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Alicia Cube of Take Back Santa Cruz delivers her presentation on city problems brought on by drug users, homeless encampments and dangerous trash Monday night in a public safety committee meeting at the Santa Cruz city Council Chambers packed with concerned citizens. (Dan Coyro/Sentinel)

EDITOR'S NOTE: During the final two weeks of 2012, the Sentinel is taking a look back at the most newsworthy stories and newsmakers of the year. The series was published in ascending order, with today's story named by Sentinel staff as most important. A look back at the year in crime will appear in Monday's edition.

SANTA CRUZ -- The murder of downtown business owner Shannon Collins in broad daylight sent shock waves through the city, putting its reputation as a sanctuary for the homeless and drug-addled in the spotlight.

Policies of city officials were scrutinized and criticized, while homeless advocates called for tolerance. Because of the severity of the attack, as well as the awareness it raised about the mental health and criminal justice systems, the case was selected by Sentinel staff as the top news story of 2012.

Collins, 38, was walking on Broadway to a hairdresser's appointment just before noon May 7 when she was stabbed multiple times in what police said was an unprovoked attack. Collins owned the Camouflage intimate apparel store on Pacific Avenue with her husband, Ken Vinson.

The attack was reported by several residents, who told police they saw a man approach Collins and then attack her with a knife. When officers arrived, Collins lay between a parked SUV and a sedan.

Emergency responders tried to resuscitate her, but she was declared dead at the scene about 12:10 p.m.


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Police set up a perimeter, and minutes later arrested a drifter with a lengthy criminal record and a history of mental illness. Charles Edwards, 43, had been discharged from state parole a few months prior and the San Francisco native had ended up in Santa Cruz, where he spent four nights at the city's Homeless Services Center before the killing.

Edwards had blood on his clothes and was trying to discard evidence when police found him, Deputy Police Chief Steve Clark said. Authorities found a knife apparently used in the attack as well as a jacket covered in blood.

Edwards was "surprised" but did not resist arrest, said Clark. He was booked into County Jail on suspicion of murder.

In September, psychiatric evaluations determined Edwards was not competent to stand trial, a legal term meaning he was deemed incapable of understanding the proceedings against him and participating in his own defense. His attorney, public defender Anthony Robinson, said previously he had difficulty even getting Edwards to speak with him. Edwards had to be removed from the courtroom during several of his appearances because of outbursts.

After Judge John Salazar affirmed the doctors' evaluations, Edwards was sent to Atascadero State Hospital for treatment until his competency was restored. When and if that happens, Edwards will be transported back to Santa Cruz County to stand trial on a charge of first-degree murder.

LONG HISTORY

This isn't Edwards' first stint in a state mental facility. He has been committed to prison mental institutions several times since 1991, and prison medical staff previously diagnosed him as schizophrenic and bipolar. His criminal record includes a long history of substance abuse and two commitments to the California Youth Authority. He has been in and out of prison for much of his adult life, having been convicted of assault, battery, violating parole and making criminal threats toward his mother.

Edwards was sentenced to eight years in prison for resisting an officer with threats or violence in Los Angeles County. He was placed on state parole in November 2010. Under state law, every parolee is entitled to a review of their parole status after a year. However, state law also requires that if a parolee's one-year review date is missed for any reason, that individual must be discharged from parole supervision.

For reasons state officials are still investigating, Edwards' one-year review date was incorrectly entered into the computer system. His actual review date in November 2011 came and went, leading parole officials with no choice but to release him.

Edwards had been serving his parole at Atascadero State Hospital and was thus released in January. Why he came to Santa Cruz is unknown,

THE AFTERMATH

Advocates for the homeless rejected the notion that Edwards was drawn to Santa Cruz because of its homeless services, some of which receive city funding. However, the crime led a panel of City Council members and Homeless Services Center Executive Director Monica Martinez to announce a new set of security measures for the shelter, where Martinez said Edwards raised no red flags during his stay.

One is an identification system to document the name of everyone who receives services, what kind of services and when. The program, which is voluntary based on federal guidelines, will be strongly encouraged when it's fully implemented, Martinez said.

"It's still a project in motion," she said.

In the meantime, the shelter is connected to the national Homeless Management Information System and checks a child sex abuse database before providing services. Still, the killing vastly improved communication between the center, mental health service providers, police and other social services agencies, Martinez said.

"That was a really tragic incident and devastated this community," Martinez said. "If anything it really points out the need for strengthening our mental health system."