The streets of Santa Rosa, a harsh place to call home, carry an added sense of danger for the homeless these days with a killer who stabbed a young woman to death last week still on the loose and unidentified.
Homeless advocates are urging women, in particular, to exercise caution, especially after dark, to travel in groups and to keep an eye out for one another, said Celeste Austin, program coordinator for The Living Room day shelter at Church of the Incarnation downtown.
"Our women were impacted at The Living Room in a pretty deep way because it was a woman; it was someone who some of them knew, and she was murdered brutally," Austin said. "And so our women are feeling unsafe because they haven't apprehended the individual."
The body of Michela Anne Wooldridge, 24, who had recently become homeless, was found on Fourth Street just outside downtown early on the morning of Nov. 1.
She had been stabbed multiple times, most likely with some type of blade-edged instrument, police Sgt. Dave Linscomb said.
After a week of investigation, detectives are without a suspect, though they continue to conduct interviews and try to develop leads through family members scattered around the North Coast and members of the local homeless community, Linscomb said.
"We're going in a lot of directions with this," Linscomb said. "We haven't ruled anything out."
Though it remains uncertain whether she was killed where she was found, "that's the most likely scenario," he said.
Wooldrige, who grew up largely in Cloverdale, had recently been living in Humboldt County and was wrestling with repressed memories of childhood molestation and more recent sexual trauma, as well as episodes of drug use, family members said.
She came to Santa Rosa at the beginning of October to take part in a one-year recovery program at the Victory Outreach Women's Christian Recovery Home. But she left the program Oct. 11, apparently with a man she met in Santa Rosa, according to her former boyfriend, Clearlake resident Nick Azbill, the father of Wooldridge's 2-year-old son.
But people at The Living Room and the nearby Interlink Self Help Center saw her more recently, Austin said, including up to the day before her body was found.
Wooldridge was a sweet, approachable woman who made friends easily and whose naivete and vulnerability makes her violent death all the more difficult to bear, Austin said.
Staff and volunteers at the day shelter have offered counseling and support, but there were others "in a lot of pain around this death," she said.
To offer some comfort, The Living Room and Interlink organized a vigil at Courthouse Square on Thursday that drew about 50 people and included songs, a blessing and an opportunity for friends to share memories.
"It was very special," Austin said.
Wooldridge's mother, Elizabeth Vawter, and her husband, Kevin Wilson, have recovered her daughter's remains and taken them back to Humboldt County with the hope of burying her alongside her grandparents in Fortuna, Wilson said.
A memorial fund has been established at Wells Fargo Bank to help cover expenses, he said. Donors can contribute to Michela's Memorial Fund, account No. 2919021044, at any Wells Fargo Bank branch, he said.
The Sonoma County Alliance is offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest of a suspect in the case through its "Take Back Our Community" program.