The year drew to a grim close in Mountain View, with a brutal downtown slaying and a young Google engineer discovered dead in the Bay just a short time later. The year also closed out with two local teachers arrested, and an increasingly difficult burglary problem at parking lots throughout the city.
Besides handling crimes this year, it's been a busy time for the Mountain View Police Department, which has had to adjust and react to shifts in city, state and federal policies. The city of Mountain View's multifaceted approach to the growing homeless population, for example, prompted the department to create new positions designed to reach out to the transient population.
At the same time, California's new recreational marijuana laws has the department preparing for a whole new slate of potential enforcement policies -- particularly when Mountain View allows dispensaries to open up shop within the city. And with fear and uncertainty swirling about a crackdown on federal immigration enforcement, department officials have fought to make it abundantly clear that it is safe to report crimes, because police will not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
First homicide in three years
In a grisly case that still has many lingering questions, Mountain View police arrested a 43-year-old man suspect of attacking and severely injuring a man directly in front of the Center for Performing Arts in downtown Mountain View during the busy evening hours of Saturday, Nov. 4. The victim later died of his injuries at Stanford hospital.
The suspect, identified as Jan Neal, is facing murder charges and is being held in Santa Clara County jail. A former professional bicyclist, police originally identified Neal as a Marin County man, but subsequent court documents list his last known address as being on Stanford Avenue in Palo Alto. Homicide cases are rare in Mountain View, with the last one occurring in 2014 in a backstage shooting at Shoreline Amphitheatre.
The identity of the victim, however, remains a mystery going into 2018. As of Tuesday, the Santa Clara County Medical-Examiner Coroner's Office still had not released the identity of the victim pending "positive identification" and contact with his next of kin, nearly two months after he died. Mountain View police say they have potential identification for the man -- and in the immediate aftermath described him as a 55-year-old man -- but defer to the coroner for the final determination.
The police report describes how Neal allegedly attacked the suspect in Civic Center Plaza with a bicycle, a metal chair and a metal table, prompting officers to use force -- including a wooden baton and a Taser -- in an effort to control Neal and take him into custody. He was sent to El Camino Hospital for an "extremely elevated heart rate" before being transferred to county jail, and did not provide a statement to police.
Mystery surrounds death of Google engineer
Law enforcement have been tight-lipped about details surrounding the death of a 23-year-old Mountain View woman who was found dead in the water along the Bay Trail earlier this month. She was identified as Google engineer Chuchu Ma. Pending the release of the full autopsy report by the coroner's office, the cause of death remains a mystery.
Sunnyvale police are investigating the incident, which is being described as an unattended death, after a bicyclist on the trail reporting a naked body floating in the water near Moffett Field. Although police officials say they aren't ruling anything out, they maintain that there is no danger to the public when using the trail.
Auto burglaries on the rise
Last year's decrease in auto burglaries proved to be short-lived. Mountain View police are grappling with a spike in vehicle burglaries in 2017 that shows thieves are targeting specific, bustling regions of the city with easy access from major freeways and thoroughfares.
Data from the website CrimeReports shows that more than 540 auto burglaries have been reported in Mountain View this year as of late December, significantly higher than the 342 reports made in 2016. Of the 2017 burglaries, over 20 percent reportedly occurred in the In-N-Out Burger parking lot on North Rengstorff Avenue, making it the most targeted spot in the city. Other popular targets include the Century Cinema 16 parking lots on North Shoreline Boulevard, the streets in and around the downtown corridor and the San Antonio Shopping Center.
Police say the problem isn't unique to Mountain View -- neighboring cities like Palo Alto have seen a similar increase throughout the year -- and that officers are ramping up enforcement and investigating cases to bring the burglaries back down.
Though few victims who call police after finding their car looted ever see the perpetrator arrested, detectives at the police department were in the right place at the right time in March when they ran into two suspects peeking into cars in the In-N-Out parking lot. It was a violent confrontation that left one officer seriously injured, after one of the suspects attempted to speed out of the parking lot and rammed an occupied police car, but police were able to arrest both men. The suspect's vehicle, as it turns out, was stuffed with what appeared to be stolen property, police said.
Two teachers arrested
As the year drew to a close, two teachers from local Mountain View schools were arrested within the span of a month, one of whom was accused of sending inappropriate messages to a student.
In early November, police arrested Mountain View High School math teacher Evan Smith, 48, after a female student reported she had received inappropriate text messages from him starting in the summer. School and district officials contacted the police, who later determined there was enough evidence to arrest Smith the next day on charges of sending harmful matter to a minor.
Later that month, Santa Clara police arrested Theuerkauf Elementary teacher Bryan Rios, 36, at his home on multiple sexual assault charges that he allegedly committed in late October. Police say the victims were women he knew, and that the department is not aware of any juvenile victims.
Although Rios was arrested on Nov. 29, he had been put on paid administrative leave by Mountain View Whisman School District officials on Nov. 9. The district declined to comment on why he was put on paid leave weeks before the arrest, and declined to specify when police originally contacted the school district about its investigation.