Stockton serial killer suspect had previous drug convictions

Days after the arrest of the man suspected of shooting five people during a monthlong killing spree in Stockton, law enforcement officials were still trying to answer critical questions Monday about a potential motive and whether any unsolved shootings fit the alleged serial killer’s pattern.

Wesley Brownlee, the man accused of carrying out the series of nighttime killings, was the focus of an intense manhunt since August that culminated in his arrest early Saturday, with police claiming he was “out on the hunt” for a second victim. The 43-year-old remained in the San Joaquin County Jail on Monday, awaiting a court appearance on Tuesday.

Police believe there may be more shootings linked to Brownlee.

At least seven shootings so far have been identified through ballistics tests as the likely work of a single killer. Two occurred in April 2021. Five occurred between July 8 and September 27. Investigators were trying to determine if any killings occurred in the 15 months between these two apparent sprees.

“There was a big gap and we don’t know what happened during that gap,” Stockton police spokesman Joseph Silva said Monday. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

Investigators from six law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, are combing through police records and surveillance footage to determine if any overlooked cases might fit the serial killer’s pattern. Investigators have asked law enforcement agencies across the state to identify unsolved shootings similar to the Stockton killings, Silva said — any that targeted isolated victims near camps between dusk and dawn.

Trying to piece together the fragmented timeline between the April 2021 shootings and the summer 2022 shootings has required around-the-clock police work, Silva said.

Detectives have also struggled to understand a possible motive for the killings.

“We know from his actions and his patterns — he was a cold-blooded killer,” Silva said.

Little is known about Brownlee, a Stockton resident with a criminal history that includes two felony drug convictions.

One conviction came in Alameda County in January 1999, when he was sentenced to two years in prison for possession and sale of a controlled substance, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement Monday morning. The 43-year-old was released on parole after seven months, in August 1999.

Brownlee was convicted of the same crime less than three years later.

In December 2001, an Alameda County court convicted him again of possession and sale of a controlled substance, the CDCR said. Brownlee served another three years in prison and was released on parole in May 2003. He was released from parole three years later.

Brownlee was taken into custody Saturday on multiple felony charges, including murder and carrying a concealed weapon. Police said they intercepted him chasing a victim around 10 p.m. 2 a.m., dressed in black and carrying a gun.

The arrest ended weeks of speculation and fear after police linked him to a series of shootings on Stockton’s north side that mostly targeted isolated people living in encampments.

Police first began to suspect a single person was behind the shootings in August, Silva said. On August 11, a 43-year-old man was shot and killed in north Stockton shortly before 1 p.m. 22. Three weeks later, a 21-year-old man was shot and killed around 06.00 less than a kilometer away.

It became clear to detectives that the shootings were not related to gang violence or robbery — categories of crime far more typical of Stockton killings, Silva said.

“We knew something was irregular with these shootings,” Silva said. “There was something that was different.”

Detectives “took a closer look” at those cases — and an earlier shooting death of a 35-year-old man on July 8 — and in late August sent ballistics evidence from the shootings to a state lab for testing. The ballistics evidence suggested that a single killer was at work.

It also pointed to a connection to previous shootings from April 2021, officials said: One in Oakland had killed a 40-year-old man. Another, in Stockton six days later, had injured a 46-year-old woman. The woman told police she was in her tent when a person wearing a dark jacket and a COVID mask pointed a gun at her and started shooting.

Convinced that the ballistics evidence had identified a serial shooter, homicide detectives scoured crime scenes for video cameras that could provide surveillance footage. Because the shootings took place at night in unlit areas near parks or apartment buildings, the footage they found was often grainy. But one person kept showing up.

In several videos, Silva said, detectives saw “the same person with the dark clothing and a distinctive gait.”

This revelation prompted the police to ask for the public’s help in the case, announcing in late September that they had identified a “person of interest” connected to the murder. They released a shadowy photograph showing the back of the person – the clearest image taken from surveillance video near one of the killing sites.

Within hours, tips started pouring in. The Stockton Police Department’s 75 employed detectives fielded “hundreds of tips a day” at the height of the fervor, Silva said.

“We received a couple of tips that were spot-on,” he said.

As of Monday, the department was still figuring out how to pay out its $125,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

Brownlee is due in court Tuesday afternoon, when the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office is expected to announce formal charges.

It was unclear whether Brownlee had retained an attorney. The San Joaquin County Public Defender’s Office has not been in contact with Brownlee and has not been appointed to represent him as of Monday, said Chief Investigator Gary Bayne.

“If he’s poor, a judge can appoint us,” Bayne said. “We won’t know until he is arraigned on Tuesday.”

Nora Mishanec is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: nora.mishanec@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @NMishanec

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