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Santa Rosa killer eludes police search

Published: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 3:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 7:11 a.m.

Ten weeks after a homeless woman was found fatally stabbed near downtown Santa Rosa on a busy stretch of Fourth Street, police have tracked her movements to just hours before her Nov. 1 death.

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Michela Wooldridge

But it remains unknown who killed Michela Wooldridge, 24, a one-time Cloverdale High School student who lost her way in life and wound up on the streets, where she lost her life.

"We're still following up on leads, and we're still getting a few coming in here and there," said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Dave Linscomb, who oversees violent crime investigations. "There's still evidence out that's being looked at -- crime scene evidence and whatnot. But at this point, we don't have a suspect in the case."

A $2,500 reward is being offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction, and police have questioned scores of people -- perhaps more than 100 -- with whom Wooldridge interacted during her six weeks or so in town, Linscomb said.

They also tracked down a boyfriend she met in Santa Rosa, but he was checked in at the Sam Jones Hall homeless shelter on the night and early morning of Wooldridge's death, and investigators "have pretty well ruled him out," Linscomb said.

The unsolved slaying has left Wooldridge's mother, Beth Vawter, in a state of perpetual grief.

"I pretend it's not true," Vawter said through sobs from her Humboldt County home. "I miss her so much."

Vawter had not seen her daughter for several months before she learned Wooldridge had left a Humboldt County treatment center and headed for Santa Rosa, hoping to find some more help for drug abuse and emotional problems.

Wooldridge had recently lost custody of her then-2-year-old son to the boy's father in Lake County and apparently resumed using drugs after what her mother and stepfather said had been several drug-free years.

They said Wooldridge was distraught over losing the child and over decades of family dysfunction and what they said were emerging memories of sexual abuse that contributed to her emotional distress and drug use.

Wooldridge reportedly took a bus from Ukiah to Santa Rosa in late September or early October to take part in a one-year treatment program through Victory Outreach Women Christian's Recovery Home.

Her former boyfriend, Nick Azbill of Clearlake, said Wooldridge last called him and their son on Oct. 11 and said she was leaving the program with a man she had met.

Linscomb said Wooldridge stayed for a time at the Sam Jones shelter, then left there as well. For the last two weeks of her life, she stayed at various campsites around town with different people she had met, he said.

Wooldridge was known at The Living Room day shelter for women and children and at the Interlink Self-Help Center, both service agencies in downtown Santa Rosa.

On Oct. 31, she and her new boyfriend attended an Interlink Halloween party at midday, Linscomb said. They then went to Santa Rosa Plaza, where they eventually became separated. The boyfriend was trying to find Wooldridge when he had to leave to make check-in time at Sam Jones Hall, Linscomb said.

Police believe Wooldridge lingered, likely leaving the mall around closing, and later was at Juilliard Park with other homeless people, leaving sometime after midnight.

Police also have a witness account from a woman who drove down Montgomery Drive shortly before 2 a.m. Nov. 1 and saw a woman cross in front of the car who matched Wooldridge's description, Linscomb said.

The woman "was able to describe her to the point that we're fairly convinced it was her that she saw," he said.

Authorities believe Wooldridge was killed a short time later, stabbed multiple times and left to die on Fourth Street near Leland Street, about 1,000 feet from the Montgomery Drive bridge.

Anyone with information about Wooldridge's death can call police anonymously at 975-1106.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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