Police found Nicholas Turner lying in the grass, dying of an upper-body stab wound, near Redwood Circle in Balboa Park.
Author Marty Rubin once observed, “Parks and playgrounds are the soul of a city.” A century before him, famed 19th century horticulturalist Andrew Jackson Downing similarly sang the praises of these urban spots of green when he wrote, “Plant spacious parks in your cities and loose their gates as wide as the morning, to the whole people.”
Photograph by Matthew Suárez
The city of San Diego alone has more than 400 parks — and there are more in the county’s 17 other cities and unincorporated areas. But while those parks are meant to provide a pleasant respite from daily life, sometimes bad things happen at them.
Worst of the worst
Balderrama Park is a small neighborhood park in one of Oceanside’s more troubled communities. It’s one of those areas built before zoning laws, where you’ll find boxy, two-story apartment buildings scattered among shabby single-family cottages and bungalows. Some homes are well-kept; most aren’t. High weeds, cars on blocks, and “Beware of dog” signs posted on chain-link fences are frequent sights.
Located on San Diego Street, a few blocks north of Mission Avenue, just east of Interstate 5, Balderrama Park offers residents a playground, tennis and basketball courts, a small recreation center, and a patch of green ideal for pick-up soccer games and family picnics.
Annabell Flores, a young Latino girl with laughing brown eyes, was shot and killed in Balderrama Park when two men ran in and opened fire.
Photograph by Thomas K. Arnold
Originally known as Eastside Recreation Park, the three-acre park was renamed in 1970 after Joe Balderrama, the first U.S. serviceman from the heavily Latino neighborhood (known to locals as “Pozole”) to be killed in action in World War II.
He was 19 — just four years older than Annabell Flores, a young Latino girl with laughing brown eyes, when she was shot and killed early on the morning of September 3, 2016 in the park that bears his name.
Young Annabell — nicknamed “Littles” — was sitting by herself, unaware of what was about to happen. Two men wearing masks ran into the park and opened fire, without provocation. Police found Annabell lying on her back in the playground area, with a fatal gunshot wound.
Less than two years later, a judge sentenced two Oceanside gang members, Daniel Ramos and Elias Ramos (no relation), to 92 years to life in prison and 84 years to life in prison, respectively, for Annabell’s murder. Daniel pulled the trigger, while Elias scouted out the site before the shooting, the judge said.
Prosecutors said the two gangsters were looking for a rival gang member at Balderrama Park, intending to kill him.
The prosecutor told the judge this crime was the “worst of the worst.”
It’s the oldest and grandest of the city of San Diego’s four regional parks, measuring 1172 acres and attracting 20 million visitors per year, the city says. Host to both the San Diego Zoo and the Old Globe Theatre, the park is home to more than than 15,000 trees; 14 specialty gardens; nearly 100 arts, education, recreational, social and sports organizations; and 17 museums and cultural institutions. Balboa Park was the site of two world’s fairs, the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition, which gave the park such iconic structures as the California Tower, the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, the Spanish Village Arts Center, and the Zoo.
Palm Canyon is described on the Balboa Park website as a “hidden … tropical oasis, containing more than 450 palms (58 species) within its two acres.” The canyon is criss-crossed with hiking trails. The original cluster of Mexican fan palms dates back to 1912. In 2001, the California Conservation Corps restored the trail that connects Palm Canyon to the Old Cactus Garden.
Shortly before noon on February 27, 1985, 40-year-old actor David Huffman was stabbed to death in Palm Canyon by Genaro Villanueva, a 17-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Huffman, who was appearing as Lenny in the Old Globe Theater’s production of Of Mice and Men, had been sitting near the Organ Pavilion in his parked van, playing his bagpipes, when he heard a vacationing Canadian couple shouting that someone was standing in the doorway of their friends’ motor home. He looked up and saw Villanueva take off running.
Huffman jumped in his van and drove after the fleeing teen. When Villanueva leaped through some bushes into Palm Canyon, Huffman stopped his van and ran after the teenager, down the meandering dirt hillside trail. A scuffle ensued; Villanueva pulled a screwdriver from his pants pocket and stabbed Huffman twice in the chest, killing him — and then fled. His body was later found by a group of schoolchildren who were taking a nature walk along the trail at the bottom of the canyon. A coroner’s deputy estimates Huffman bled to death in 30 to 45 seconds.
Villanueva was arrested two weeks later, after his parole officer saw a police sketch drawn with the help of the Canadian tourists.
After a quick trial in December of that same year, a jury convicted Villanueva of first-degree murder. Villanueva, who at the time of the killing was attending San Diego High School, testified that he stabbed Huffman in self defense because he feared the older, bigger man would kill him, but the jury didn’t buy it. In June 1986, Villanueva was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison for Huffman’s murder. He was sent to the California State Prison in Centinela. In December 2011, Villanueva was denied parole for 15 years.
Just before his death, Huffman was slated to appear in the miniseries North and South. His credits also include the films The Onion Field, The Honor Guard and Blood Beach, and the TV shows Little House on the Prairie, Newhart, and Trapper John, M.D.
It’s a large lawn area at 2700 Balboa Drive, just east of Sixth Avenue and north of El Prado, where a lot of shade trees grow. The meadow is a popular spot for family gatherings and wedding ceremonies and receptions.
On Saturday, August 4, 2018, police responding to a 911 call shortly before 10 am found 38-year-old Nicholas Turner lying in the grass, dying of an upper-body stab wound. He was taken to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead. The 911 caller, 47-year-old Damon Crudup, was later arrested for the murder. The two were boyfriends. Both were homeless transients. Crudup pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and received a five-year prison sentence.
It was named after John Morley, who served as a superintendent in Balboa Park from 1911 to 1939. The sports complex features 25 tennis courts, a swimming pool, a senior center, a playground, group picnic areas, an archery range, a multi-purpose ball field, a velodrome bicycle track, bocce courts, a disc golf course, and other sports and fitness attractions.
On September 6, 2009, just before 8:30 pm., police received reports of gunshots in the Morley Field area. They found 23-year-old Brandon Robinson on the ground next to his motorcycle, suffering from a gunshot wound. Robinson died later that evening from his wounds. According to police, “The preliminary investigation revealed Brandon was attending a birthday party in the park when an unknown suspect fired a gun, striking and killing Brandon.”
Robinson had been sitting on his motorcycle, curbside on Jacaranda Drive near Pershing Drive.
The following spring, the murder victim’s father, Larry Robinson, was interviewed by NBC news. He said Brandon, his youngest son, worked two jobs and most likely happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. “Was he the intended victim?” Robinson told News 7, “We didn’t think so. Not at all. Not a little bit.”
A police spokesman agreed, saying, “There was an unrelated fight, and perhaps somebody pulled out a gun and fired a round, and Brandon was an unintended victim and struck with a stray round that was fired.”
In 2016, San Diego County Crime Stoppers and the San Diego Police Department’s Homicide Unit asked for the public’s help to solve the then-seven-year-old case. Crime Stoppers offered a $1000 reward, while the Governor’s Office offered an additional $50,000 for information that would lead to an arrest in the case.
Speaking to the media, Robinson’s mother, Donna Jones-Robinson, held up a photo of Brandon and said, through tears, “He was a sweetheart, and he really didn’t deserve what he got.”
3000 Park Boulevard
The northern gateway to Balboa Park is the appropriately named Park Boulevard. Just before the zoo parking lot, on the west side of the street, is an expansive lawn, studded with shade trees, that leads to the historic War Memorial Building, designed in 1950 by a gathering of prominent San Diego architects to honor veterans.
On December 12, 2016, around 2 am, police responded to a call and found 67-year-old Gregory Huster lying dead on the grass just off the road. He had suffered trauma to his body. Ten years later, San Diego Crime Stoppers offered a $1000 reward for any information about the still-unsolved murder. According to a Crime Stoppers news release, “The preliminary investigation revealed that Huster may have been sleeping when he was attacked.”
It lies beneath the Coronado Bridge, between National Avenue and Interstate 5 in Barrio Logan. Chicano Park is the pride of San Diego’s Latino community. The park had been promised for years by transportation officials after they built Interstate 5 directly through the heart of Barrio Logan. Then, in 1970, it was learned the promise had been broken and the land would be used for a new California Highway Patrol station. Activists mounted a huge protest, forming a human chain around bulldozers. The decision was reversed and the park was built. Today, the seven-acre Chicano Park features more than 80 Chicano murals, as well as sculptures, gardens, picnic tables and playgrounds.
On July 2, 1988, at about 2:30 am, Rudolpho “Nene” Rios was shot twice in the head while hanging around the park. He died two days later. The 20-year-old was a member of the Logan Red Steps gang, and his accused assailant, an 18-year-old member of the rival Lomas gang. The park, at the time, was in Red Steps territory. Rios was shot as he was standing with a Red Steps gang member nicknamed Dopey near the park’s sandbox. The fatal blast came from a car. A suspect was identified, based on Dopey’s description, but he was acquitted in a jury trial.
Linda Vista Community Park
This is one of the city of San Diego’s “community parks,” a designation reserved for larger parks that measure at least 13 acres in size and serve a population of 25,000. Near the entrance of the park is a barbecue pavilion; other features include a skate park, basketball, tennis, and badminton courts, a baseball diamond, and a recreation center that routinely hosts community events such as “Family Fun Fridays” or the Mexican Independence Day Fiesta. The 15-acre site was acquired in 1955 and the recreation center was built in 1960. Significant renovations were made in 1998. One Yelp reviewer, however, cautions, “The biggest negative of this park is the evening. With poor lighting and few walkways, it is not a place that can be enjoyed after the sun goes down.”
On November 8, 2019, a 19-year-old man was gunned down near the basketball courts shortly before 5pm. Nam Nguyen was with friends at the park when they got into an argument with another group of young men.
In a statement, San Diego Police Homicide Lieutenant Martha Sainz said “a park staff member saw what was going on and told the groups he was going to call the police. Minutes later, the suspect pulled out a handgun and shot the victim. The suspect fled from the scene prior to police arriving.” Nguyen was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died.
Kate O. Sessions Memorial Park is nestled on the foothills of Mount Soledad, where La Jolla meets Pacific Beach, and affords visitors sweeping views of Mission Bay from the rolling green hillside.
Photograph by Thomas K. Arnold
Kate O. Sessions Memorial Park
This park is nestled on the foothills of Mount Soledad, where La Jolla meets Pacific Beach, and affords visitors sweeping views of Mission Bay from the rolling green hillside. The park also features sports fields and a playground. The park is named after Kate Sessions, a famous horticulturist known as the Mother of Balboa Park. In 1892, Sessions leased 30 acres of land in what was then known as City Park from the city of San Diego to grow her plants. She promised to plant 100 trees a year in the mostly barren park, as well as 300 trees a year in other parts of San Diego. Most of the older trees still seen in Balboa Park — towering eucalyptus, cypress, pine, oak, and pepper trees — were planted by Sessions.
After her Balboa Park lease expired, Sessions moved her nursery operations, first to Mission Hills and then, in 1912, to the Mount Soledad foothills above Pacific Beach. In November 1957, 79 acres of city land east of the old Sessions nursery was dedicated as Kate O. Sessions Memorial Park.
On February 19, 1991, brothers Robert and Vincent Garcia, 20 and 18, were driving along the park's Park Drive around 10 pm when they stopped after noticing they were being followed by a pickup truck. Steven McKinley, also 18, got out of the truck and started arguing with Robert Garcia over a small debt he believed he was owed. McKinley went back to his truck, pulled out a small-caliber pistol, and shot both men. Robert lay dead on the ground; Vincent, shot in the chest and abdomen, drove to a nearby fast-food restaurant and called police. McKinley fled in the truck, which was later found abandoned at Oliver Avenue and Strand Way. Police later arrested McKinley at his home on suspicion of homicide.
In 2019, there were three shooting incidents at Kelly Street Neighborhood Park in Linda Vista.
Photograph by Thomas K. Arnold
Kelly Street Neighborhood Park
This Linda Vista park is a 17-acre city park in the western part of Linda Vista, surrounded on three sides by the Tecolote Canyon Natural Open Space Park. The park’s stated size is deceiving, as most of its acreage runs into the open space. Only in the southeast, near Kelly Street, is there a circle of green lawn and a playground. Police have reported an uptick in gang activity, and a corresponding increase in violent crime, in the residential neighborhood near the park, which in 2019 saw three shooting incidents that left a 16-year-old boy dead and three others wounded.
The fatality occurred on May 23, when 16-year-old Carlos Valdovinos was gunned down in the park. According to newspaper reports, homicide detectives with the San Diego Police Department arrested Andy Chanh Phonsongkham, 20, in connection with the slaying. Phonsongkham was charged with murder and a special circumstance allegation that could result in the death penalty. According to court records, Phongsongkham is a member of an Asian street gang, while Valdovinos was an associate of a Latino gang.
Just a few weeks after Valdovinos was killed, a 20-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy were shot near a memorial for Valdovinos. And in August, a 19-year-old male was shot and wounded near the park.
Lindbergh Neighborhood Park is a small park which butts against Interstate 805 just south of Balboa Avenue in Clairemont. The centerpiece is a playground set inside a large sandbox.
Photograph by Thomas K. Arnold
Lindbergh Neighborhood Park
It’s a small park that butts against Interstate 805 just south of Balboa Avenue in Clairemont. The centerpiece is a playground set inside a large sandbox. On the other side of a walkway that bisects the park are basketball courts. The park is frequented by local residents, many of them families with young kids. The large expanse of lawn is often the site of impromptu soccer games. “Safe park in a safe neighborhood,” writes one Local Guide reviewer.
However, early on the morning of August 27, 2010, police officers responded to a report of gunfire in the park. They found a 15-year-old girl, Joanna Vargas, suffering from a single gunshot wound. Paramedics tried to revive her, but she died at the scene. Young Joanna’s time of death: 1:36 am. According to a San Diego Police Department news release, a “preliminary investigation has revealed that Joanna and her female cousin went to the park with two males. As the group stood in the park, an unknown suspect fired a round at them, striking Joanna. The surviving witnesses noticed a white SUV facing north in the 4100 block of Ashford Street at the time of the shooting. The vehicle drove away at normal speed and was last seen turning westbound on Balboa Avenue. Whether the SUV is related to the shooting is not known.”
Southcrest Community Park
It’s a welcome patch of green, studded with generous shade trees, in the blue-collar community of Southcrest, between Mountain View to the north and east, Shelltown to the south, and Barrio Logan to the west. At the center of the park is a recreation center with indoor and outdoor basketball courts, a weight room, and community meeting rooms. The Southcrest Civic Club built the original building and then donated it to the city of San Diego. Materials and labor were donated by local merchants, residents, and labor unions. The center was dedicated in 1950.
One Yelp reviewer noted, “There is a great hillside with some shade trees for picnic with great views over the city of San Diego. The time I visited, there were tens of families watching kids play baseball, and a few setting up tents and blow-up play slides/bouncy houses to have family/community gatherings.”
But a critic lamented on Foursquare, “Too many loose dogs and homeless.”
Shortly before midnight on Friday, February 7, 2020, an unknown assailant shot and killed a woman and wounded a man in Southcrest Community Park. The murder scene was between two trees towering over a concrete picnic table, near a homeless camp. Leah Michelle Horne, 19, and Adan Duque, 16, were shot by what witnesses described as two Latino men in their 20s, wearing dark clothing. Horne died from her injuries at a hospital, while Duque underwent emergency surgery and survived. Horne’s death was spotlighted on the Facebook page of Dear Humans, which claims to be “the voice of murder victims worldwide.” According to a GoFundMe campaign aimed at helping her dad pay for the cost of her memorial, “Leah was a young, passionate and beautiful woman at the tender age of 19. She was known by all as a firecracker with such an endearing love for her family and of her friends with so much heart. Leah lost her life tragically and brutally to a senseless murder…. Her dad is struggling with not only the loss but now he’s saddled with dealing with the financial aspect of laying her to rest.”
Looks can be deceiving. Oceanside’s Libby Lake Park is one of the most dangerous parks in the county, in the heart of Latino gang territory and, based on Yelp reviews, a place you especially want to avoid after dark.
Photograph by Thomas K. Arnold
Libby Lake Park
A neighborhood park in northeast Oceanside, Libby Lake Park’s signature feature is a man-made lake surrounded by a footpath. Neighborhood kids come here to feed the ducks and then burn off some energy on the playground. The lake is surrounded by lawns generously planted with shade trees, and in the evening, around sunset, the light bounces off the lake and creates some spectacular photo opportunities.
Looks can be deceiving. Libby Lake Park is one of the most dangerous parks in the county, situated in the heart of Latino gang territory and, based on Yelp reviews, a place you especially want to avoid after dark. “I live in the area so I know about this park and the violence…,” wrote one Yelper. “I take my daughter to the playground during the daytime and I walk my dog. It sucks that I still get scared being around here, but I live across the street and it’s a beautiful park to walk. I just don’t stay late! It can get sketchy during the night.”
Another reviewer, also on Yelp, wrote, “This park is notorious for gang activity. I had already been to this park a couple of times before finding out how much of a hotbed it appears to be for gang members and others to hang out in ... and had I known prior, I would never have brought my son here.”
Libby Lake’s negative reputation was reinforced by a pair of fatal gang-related shootings in 2011 and 2013.
On the night of May 3, 2011, a teen couple was brutally gunned down while sitting on a hillside, looking out over the darkened lake. Police found the bodies of Sandra Salgado, 14, and 16-year-old Fernando Solana around 10:30 pm after being called to the scene by reports of gunfire. Relatives said the teens were boyfriend and girlfriend, with no gang ties.
Prosecutors later said four members of a predominantly black street gang went to the park to smoke marijuana. One of them, AL’C Bejaran, had a gun. He saw the pair sitting on the hillside and shot them. It was done in retaliation for an earlier attack on one of his fellow gangsters. Bejaran pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Less than two years later, another deadly shooting took place at Libby Lake Park. On March 13, 2013, a hail of bullets claimed the lives of Edgar Sanchez Rios, 16, and Melanie Virgen, 13. Two other teens were injured. The attack came at 9 pm. The bodies of the two dead teens were found lying near a memorial for the victims of the earlier shooting.
In May 2016, two gang members, Martin Melendrez and Santo Diaz, were were charged with the murders, which prosecutors say were committed in retaliation for gang activity.
Melendrez pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 40 years to life in prison without probation. Diaz pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 39 years in prison.