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Ex-UC Davis student pleads not guilty in deadly stabbings

Cloaked in an anti-suicide vest, his eyes downcast, the former UC Davis student charged in a spate of vicious stabbings that terrorized this leafy college town over the past week pleaded not guilty Friday to two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.

Carlos Reales Dominguez, who was “separated” from UC Davis for poor academic performance less than two days before the violence began, appeared behind glass in Yolo Superior Court, wearing a vest designed to protect him from hurting himself and to prevent others from doing him harm. He was chained at the waist, his arms thin and bare.

The charging documents listed his age as 20, a year younger than the age Davis police provided in announcing his arrest Thursday.

Dominguez spoke to the court only briefly to indicate that he waived his right to a speedy preliminary hearing. Based on the charges and a special-circumstance allegation, prosecutors could seek the death penalty in the case. Dominguez remains in custody in the Yolo County jail on a no-bail hold.

Several of Dominguez’s family members sat in the courtroom near to where he stood behind glass. They declined to speak with reporters, and departed quickly to their car when the hearing was over.

In an interview Thursday, Dominguez’s father expressed utter bewilderment and shock at his son’s arrest, describing Dominguez as an accomplished student and athlete at Castlemont High School in Oakland, where he graduated in 2020.

“This is inexplicable to me,” he told The Times, adding that he was unaware UC Davis had disqualified his son for academic struggles last week. “He was so excited to go to Davis. I don’t understand how this could happen.”

Dominguez, who was born in El Salvador, entered the country in April 2009 as an unaccompanied minor, according to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official. He was transferred to a family member and his immigration case was closed administratively in April 2012.

This week, the agency placed a detainer to take custody of Dominguez, “should he be released from local custody,” the official said.

Dominguez is charged in a series of seemingly random stabbings that left two men dead and critically injured a homeless woman. Two of the attacks occurred in local parks, casting a pall over a city that celebrates its well-used bike paths, youth sports and ample green space. He was detained by police Wednesday afternoon, after several Davis residents called police to say he matched the description provided by witnesses in two of the attacks.

The investigation began April 27, after authorities found the bloodied body of 50-year-old David Henry Breaux, a Stanford University graduate who slept in Davis’ Central Park and was known around town for his gentle proselytizing on the need for compassion. Breaux had been stabbed to death on the bench where he often slept. No witnesses have come forward in that attack.

Two days later, Karim Abou Najm, 20, a graduating UC Davis student who had recently posted to social media about his joy at finding a job as a software engineer, was fatally stabbed in Sycamore Park as he biked home from a university event Saturday night. A neighbor who responded to the scene after hearing sounds of distress described the assailant as a young man with curly hair and a thin build who fled on Najm’s bike.

Monday night, a woman in her 60s was attacked as she slept at a homeless encampment at 2nd and L streets near the city’s downtown. She was alone in her tent when a person slashed the canvas, reached in and stabbed her repeatedly. The assailant ran off when her screams drew the help of fellow campers. She was taken to UC Davis Medical Center, where she was recovering after surgery.

On Wednesday, Dominguez was spotted walking through a park near where Najm had been killed on April 29, dressed in dark clothing — black sweatshirt and black track pants with a white stripe — that matched the description provided by witnesses to the third attack. With wavy shoulder-length hair and a thin build, Dominguez’s physical appearance also matched witness descriptions.

Police detained Dominguez and said they found a large “hunting-style knife” in his backpack. The weapon was consistent with one police believe was used in the attack on Breaux. Davis Police Chief Darren Pytel said investigators spoke with Dominguez for hours before arresting him for all three crimes. Pytel described his manner as “reserved” but declined to reveal details of the conversation.

Family members of the victims have been left reeling. Maria Breaux, David’s older sister, described her brother as someone who “just had this kindness in him and has always had it.”

He moved to Davis around 2010, she said, because he had a friend in the area and felt safe in Davis’ laid-back atmosphere. Over the years, he became a well-known figure in town, known as the “Compassion Guy” for his habit of extolling people to embody a spirit of humanity and forgiveness. In 2013, Breaux worked with the city to erect a bench that featured ceramic tiles celebrating the value of compassion. He interviewed visitors to the bench about their views on kindness and empathy, as part of a weekly YouTube video series.

“That’s where he created a community and impacted thousands and thousands of people,” his sister said in a tearful interview.

The stabbings sent a chill through Davis, as fearful residents hunkered down. The city’s famed bike paths grew quiet, its cafes closed early, and UC Davis moved evening classes online. Parents who typically let their children walk or bike to school were suddenly organizing carpools.

In a sign of how tight-knit the community is, Yolo Superior Court Judge Dan Wolk, a former Davis mayor, opened Friday’s arraignment by disclosing that he too had been touched by the crime.

He and his wife live about half a mile from Sycamore Park, where Najm was killed, he said. And on the night of the fatal stabbing, about 40 minutes before, his wife was walking the family dogs and saw someone who “may or may not have matched the description of the suspect.”

She later reported the sighting to police, Wolk told the courtroom, but officers did not follow up.

Hours after Dominguez was arraigned, hundreds of relatives and friends of Najm gathered in a reception room on the UC Davis campus to celebrate his life.

Najm was born in Lebanon and moved with his family to Davis in 2018 after his father, a soil scientist, became a professor at UC Davis. Najm was six weeks from graduating early from UC Davis with a degree in computer science.

“We lost our son in the most tragic way,” his mother, Nadine Abou Najm, told a room full of sobbing friends and family. But, she added: “I will focus on the goodness of humanity and the community.”

In Arabic, she said, Karim means “generous,” and her son was full of generosity. That was something brought home to her in the days since his murder, as his parents have heard so many stories of the ways in which he reached out to connect with people.

Speaker after speaker spoke of a young man who was ebullient and kind. And also so competitive he was known to cheat at online chess. He was impatient about pushing his research forward, his mentor, Lee Miller, told those gathered, and excited about developing a better hearing aid. He called his best friend, Aman Ganapathy, every day and wasn’t afraid to say he loved him. He had an outrageous fashion sense, some said, but an unimpeachable taste in coffee.

His father, Majdi Abou Najm, said the family was working with UC Davis to launch a student research award, so his son’s spirit of inquiry could live on. The fund already has received more than $87,000 in donations from more than 700 people.

His father also asked mourners to remember their son in another way: by telling the people in their lives that they loved them. He paused the service so everyone present could make quick phone calls.

Najm’s mother called out the need to do more to address mental illness. Her son, she noted, was a great listener.

“Mental health is a national crisis,” she said. “And we cannot turn our backs [if we want to understand] what turns people into monsters. If you see someone struggling, do something.”



This story originally appeared on LA Times

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