Last Updated: Tuesday, May 9, 2000, 4:15 p.m.

Lt. Torin Fischer briefs Southgate residents at a meeting
Tuesday to discuss the police investigation.
Weekly Photo by Kate Robertson

Police try to ease Southgate residents' fears

Police probing the slaying of Palo Alto music teacher Kristine Pedersen Fitzhugh released few details of their investigation at a meeting of about 100 Southgate area residents Tuesday, but they tried to assure the audience that the neighborhood is still safe.

"We are very tight-lipped, we don't want to jeopardize the investigation, or God forbid, an arrest, or a trial," said public information officer Jim Coffman.

But Lt. Torin Fischer, responding to a resident's question as to whether she should allow her 16-year-old daughter to walk home from Palo Alto High School, said, "I would not stop my child, if I had teenage children, from going home. I would not say, 'Don't walk home alone.'

"I think there is always a threat around, I want people to leave here a little bit more concerned . . . but not paranoid," Fischer said.

Police Agent Jim Coffman said investigators, wearing body suits to avoid contaminating the crime scene, are still

Southgate resident Helen Sandoval expresses her concerns about security in the neighborhood.
Weekly Photo by Kate Robertson

combing through the house for hairs, blood stains, fibers and other evidence. "We have officers on their hands and knees looking at things through a magnifying glass," he said.

"The lack of information (now) doesn't help you, but eventually it will help us," he added.

The meeting, held at Palo Alto school district offices at 25 Churchill Ave., was called by police Monday as news spread that Fitzhugh's death Friday had been classified as a homicide. When Fitzhugh's body was found at the foot of the basement stairs in her Escobita Avenue home, her death was presumed to be an accident.

Police at the meeting said the significance of recent crime in the neighborhood--including a string of burglaries last fall--had been exaggerated. Since January 1999, they said, six burglaries--two of them auto burglaries--one petty theft and a few incidents of vandalism had been reported in the neighborhood.

Police said plainclothes officers had patrolled the area after the burglaries and that while no arrests were ever made, the burglaries stopped months ago.

"Those crime statistics, in and of themselves, are not alarming," Fischer said. "This is a safe place to live, but yes, crime does occur."

One resident related how, at the time of the burglaries, one police officer she talked to didn't even know burglaries had occurred in the area. "To me this is a big deal," said Helen Sandoval. "This is my neighborhood. There needs to be more communication." "I will acknowledge that we have not always done a good job of communicating with each other," Fischer said. "We're working to improve that."

Police also announced at the meeting that Family Service Mid-Peninsula will be offering assistance to families and children seeking counseling to cope with the killing.

On Monday, Palo Alto school district officials prepared a letter for distribution to parents of children at the six district schools where Fitzhugh taught, advising them how to help their children deal with grief.

District administrator Terry Naylor said the district is leaving it to the the principal at each school to decide whether to send out the letter.

Fitzhugh taught at Addison, Duveneck, El Carmelo, Escondido, Fairmeadow and Nixon elementary schools.

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