Lisa Hilliard was settling in to sleep at her campsite on the east side of Teichert Ponds shortly after 2 a.m. on Sept. 4 when the sound of unfamiliar voices shouting set her nerves on edge. Moments later, two bursts of multiple gunshots rang out, prompting her to run toward the source of the gunfire on the north side of the ponds.
She arrived to a chaotic scene at a camp a few hundred yards from her own, where she found two of her close friends lying on the dirt, desperately gripping at gunshot wounds. Seeing that another camper was already on the phone with 911, Hilliard tried to comfort her friends as she waited for police and medics to arrive on scene.
One victim—53-year-old Guy Steven VanZant—succumbed to a gunshot wound to his abdomen and died on the scene, according to a Chico Police Department press release. The other victim, who has not been named, suffered at least one gunshot wound to his lower extremities and was transported to Enloe Medical Center. (No additional information on the second victim’s condition had been released by press deadline.)
Anger and fear has set in among the unhoused community and its advocates in the days following the shooting, with most of the ire directed towards the Chico Police Department’s response and follow-up to the crime. The CPD reported via a press release on Sept. 4 (and in an updated release on Sept. 8) that officers arrived within three minutes. Hilliard claims that it took at least 20 or 30 minutes for police to arrive, and even longer for medics to reach the scene.
Police have not publicly shared a description of the suspected shooters. However, per officials heard on the scanner recordings from that morning, witnesses described them as three or four white juvenile males on foot that left heading west toward Chapmantown, and were possibly sighted on Bruce Street.
CPD denied interview requests regarding the shooting, with Public Information Officer Michelle Walker responding Friday (Sept. 10) that “due to this being an active and ongoing investigation, no additional interviews or information will be given at this time.”
Hilliard, when interviewed last week (Sept. 8), said, “This is a straight up hate crime,” echoing a sentiment repeated by advocates at a vigil and rally for justice for VanZant held outside chambers before a Chico City Council meeting on Sept. 7. “Those boys knew what they were doing when they chose to walk out there with guns. [According to nearby campers Hilliard spoke with], they were screaming terrible things at people, pointing lasers and trying to start trouble.”
Hilliard, who said she knew VanZant for more than three years, described him as “one of the sweetest people you’d ever meet.” She said VanZant and the other victim, though unhoused, were not currently camping at Teichert Ponds, but visiting friends there. She said she’d been visiting with them at the camp where the shooting took place less than 30 minutes before.
“I’ve watched him literally give the shoes off his feet in the middle of winter to someone else who needed them,” she said. “He did things like that, and he didn’t do it for show or for credit, he did it because it was the right thing to do.”
Hilliard said VanZant’s street nickname was “Sage,” as in “massage,” though he wasn’t fond of the moniker: “Like I said, he was a very gentle soul, so if someone was having a rough day or was stressed, he’d come over and rub your shoulders. There was nothing sexual or weird about it, just him being him and trying to help. Of course, other guys teased him about it, so that’s why they called him Sage.”
At the scene of the shooting, Hilliard said things went from bad to worse when police initially arrived.
“They came rolling in, too many to count, and started asking people for names and running warrants,” she said. “They shooed me away from comforting Steven, but I stayed near and kept coming back.”
“The entire time I could hear the ambulance honking as it drove back and forth, trying desperately to find the scene,” she said, adding that she watched VanZant take his last breath.
“He might’ve made it,” Hilliard said. “They took too long.”
Hilliard said violence towards the unhoused community is commonplace and she knows several people who’ve been assaulted, usually by groups of young men from outside the homeless community. She said she knows other people who’ve had to dodge vehicles driven by people intentionally trying to run them over. When “The Triangle” encampment (between Pine and Cypress streets) was still in place, several living on site, as well as a couple of homelessness advocates, told the CN&R about pellets and paint balls being shot at campers.
Calls for justice
Judging by online responses by members of several local public safety-oriented social media groups, many people jumped to the conclusion that the Teichert Ponds shooting was an incident of homeless-on-homeless violence, as was the case with the Aug. 1 fatal stabbing of John Snoberger, 46, by Jedidiah Wright, 29, near Comanche Creek, site of Chico’s largest homeless encampment.
However, word that the crime was allegedly perpetrated by a group of juveniles began to spread outside of the unhoused community Sunday afternoon (Sept. 5). That’s when local advocates Chris Nelson and Kelli Johnson posted to social media that, while distributing food and water to campers at Teichert Ponds earlier that day, they’d spoken to several witnesses who described the crime and the alleged perpetrators. Those witnesses described the suspects as juveniles who shined green lasers on the campers and were armed with at least one handgun.
Johnson said at the Sept. 7 rally that witnesses from the encampment told her the shooters were yelling epithets against homeless people leading up to the shooting, including calling one of the victims a “fucking tweaker piece of shit” immediately before gunshots rang out.
Speakers at the rally placed part of the blame for the murder in the hands of local citizens groups that allow casual violent comments towards the unhoused on social media, and at the conservative-led City Council for enacting policies—such as sweeping encampments despite there being few shelter options for the displaced—that marginalize the homeless community.
Leif Perez, who lives with his family near Teichert Ponds, said he doesn’t regularly attend homeless advocacy events but was moved to join the vigil in response to what he believes is “a hate crime.”
“Am I sometimes concerned of living near so many people on the edge and how it affects my family? Sure I am,” he said. “But they’ve never really bothered us, and this act of teens murdering someone, and the belief that homeless people are inferior and deserve anything like this, is unfathomable. It’s cowardice, it’s hateful, and something needs to be done.”
Inside the council meeting after the rally, some advocates took the opportunity to address the council directly about the murder during business from the floor. Planning Commissioner Bryce Goldstein asked for each council member to “acknowledge and condemn this act of hatred, as well as the hateful rhetoric that has permeated our community and spurred this cold-blooded murder.”
The only council member to answer that call thus far is Alex Brown. On Sept. 8, Brown made a public statement on social media in which she railed against the hateful rhetoric over homelessness that has divided the population of Chico and may have played a role in VanZant’s murder.
“If you think language and framing don’t matter, you’re wrong,” she wrote, referring to “political PACs, Facebook groups, politicians, and regular citizens who have promoted hatred and disdain for the unhoused.
“And when a group or groups work so hard to dehumanize and scapegoat a population—particularly a population that has been cast out and historically marginalized by society—you can expect aggression and violent behavior against that group to escalate. Countless examples in society exist to that effect, and in our microcosm of a community that same reality holds true.”
In conclusion, Brown wrote: “Rest in Peace, Guy Steven VanZant and far too many others who have died on the streets of Chico this year.”