By JEFF BARNARD
The Associated Press
ASHLAND, Ore. — In this storybook Southern Oregon town, murder is commonplace on the stages of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where sword fights are carefully choreographed entertainment and the blood that spurts is fake.
The real-life slaying of a young grocery clerk, who was nearly decapitated by an apparent stranger wielding a sword or machete, has sent a shiver of horror through Ashland residents and visitors alike, and stumped investigators searching for clues.
A small shrine is growing beside the bike path where 23-year-old David Grubbs was killed last weekend while walking home from work, as he had countless times, as darkness was falling. It’s an open area next to a parking lot where the path goes through a park with ballfields and tennis courts — and past an elementary school — where parents bring their small children to play.
“I’m freaking out,” said Zhawen Wahpepah, who came to the shrine Friday morning with her boyfriend, August Haddick, to burn sage and leave a booklet of music that she and Grubbs had played together as members of a school chamber orchestra. She added it to the candles, flowers, carrot cake, New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, music CDs, photos, and lyrics from the song “Stairway to Heaven.” They all were placed carefully on the ground next to a green metal cross painted with the name David and driven into the ground.
“I think it was a thrill kill,” Wahpepah said. Grubbs “was not into anything bad. He was just really shy and really nice.”
Haddick worked stocking shelves at the Shop’n Kart grocery with Grubbs.
“I used to walk this way home, and now I don’t anymore because of this,” he said. Living in the same student neighborhood, he and Grubbs often walked home together, but Haddick’s schedule on the night of the slaying had him working three hours later, so Grubbs left for home alone.
When Haddick drove by Saturday night with a friend, the spot was cordoned off by police, blue lights flashing. Haddick didn’t know until the next day, when “Rest in Peace” tributes appeared on Facebook, that Grubbs had been killed.
“It’s hard to imagine it could just as easily have been me,” Haddick said.
Ashland is a liberal outpost in conservative rural Oregon. The town of 20,000 is known for good schools, good restaurants, high housing prices and deer that walk freely through town. For the chance to live in the city, many residents are happy to work at low-paying jobs serving tourists.
“It’s like this little paradise,” said Brenna Heater, who knew Grubbs growing up and now works behind the counter of a downtown pizza joint. “The fairy-tale land is like the definition to us. I always use the word magical — our little magical Ashland. New people are coming here every day. The Shakespeare festival keeps this town upbeat and hip.”
Police have little to go on. No one has come forward to report having witnessed the slaying. No weapon has been found. The 911 call came from a woman riding her bike down the path, who was stopped by a man who found Grubbs lying in the bike path. They initially thought Grubbs was passed out, but then saw the deep wounds around his head and neck, Police Chief Terry Holderness said.
The woman saw a man leaving the area, but didn’t get a good look at him.
“This community has very little crime of any type, especially violent crime,” Holderness said. “To have this type of thing happen anywhere is very rare. We are contacting most major police departments up and down the West Coast looking for similar situations and haven’t found any yet.”
A random attack ending with near-decapitation is so unusual that investigators have been unable to find an expert, Holderness added. There is not enough information to develop a profile of the killer.