SAN JOSE -- It started as an act of vigilante justice by an apartment maintenance worker and his boss fed up with the lack of police response to a string of burglaries. But their attempt to detain a suspect on New Year's Eve ended with the worker purportedly committing the city's 46th and final homicide of 2012.
It is unclear what, if any, evidence the two had suggesting 36-year-old San Jose resident Christopher Soriano was responsible for the burglaries at the Summer Breeze Apartments near the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. Additionally, the gun Luis Ricardo Hernandez is accused of using to kill Soriano was illegally bought.
Hernandez has been charged with murder in the killing, which added fuel to an already white-hot debate over public safety in the Bay Area's largest city in the wake of deep cuts in police staffing and an exodus of officers to other agencies. Some residents are applauding Hernandez, while police officials and criminal justice experts warned the public against taking the law into their own hands.
Sgt. Jason Dwyer, a spokesman for San Jose police, said he sympathizes with the fear some residents have felt in the midst of rising crime rates in the city, including a 20-year high in homicides. But he said those worries do not justify vigilante acts.
"We do not want people to start intervening because of the potential for violence," Dwyer said. "A lot of these suspects, they're career criminals who have been to prison and don't want to go back. This is what they do for a living. A lot of them will take you on."
Dwyer added: "People can do something, but this isn't it. Your life is not worth a piece of property that can be replaced."
Dwyer acknowledged lower-level crimes are necessarily given less priority than violent crimes, a far cry from a decade ago, and said officers are doing the best they can with what they have. That hasn't stopped some residents from lionizing Hernandez, fueled by frustration over slower police response times or no response at all for certain crimes, especially those involving property.
A litany of online comments on the Mercury News website over the past two days once news of the shooting's circumstances surfaced were largely sympathetic to the defendant.
"Release the suspect. He saved the taxpayers a lot of money defending a known criminal," one commenter wrote.
Said another: "Give the man a medal."
New details about the shooting were released Thursday as Hernandez, 26, is being held without bail in Santa Clara County Jail on suspicion of killing Soriano, who police and court records portrayed as a career criminal with a history of theft offenses.
According to police, Hernandez's maintenance supervisor at the apartments on Lewis Road noticed a truck pulling into a garage about 9:25 a.m. on Dec. 31 and remembered seeing it about the time of previous burglaries there. The supervisor said based on what he felt was inadequate police response to previous calls, he didn't believe officers would come, according to the report.
Fed up -- and having been a burglary victim himself -- he enlisted Hernandez's help to detain the driver, since identified as Soriano, until they could get police to show up, according to police. The supervisor is not being named by this newspaper because he has not been arrested or charged with a crime.
Police did not say whether Soriano was actively committing a burglary when he was confronted by Hernandez and his supervisor.
The two men told Soriano that they were going to hold him for police. Soriano started to leave, but Hernandez and the supervisor tried to pin him to the ground. Soriano broke free. Hernandez shot Soriano once with a handgun police say was not legally purchased
Paramedics tried to revive Soriano but he was pronounced dead about 30 minutes after the fight started. The Santa Clara County Medical Examiner's Office conducted an autopsy the next day and concluded Soriano was shot from close range and "was likely on the ground or in a crouching position when he was shot."
Police say Hernandez admitted to shooting Soriano as he tried to get away, and expressed remorse, and also admitted to initially lying to officers about the circumstances of the struggle. Surveillance video captures some of the incident, including images of Hernandez wrestling with Soriano while holding a gun.
One legal expert said it appears Hernandez and his supervisor acted without much evidence -- beyond a strong suspicion.
"These people illegally restrained someone, in the course of which they wrongly used deadly force when they were not threatened," said Edward Steinman, a law professor at Santa Clara University specializing in criminal justice. "At most it was protecting property, but then you can only use non-deadly force."
Hernandez is scheduled to appear in court Friday.
San Jose police union President Jim Unland, who has long warned that understaffing in the police department would lead to crime spikes, echoed the warning against residents taking on criminals.
As of Thursday, the police department had just over 1,000 street-ready officers, and after subtracting for modified duty or disability, 930 officers who are considered ready to be deployed today.
"I feel terrible for this guy sitting in jail right now and the fact that they felt that there was no one to help them," Unland said. "If they can't rely on the city to provide these services, the action is to take it to City Hall."
"I hope they learn there are serious consequences to taking matters into their own hands. They're not trained to do this. We are."
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.