The sun sets on Friday night and the streets of Phoenix come alive. Teens walk together. Others chat outside a diner. Men and women walk or ride bicycles alone along dimly lit streets.
Warnings about two serial killers in the Valley do not keep any of these people indoors. And police Lt. Robert Sparks doesn’t blame them; he just advises that they be cautious.
“People have to go on living their lives,” he says from a patrol car on the streets targeted by the Baseline Killer and the Serial Shooter.
As he drives, he points out the carwash near 29th Street and Thomas Road where the Baseline Killer last struck. That was at 9:51 p.m. June 29.
But on this night, the scene is quiet as customers wash their cars.
Sparks drives slowly and keeps his eyes on the roads and sidewalks, looking for suspicious people, vehicles or activity. Anything that looks out of place.
But nothing does.
“You look for anything,” Sparks says. “Anything that looks unusual.”
Sparks has served on the force 30 years and says this is the most intense manhunt he’s seen.
The Baseline Killer, connected to six slayings in Phoenix and Tempe, and the Serial Shooter, linked to five slayings in Phoenix and Scottsdale, have the police department working around the clock.
“We’re working on our days off,” Sparks says. “We’re working extra hours.”
The killing sprees are the first things covered at daily briefings, says the 54-year-old patrol shift commander of the Squaw Peak Precinct.
Two city maps hang in the precinct briefing room. One shows the crime spree of the Baseline Killer, and the other shows the path of the Serial Shooter.
Information about the killers is sparse. They both strike at random and target people who are alone, leaving no witnesses. Police have composite sketches of the Baseline Killer but say the drawings most likely show him in disguise.
The Serial Shooter strikes between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., and most survivors describe little more than the sound of a gunshot.
“Some of them just say, ‘Hey, I felt something real sharp in my back, and it was stinging real bad and I never saw anything and never heard anything,’ ” Sparks says from his patrol car.
At 8:30 p.m., a radio call alerts officers to a man matching the description of the Baseline Killer at a coin laundry in the 2000 Block of East Thomas Road. Witnesses say the man has been drinking excessively and staring at an employee.
The task force set up to investigate the serial cases heads to the location, and Sparks continues his patrol.
At 9:15 p.m., he notices a city bus without its lights on sitting outside Maricopa Medical Center. He signals the driver, who turns on the lights.
Later, a young woman rides her bicycle on the sidewalk past a man putting on his shirt at 10th Street and Indian School Road.
After 11 p.m., a 36-year-old shoeless man runs down the middle of North 24th Street toward Sparks’ vehicle. The man, who says he has been using methamphetamine, thinks someone is trying to hurt him.
And so the night goes. Anywhere from 180 to 400 officers patrol the streets of Phoenix at any given hour during the night, but none finds any trace of a serial killer.
“All of them have been briefed and rebriefed and rerebriefed on everything that is expected of them,” Phoenix police spokesman Tony Morales says.
Officers play many roles. When they’re not looking for suspicious people or responding to the evening’s emergencies — which include two officer-involved shootings — they’re reminding people about the serial criminals.
At 11:20 p.m., a seemingly inebriated woman walks down the sidewalk in the 4100 block of North 24th Street and waves at police.
“Be careful,” Sparks tells the woman. “Remember, we’ve got some bad people out here.”
The woman, who says she is celebrating her birthday, continues her journey.
Opinions differ on the level of terror in Phoenix. At last week’s community meeting, some people said they stay indoors after 8 p.m., while others said they cautiously maintain their daily routines.
“They’re out continuing with their lifestyle,” Sparks says. “I don’t think you should live in fear of being a victim. You need to be aware of your surroundings, but don’t be afraid to go out and live your life.”