Anthony Mele Jr. was eating dinner last week at a seaside restaurant in Southern California, with his 5-year-old daughter seated on his lap, when a man walked up and plunged a knife into his neck.
As the attacker fled onto the beach, Mele was rushed to a hospital, where he died. Investigators later identified the alleged killer as 49-year-old Jamal Jackson, a homeless man who had been reported to police just hours before the stabbing.
The incident has become the latest flashpoint in the unprecedented homelessness crisis in California, where tens of thousands of people now live without shelter. In Ventura, Mele's death has sparked layers of outrage, with residents railing against police, who many believe could have prevented the stabbing, and against city officials for not doing enough to rein in the local homeless population.
Police in Ventura admitted this week that they should have responded to initial calls about Jackson.
Around three hours before the incident last Wednesday, a woman called Ventura police to report that a man — later identified as Jackson — was disturbing people on the nearby beach promenade, Ventura Police Commander Todd Higgins told BuzzFeed News this week. Additional 911 calls about Jackson came in later that night as well, according to a police statement.
The department didn't have any officers available at the time, so a dispatch commander instead pointed a security camera at Jackson and watched him for about 30 minutes, Higgins said. In footage from the camera, Jackson can be seen interacting with several people before apparently walking away from the area. The command center eventually determined he was not a threat.
But at 9:30 p.m., Jackson entered the Aloha Steakhouse, near Ventura's pier, and plunged a knife in Mele's neck as the 35-year-old dined with his wife and young daughter.
Higgins declined to say if not initially sending officers to the scene was a mistake. The security cameras are supposed to "enhance our response, not replace" the presence of actual officers, he said. But when asked if the cameras in this particular case had replaced a physical response, Higgins responded "yes."
"As far as what we’re looking at now is we don’t want that replacing our response," he added. "Procedurally, we’re going to have to look at that and address it."
Higgins also said that police have had multiple run-ins with Jackson in recent months, including an arrest in March for domestic violence.
In the wake of the incident, Mele's mother, Rebecca Mele, has been a vocal critic of the police response.
"This guy was being watched the whole time; he was being monitored by the cops and they didn't do anything," she told the LA Times. "The cops didn't come and instead watched him on camera … so he was still walking around at night."
On Monday night, dozens of people marched to the Ventura City Council meeting, many of them holding signs demanding a safe community and calling on officials to take action.
Heidi Golff, a Ventura resident and real estate agent who attended the march, told BuzzFeed News she is "haunted by what happened to that father."
Golff said that while Jackson did not look threatening in the security footage, "when you get a call that there’s a disturbance on the promenade I think that should be taken seriously."
"The system is broken when there’s not enough manpower to adequately police an area that is well known for drug activity, criminal activity, criminals harassing people," she added.
Judy Alexandre, chair of the Ventura Social Services Task Force, attended Monday's city council meeting after the march and said that "there was just a lot of frustration and anger." The crowd filled the entire council chamber and spilled out into an overflow room and the surrounding hallways, Alexandre said.
"Most of the people who spoke were angry at the council, they were angry at the police department, they were angry at the vagrancy," she added. "The murder was the tipping point and people are upset that they don’t feel safe in their community."
Anger over homelessness extends well beyond Ventura, rippling through California cities and communities across the state. In Orange County, efforts to relocate people living in a miles-long homeless encampment to new shelters nearby brought on busloads of angry protesters.
Protests in favor of and against homeless facilities have also happened in and around Los Angeles, and late last year the issue made headlines after a cooking fire from an encampment spread and burned multiple houses in Bel-Air.
The issue, which has also prompted a high-profile ad campaign, continues to be a thorn in the side of the city's mayor, Eric Garcetti, who has repeatedly spoken about solving the problem even as the homeless population grows — and as he toys with a possible presidential run.
Recent counts have found a staggering 49,698 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County — more than 36,000 of whom had no shelter — as well as another 4,792 people in Orange County. On Thursday, the day after Mele's stabbing, a California State Auditor's report revealed there were 134,000 people experiencing homelessness statewide as of January 2017 — more than any other state.
The report stated bluntly that California "should do more to address homelessness" and that it currently "does a poor job of sheltering this vulnerable population."
"More than two‑thirds of California’s homeless are living in vehicles, abandoned buildings, parks, or on the street," the report said. "Furthermore, 82 percent of California’s unaccompanied homeless youth are unsheltered; in contrast, 38 percent of unaccompanied homeless youth in the rest of the nation are unsheltered."
Ventura County had 1,152 people experiencing homelessness during a recent count, which is far fewer than more the populous LA and Orange counties. The data also suggests that homelessness has been decreasing in Ventura County, unlike some more urban areas of California.
Despite the numbers, Golff asserted that the situation in Ventura is "definitely worse than it once was," noting that lately she has been avoiding areas near Ventura's pier and boardwalk because she doesn't "want to run the gauntlet" with panhandlers and others approaching her.
Higgins, who has been a member of the Ventura Police Department for decades, said that calls to law enforcement related to homelessness have seen "a steady increase over five years." He estimated that the department currently gets around 150 of these calls per week.
Alexandre said that recent police changes in Ventura may have pushed people experiencing homelessness into different parts of the community, making the population more visible and potentially raising frustrations among residents.
She and others have been trying to establish a permanent shelter in Ventura, which doesn't currently exist. If the problem is going to be solved, she said, something is going to have to change.
"Doing it exactly as we have been doing it," she said, "probably will not be effective."