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Officers rule fatal crash into Santa Rosa homeless encampment deliberate attack

Investigators seek help with case

Anyone who witnessed Tuesday night fatal crash or has information that would assist with the investigation is encouraged to contact the Santa Rosa Police Department through their online tip line at www.srcity.org/CrimeTips.

Santa Rosa police were still looking Thursday for a man suspected of killing a homeless woman with his car and running away in a violent Tuesday night attack that highlighted the distinct danger faced by people living on the streets and compounded the suffering for one Northern California family.

Officers continue to search for the suspected driver, Clifford Adams, 53, who faces charges of murder and attempted murder after police say he gunned his car toward a man with whom he had been fighting moments before at the edge of a small, roadside homeless encampment along Roberts Avenue in south-central Santa Rosa.

The vehicle hit the man that police say was likely Adams’ primary target, leaving him hospitalized with leg injuries. The woman, who was standing nearby at the time, was struck and pinned under the car. She died before firefighters could free her, according to the Santa Rosa Police Department.

Though police were awaiting forensic tests before releasing her name, they have notified her family members. Relatives and friends identified her as Kellie Jones, 43, a mother of two who grew up in Sonoma County, had been homeless here for several years and who had family here and in Humboldt County.

“She had the most contagious laugh. It could immediately make you smile just listening to her, just every way that she talked or described a story,” said niece Halie Jones, who lives in Humboldt County. “She did have some personal problems, like we all do, but she would literally do anything for anybody.”

Kellie Jones, right, with her daughter roughly 12 years ago. (Photo submitted by Halie Jones)
Kellie Jones, right, with her daughter roughly 12 years ago. (Photo submitted by Halie Jones)

Halie Jones shared that the death came as a second blow to the family on the heels of the loss of her grandfather — Kellie Jones’ stepfather — in January.

Kellie Jones had been living in one of the dozen or so tents at the Roberts Avenue encampment for about a month, part of a group of people who’d dispersed from the larger, nearby cluster of makeshift dwellings cleared last month from the Joe Rodota Trail.

Her brother, George Jones, who also has struggled with homelessness, arrived at the encampment Wednesday morning to collect the belongings of his sister’s that he could salvage before trying to get her car to start to relocate it to Humboldt County. He was gripped by frustration and confusion over the violence that ended his sister’s life.

“I don’t know what possessed the guy to do what he did, even if he was trying to hit someone else,” George Jones said. “I hope that the dude is apprehended and that justice is served.”

Santa Rosa police had not arrested Adams by Wednesday evening, according to Sgt. Chris Mahurin, the department spokesman.

Deadly violence is not unprecedented on the margins of local homeless camps, where attacks and slayings have occurred in recent years. But few if any of those cases have played out in such gruesome ways, with a vehicle used to maim or kill.

Police investigators determined there had been an argument between Adams and another man, a camp resident, before Adams got in his car and crashed it into the encampment, striking the man and Jones, who may have been just a bystander.

“Mr. Adams drove back onto Roberts Avenue, saw the male and accelerated his vehicle toward them,” Mahurin said.

“We're pretty positive he was targeting the male,” he said. “We just can’t rule out whether he was targeting her as well."

Adams was not a resident of the camp, Mahurin said. But he has surfaced in the city’s homeless care network.

Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa had interacted with Adams to provide homeless services as recently as 2015, said Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer for the nonprofit, the main services provider for Santa Rosa.

He ran afoul of the law not long after, with court records showing three cases in which he was charged and sentenced for felony drug possession for sales, pleading no contest in each.

The other man was not identified by police, though people at the encampment on Wednesday said they believed he had previous involvement in the drug trade.

Mahurin declined to elaborate Wednesday on what investigators suspect may have triggered the argument between Adams and the other man, including the possibility that it could have involved drugs.

Catholic Charities, meanwhile, had been working closely with Jones to help resolve her challenges for the past several years, Holmes said.

“It’s horrible to see these tragedies happen among our unsheltered community, and especially so when there’s a strong relationship,” Holmes said, noting such incidents are likely to increase tension among other people experiencing homelessness.

Investigators seek help with case

Anyone who witnessed Tuesday night fatal crash or has information that would assist with the investigation is encouraged to contact the Santa Rosa Police Department through their online tip line at www.srcity.org/CrimeTips.

Jones’ death already has led to some calls for Santa Rosa and Sonoma County to find a way to offer a safe, sanctioned encampment for people living on Roberts Avenue and elsewhere.

Jones had struggled with homelessness for years. She surfaced in 2016 among a group of people camped under a downtown Highway 101 overpass in Santa Rosa and in 2020 along the Joe Rodota Trail. When the county broke up that sprawling encampment of about 250 people, Jones was one of the first people to take a place in the Los Guilicos Village complex. She left six days later for nondisciplinary reasons, with staff making three subsequent outreach attempts to no avail, according to Santa Rosa Councilman Jack Tibbetts, the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Sonoma County, which runs Los Guilicos.

Vice Mayor Jack Tibbetts, right, hands out socks to Kellie Jones, 39, center, and Genevieve Agrusa, 41, on Sixth Street under Highway 101 as part of the Catholic Charities sock drive Saturday in Santa Rosa. Both women planned to spend the night there because they found all the homeless shelters in the area at full capacity Dec. 24, 2016. (Erik Castro / for The Press Democrat)
Vice Mayor Jack Tibbetts, right, hands out socks to Kellie Jones, 39, center, and Genevieve Agrusa, 41, on Sixth Street under Highway 101 as part of the Catholic Charities sock drive Saturday in Santa Rosa. Both women planned to spend the night there because they found all the homeless shelters in the area at full capacity Dec. 24, 2016. (Erik Castro / for The Press Democrat)

Kathleen Finigan, an advocate associated with the Homeless Action group, said she didn’t know Jones well but remembered fleeting encounters, including a memory of seeing Jones ride her bike with her pit bull, Scooby, trotting alongside.

For Finigan, Jones’ death points to the need to address “the core” of Santa Rosa’s homelessness problem.

“The city, the county refuse to give people without homes a safe place to be while they build their supportive housing,” Finigan said. “How many times does this have to happen?”

The councilman for the district that includes the Roberts Avenue encampment volunteered support for that position in light of Jones’ death.

“It shows the important need to identify and open a place for not only the pedestrian transient community but also the RV transient community,” said Councilman Eddie Alvarez.

A city spokeswoman, Adriane Mertens, called Tuesday’s attack “a terrible tragedy” and she extended condolences from City Hall to the woman’s family, friends and community. Mertens noted that ”it can often take time and many attempts to convince individuals to accept services“ while acknowledging the need to expand the city’s available offerings.

“Without a doubt more solutions need to be available for our unsheltered community to provide them with options that may be a better fit for their individual needs and situations,” Mertens said in a statement.

Santa Rosa has already been having conversations to that end. In February, the City Council favored up to 100 new safe parking spots across the city and potentially working with county officials to set up a managed encampment along the lines of the sanctioned site established last summer near the Finley Community Center.

The desire for expanded services is not new, and neither are the stories of violence, sexual assault or theft affecting the local homeless population, said Mayor Chris Rogers. The sticking point, as is so often the case, is money — especially at a time in which Santa Rosa is devoting unprecedented spending to COVID-19-related services for the homeless.

“It’s been very difficult to talk about additive services,” Rogers said. Still, he said, “there is a huge desire from the council and the community to talk about what else we can do.”

Mertes said city staff, through the annual process of adopting a budget in June, would work with the City Council to figure what programs to add “subject to available resources.”

Some people at the relatively small Roberts Avenue encampment, including Jones, had been living there since Sonoma County Regional Parks broke up a nearby encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail about a month ago.

That dispersal — and three more recent sweeps by the city of Santa Rosa at Jennings Park, the Prince Memorial Greenway and Industrial Drive — are part of a pattern in which homeless people set up camp illegally on public property before they are kicked off under the terms of a 2019 court order that guides notice, shelter and storage requirements.

While some in dispersed camps accept services, not all do, and those who turn away often scatter into the streets of Santa Rosa before regrouping elsewhere.

“We’re back to the Whack-A-Mole game,” Finigan said, “and there is no place for everyone.”

Jones’ death was particularly jarring for Heather Jackson, who provides direct aid to the local homeless community through her group, Sonoma County Acts of Kindness. Jackson said Wednesday afternoon in an email that less than two hours before the car attack, Jones was helping pass out meals to her fellow campers along Roberts Avenue.

“She was one of the kindest humans I have ever known,” Jackson said. “Always looking out for her community of unsheltered folks and others. Gentle, caring, sweet and loving with a huge heart."

The Tuesday night collision was the second suspected vehicular attack at a Santa Rosa homeless encampment in five days. Police earlier in the week arrested a man accused of intentionally driving his car into a man sitting astride his motorcycle at the West 9th Street underpass by Morgan Street on Friday night.

The underpass serves as a homeless encampment, and police say the motorcyclist was talking to people he knew in the camp. Police arrested 32-year-old James Hover, who officials described as homeless, in that case on suspicion of attempted murder. The motorcyclist was hospitalized after the driver suspected to be Hover crashed into him and knocked his bike as far as 30 feet before speeding away.

The two men knew each other and had had a previous disagreement, Mahurin said.

The proliferation of roadside encampments has been a discussion topic for Santa Rosa’s Homeless Encampment Assistance Program, a multiagency task force on homelessness, Mahurin said. “In light of these two incidents involving cars I can guarantee that’s going to be a conversation at next week’s meeting,” he said.

While both incidents appear to be intentional vehicle crashes driven by some kind of animus, encampments on sidewalks and along roadways heighten the risk of even accidental collisions. “Even if you have a minor vehicle collision that spins out you’re going to take out some folks,” Mahurin said.

Staff writer Nashelly Chavez contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com.

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