Friends hail slain 86-year-old California woman as hero

A young man was identified Friday as the suspect in the sexual assault and beating death of an 86-year-old California woman. She was remembered as a hero by investigators and neighbors after she used a walking stick to try to stop the alleged assailant from attacking her friend.

Neven Glen Butler, 18, was arrested after he was detained on unrelated assault and elder abuse charges stemming from a separate attack that happened a few miles (kilometers) away, also on Wednesday, said Sacramento sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Tony Turnbull.

Homicide detectives tied Butler to the scene of the sexual assaults of 86-year-old Fusako Petrus and her 61-year-old friend earlier that day while both were out for a walk, Turnbull said. Petrus died after she was badly beaten. Her friend was treated for injuries.

“I think she’s a hero. She gave her life to save her friend,” said Dolores Hines, who lives down the block from Petrus and her walking companion, who authorities have not identified.

The friend was the initial target of the sexual assault about 6 a.m. on the running track of Highlands High School in the North Highlands suburb of Sacramento, Turnbull said.

Petrus was killed after she came back to help, hitting the attacker with what he described as “a small walking stick” to try to fend off the man.

“She died trying to help her friend,” Turnbull said.

The attacker had no weapons and used his hands and feet in the assault, Turnbull said.

A makeshift shrine with candles and flowers was erected on the driveway and tucked into the chain link fence of Petrus’ neatly manicured one-story yellow home with meticulously trimmed shrubs. Neighbors said they were not surprised Petrus tried to stop the assault.

“It sounds like something she’s probably do. She’d help anybody,” said Don Brown, who lives across the street.

Neighbor Lloyd Miller said Petrus met her husband in her native Japan after the World War II. She was a clerk at the store of California’s former McClellan Air Force Base until her retirement, he said.

“She walked every day but Saturdays,” said Miller, 88, who usually watched her leave while eating breakfast by his front window. “I’d always say, ‘Be safe, Fusako’ to myself.”

Her husband died about 15 years ago, Miller recalled, so the neighbors helped each other with routine suburban living chores.

Don Hines, Dolores’ husband, remembered Petrus teaching his family how to make candied persimmons from the fruit growing on a neighborhood tree.

“I don’t know anybody who would not love her and appreciate her,” he said, choking back tears.

Petrus’ attempt to stop the attack on her friend “represented the strong kind of woman she was,” Hines said.

Neighbors considered the high school track a safe place used by many in the community, he said.

“We’re upset at the way she died,” added Dolores. “She doesn’t deserve this.”

Butler, the suspect, is being held without bail on suspicion of murder. He is scheduled to make his first court appearance Monday in Sacramento Superior Court.

Dolores Hines said Petrus’ friend suffered a swollen lip and scratches and bruises running from her neck to her chest from where the attacker tried to strip off her clothing.

The friend told Hines that she was running to get help when she looked back to see the attacker kick the tiny Petrus in her head.

“She’s a very, very brave woman also,” Dolores Hines said of the friend.

A man who identified himself as a son of the victim who survived said she is recovering from her injuries but declined further comment and would not give his name to reporters.

Butler was arrested the same afternoon that he allegedly assaulted a 92-year-old woman a few miles (kilometers) away in another Sacramento suburb, Turnbull said. She was treated at a hospital for facial injuries, Turnbull said.

Butler was booked into the Sacramento County jail then on suspicion of felony assault and elder abuse charges.

“She’d been doing the walk for 40 years,” recalled Dolores Hines, clutching a box of tissues to her chest.

Petrus felt safe in the neighborhood, Hines said, recalling what she told people who worried about her.

“I’ve got a friend who goes with me,” she’d tell friends. “And I’ve got a stick.”

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Associated Press Writer Paul Elias contributed from San Francisco.

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