Suspect in San Diego homeless killings is freed, no charges

A man who police had identified as the sole suspect in a spate of attacks on homeless men that left three people dead was released from jail Monday and not charged with any crimes, authorities said.

Anthony Padgett, 36, was arrested Thursday near a trolley stop in the suburb of Chula Vista on suspicion of murder, attempted murder and arson. He was accused of attacking four homeless men over four days last week, including two who were set on fire. Police said at least three victims were sleeping alone.

Police gave no immediate explanation for why investigators never presented a case to the San Diego County district attorney’s office for prosecution. It was unclear if they no longer consider Padgett a suspect or if they ran out of time to build a case. In California, suspects must be charged within 72 hours of their arrest.

“We need the public’s assistance to provide additional tips and leads to help us solve these crimes,” the department said in a statement.

In announcing the arrest last week, San Diego Police Capt. David Nisleit said the investigation was in its “very early stages.”

“We have probable cause to arrest Mr. Padgett for these crimes. With that said, we have a lot of work still to be done,” Nisleit said at the time. “We still have witnesses we need to interview and locate. We still have evidence that needs to be processed in the crime lab. This all takes some time.”

In 2010, a jury convicted Padgett of lighting a sleeping homeless man on fire in a supermarket parking lot in National City, a San Diego suburb. The victim suffered burns on about 30 percent of his body.

In a three-page handwritten note to a judge in 2010, Padgett blamed the influence of drugs — saying he was “super stoned and intoxicated plus using my prescribed medications” — and that he only intended to scare the victim, who was a friend.

In the note, Padgett also calls himself a “homeless citizen,” asks Jesus to forgive his sins and expresses remorse for the victim, saying, “I’ll never be so stupid again.” He said he had been homeless on an off for 10 years.

All four victims in last week’s crime spree suffered major trauma to the upper torso, setting the city’s homeless population on edge.

The violence began July 3, when police found the badly burned remains of Angelo De Nardo between Interstate 5 and some train tracks. The 53-year-old died before his body was set on fire.

The next day, officers responding to a 911 call found Manuel Mason, 61, with life-threatening injuries to his upper torso. A few hours later, police discovered the body of Shawn Longley, 41, who bled from the upper torso and died.

Dionicio Derek Vahidy, 23, died Sunday at a hospital, four days after he was set on fire downtown. A witness pulled away a burning cloth that the attacker put on him before fleeing.

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