unrelated assault of a 92-year-old woman a few miles away, Sacramento sheriff’s Sgt. Tony Turnbull said. She was treated at a hospital for facial injuries.
Homicide detectives tied Butler to the sexual assaults of Fusako Petrus, 86, and her 61-year-old friend earlier Wednesday while both were out for a walk, Turnbull said. Petrus died after she was badly beaten. Her friend was treated for injuries.
“I think she’s a hero. She gave her life to save her friend,” said Dolores Hines, who lives down the block from Petrus and her walking companion, whom authorities have not identified.
The friend was the initial target of the early morning sexual assault on the running track of Highlands High School in the North Highlands suburb of Sacramento, Turnbull said.
Petrus was killed after she came back to help, hitting the attacker with what he described as “a small walking stick” to try to fend off the man.
“She died trying to help her friend,” Turnbull said.
High-profile defense attorney Linda Parisi said late Friday that she just got the case and doesn’t have a lot of details, but that there’s much more to find out about Butler.
“The case is certainly a lot more complicated than it appears,” Parisi said. “There’s a lot more to find out about this young man and just the whole set of circumstances.”
Butler played football in 2015 at the same high school where Petrus died, said Twin Rivers Unified School District spokeswoman Zenobia Gerald. He also was on the football roster for the 2016 season and was on the track and field roster, she said, though she could not immediately say if he participated in the sports.
He dropped out in December after his junior year, she said.
Butler was known as a class clown who didn’t take his studies seriously, Robert Hills told The Sacramento Bee. He said he has known Butler since the fourth grade and kept in touch after his friend moved to a different high school.
A makeshift shrine with candles and flowers was erected on the driveway and tucked into the chain link fence of Petrus’ neatly manicured one-story yellow home with meticulously trimmed shrubs. Neighbors said they were not surprised Petrus tried to stop the assault.
“It sounds like something she’d probably do. She’d help anybody,” said Don Brown, who lives across the street.
Neighbor Lloyd Miller said Petrus met her husband in her native Japan after World War II. She was a clerk at the store of California’s former McClellan Air Force Base until her retirement, he said.
“She walked every day but Saturdays,” said Miller, 88, who usually watched her leave while eating breakfast by his front window. “I’d always say, ‘Be safe, Fusako’ to myself.”
Her husband died about 15 years ago, Miller said, so the neighbors helped each other with routine chores.
Don Hines, Dolores’ husband, remembered Petrus teaching his family how to make candied persimmons from the fruit growing on a neighborhood tree.
“I don’t know anybody who would not love her and appreciate her,” he said, choking back tears.
Butler, the suspect, is being held without bail on suspicion of murder. He is scheduled to make his first court appearance Monday.
Dolores Hines said Petrus’ friend suffered a swollen lip and scratches and bruises from her neck to her chest where the attacker tried to strip off her clothing.
The friend told Hines that she was running to get help when she looked back to see the attacker kick the tiny Petrus in her head.
“She’d been doing the walk for 40 years,” recalled Dolores Hines, clutching a box of tissues to her chest.
Petrus felt safe in the neighborhood, Hines said, recalling what she told people who worried about her: “‘I’ve got a friend who goes with me. And I’ve got a stick.’”