Berkeley hills neighbors react with shock to murder

The home where Peter Cukor lived, off Park Hills in Berkeley, is largely concealed behind foliage and a wall. Photos: Tracey Taylor

Update, 6:25 pm: BPD issued some new clarifications at 5:00 pm this evening about the February 18th killing. There follows a statement by Operations & Area 2 Commander Lt. Andrew Greenwood:

“BPD received a report of a suspicious person possibly trespassing. The caller calmly reported an encounter with a strange person on his property, and asked for an officer to respond. This call for service was queued for dispatch.

At that time, available Patrol teams were being reconfigured in order to monitor a protest which was to come into Berkeley from Oakland in the next hour. Only criminal, in-progress emergency calls were to be dispatched, due to the reduction in officers available to handle calls for service.

BPD subsequently received a call of an attack in progress on Park Gate Rd. Officers were immediately dispatched to that call.

Officers located the victim and immediately provided first aid. Berkeley Fire Department paramedics had also been assigned to respond, and were en route. Paramedics arrived on scene and took over care of the victim.

We are not identifying the victim at this time.

We are not releasing the booking photo at this time. We are working to insure that any subsequent identifications are not compromised through release of the photograph.

We have no further information available at this time.

The investigation in this case continues and is on-going. The suspect, Daniel Jordan Dewitt, remains in custody.”

Original story: Neighbors and the community at large reacted with shock to the seemingly random and brutal murder of Peter Cukor, 67, on Saturday night outside his home on Park Gate in the Berkeley hills.

The Berkeley police have not revealed the name of the victim, but the Chronicle identified Cukor, a chemical engineer who ran a systems integration and consulting firm, based on conversations with neighbors and public records.

Daniel Jordan Dewitt, 23, of Alameda, was arrested on suspicion of murder on Saturday night, less than a block away from the assault. Dewitt, who, Alameda Patch reports, is the grandson of former Alameda city councilman and civic leader Al DeWitt, is being held without bail.

Dewitt’s mother, Candy Dewitt, told the Chronicle her son suffers from mental illness.

One neighbor said crime was on the increase in the area, while another said he did not feel unsafe there

Cukor and his wife returned home around 8:45 pm on Saturday night and saw Dewitt loitering near their garage. Cukor told Dewitt to leave, went inside the house, then came out again and was attacked, according to BPD. A potted plant was allegedly used in the attack.

According to the Chronicle, a call was made to the police on a non-emergency line, but police were busy monitoring an Occupy Oakland march to UC Berkeley, and officers were being dispatched only to high-priority calls.

The Chronicle reports: “An officer who noticed the call about Dewitt on his computer told a dispatcher he would respond, but was told not to go, sources said. Minutes later, the victim’s wife heard her husband yelling for help and called 911 after seeing the suspect dragging him into bushes and hitting him with a potted plant, sources said. Officers responded and gave the victim first aid until paramedics arrived. He was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.”

The neighborhood where the assault took place is quiet and close to the hills of Tilden Park

Writing on Berkeleyside’s Facebook page, Charles Ostman, who has lived on Shasta Road for 32 years, said: “This is a sad moment for this area, not only for this victim and his family, but for this area. . . murders and crime are edging ever further into what had been a very quiet and safe neighborhood.”

Charley Pappas, who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years, said his van has been vandalized and there have been numerous burglaries nearby, but the neighborhood is a good one. “I don’t really feel unsafe here,” said Pappas. “Not at all.”

However, three of his attendants (Pappas uses a wheelchair) get off the bus at Grizzly Peak and Shasta Road, near the slaying, and he is concerned they will now feel uncomfortable walking to his house.

Cukor was a key player in a 14-year long campaign to build a firehouse on Shasta Road in the wake of the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley firestrom. Cukor opposed the original plans for Firehouse 7, which is sited on Shasta Avenue across the street from his home, but he told the New York Times that the end result, which was completed in 2006, was “gorgeous”.

Dewitt will be arraigned in Department 112 of Alameda County Superior Court on Wednesday.

The murder is the second homicide of 2012 in Berkeley. Kenneth Warren was murdered in south Berkeley on January 26th. There was just one homicide in Berkeley last year.

Intruder assaults, kills homeowner on Grizzly Peak [02.19.12]

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  • walker and dog

    I’m so sorry for the Cukor family. I was turned away by BPD from my routine evening walk with my Scottish Deerhound as we approached Shasta. I didn’t take him out Sunday night. We’ll go tonight, but probably a different route. I don’t feel as safe now. We have occasionally encountered an unpredictable pedestrian on our walks these past 2 yrs., but I’ve been more wary of mountain lions or skunks. My wife’s car was vandalized a few months ago, but it has generally felt quite safe and quiet up here.
    I am still puzzling over how the events of this crime occurred. Did the perpetrator accidentally end up on the property, thinking the driveway was a pathway to the park? It is right there at the Tilden entrance. He was probably confused. An interview with the mother of the alleged tellingly described her son as trying to “self treat” his condition without meds- diet / exercise alone. That is rarely, if ever, going to yield positive results.

  • Concernedresident

    let’s be clear about why there was a “reduction in available officers,” shall we?

  • Berkeleynative

    And what of reports that the officer wanted to respond but was ordered not to because of concerns about Occupy on Campus? It would be helpful to have this confirmed. 

    This tragedy should not have happened to this family. It sounds like the officer’s instincts could have saved a life.

    Finally, the excuse that the caller was “calm” seems to me the worst kind of buck passing: we did not respond because he was “calm”? Yes, and let’s not test for cancer because the patient is not worried. 

  • As I’ve said elsewhere, the information I want from BPD is clarifying the facts surrounding the “non-response”.  As stated on the BPD website (below), for Priority 2 items like a threat, there should be a dispatch in 20 minutes.  It sounds like that wasn’t the case here, which is indefensible.  If Berkeley was trying to avoid an image problem by maximizing their presence at an Occupy event, they deeply tarnished it by ignoring the pleas of residents.

    Q. How are calls prioritized at Berkeley Police Department?All calls for service are given a predetermined priority code based on the activity that is being reported.· Priority 1:  Calls dispatched immediately. These calls include situations involving threat to life, crime of violence, in progress felonies, missing juveniles (under 12 years old), and accidents with injuries.· Priority 2:  These calls should be dispatched within 20 minutes. They include situations involving business or residential alarms, calls with a threat of violence, and suspicious circumstances (involving suspicious vehicles, or suspicious persons).· Priority 3:  These calls should be dispatched within 60 minutes. These are calls in which a significant amount of time has passed since the crime occurred. These include crimes such as burglary, thefts, vandalism, with the responsible parties gone.· Priority 4 and 5:  These calls include parking matters and abandoned automobiles.

  • Hills Resident

    We just can’t have those communist occupy folks out there doing anything without every single cop watching their every move, now can we? This was (yet another) horrible decision by the BPD. Does anyone there have a clue?

  • Pancetta13

    This is a thorny issue, for sure. First of all, this is a tragedy – there is no way around it. I’m very sorry for the family – and I find it really upsetting as I’m a neighbor.  There will always be a question of “why” this happened: was it a random wrong person/wrong place situation, is it the 99%ers fault because they were protesting (also their American right), or is it this or that, but the reality is (IMHO) that we should NOT have to choose whether our police department is out dealing with a protest OR whether they are dealing appropriately with calls from residents. They should be able to do both.Why are we blaming other residents of the area for a problem with the system? There should be more police surveillance in the Hills, period. There are countless car break-ins up here, and the truth is there is more crime up here because the criminals know that this is considered a “safe” area, and guess what….the police aren’t up here very much.If we could get them up here (since last time I checked, we pay the same taxes/more as the rest of Berkeley) doing more patrols, we could actually keep it safer. I’m sure I’ll get flames on this….. but I’m just stating the reality. 

  • John Holland

    Was the victim killed within 30 minutes of the non-emergency call? (20 minutes for dispatch, 10 minutes to get up the hill)

    If so, how would police protocol have helped in this instance?

  • Guest

    occupy oakland are the real terrorists

  • I would love to know.  Details will hopefully emerge.

  • Reid6826

    I am very familiar with the Berkeley dispatch system and they are literally incompetent.  They lack common sense and in some cases can’t even speak clearly, and in some cases have trouble speaking simple English.  They have on more than one occasion put people’s lives at risk due to poor dispatch procedures.  Think I am lying?  Go to the tapes.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    If you look at BPD’s crime maps for the city, you’ll quickly see that, in fact, there is NOT “more crime up [t]here.”  

    Regarding increased police presence — sure, that might make sense.  Maybe adding a police substation to lower response times would be smart.  Perhaps it could be housed in the fire station that the victim in this crime resisted (then ultimately assented to) for so many years.  

  • PragmaticProgressive

    If that is true, I hope you’ll find some way to relay this to the department so that they can make improvements.  I’ve only called them a handful of times and had the opposite experience, but my calls have never been emergencies, thankfully.

  • BHills

    The brutal killing of Peter Cukor is tragic.  As a neighbor of the Cukors, our thoughts are with his family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

    The Berkeley police MUST NOT be blamed for what happened to Mr. Cukor.  I call on our district representative to measure her words carefully when speaking to the press about her ‘investigation’ into the police response to Mr. Cukor’s call to police dispatch.

    It is clear that had the police been present to handle the situation between Mr. Cukor had the person who killed him, Mr. Cukor still would be alive.  This observation also makes clear the value that the police have to us who choose not to arm ourselves against intruders. 

    The reality is that it was the Berkeley Police who were medical first responders for the victim since there were no firemen at the station a few steps away from the crime scene.  It also was the Berkeley Police who apprehended the suspect with dispatch.  (A separate issue is whether the ‘suspect’ can get a fair trial when his mother and father both have issued proxy confessions of his guilt in the press.)

    The police obviously attended to the victim’s wife appropriately and to the crime scene, ensuring that they collected and properly handled evidence to be used in prosecuting the suspect.  (It is disturbing that the press, in its haste to report on this crime, is affecting the investigation by revealing information such as the suspect’s photograph before the police wish it to be made public.)

    These decisive actions by the Berkeley Police are invaluable for the immediate peace of mind of people living in the neighborhood and for the proper prosecution of the suspect.  We can only wish that they also had been able to save Mr. Cukor’s life.

  • Charles_Siegel

     I also have found them very competent in responding to non-emergency calls.

  • Enough Blaming

    Hindsight’s 20/20, folks — I am sure BPD gets tons of calls of suspicious looking people outside of homes and they have to prioritize based on how much the caller is panicking. This was a terrible terrible incident, but how could anyone have predicted that the suspect would attack like that? Obviously the homeowners would not have left their house had they known the guy was violent. And BPD would have responded quicker had they known, whether or not Occupy was taking their attention away. I’m not sure we can blame any of the players here, other than a system that lets paranoid schizophrenics wander the streets unmedicated.

  • Some have commented about the timing of the police response to this
    tragic incident. I happened to witness the police response in its early stage. I
    had picked my friend up at the Claremont Hotel and had agreed to meet my wife
    at 9:10 pm at the Corso restaurant on Shattuck Ave. for a 9:15 pm dinner
    reservation. We got across town sooner than expected and my friend was telling
    me an interesting story so I extended the drive north on Euclid to Cedar to
    fill up the time. Before I turned left on Cedar to get to Shattuck, I recall
    checking the time and noticed that it was after 9:00 pm – I believe around 9:03
    pm to be precise. As we headed west on Cedar I soon noticed in the distance
    several blocks away the two police cars in the other lane with lights flashing
    traveling at a high speed and knew that I would have to pull over which I soon
    did near the intersection of Arch Street and Cedar to allow them room to
    continue and that was around 9:04 pm by my reckoning. Since I used to live up
    on Buena Vista Way in the Berkeley Hills, I figure it must have taken the police
    another 5-10 minutes at least (depending on traffic) to reach Shasta and
    Grizzly Peak.

  • Animaland

    Very sad indeed.  Note to the residents of North Berkeley Hills:  Hopefully we can learn from this and pull together instead of continuing to shun each other.   We need to be friendlier towards each other and create networks.  There is no neighborhood watch, and no one cares about anyone else.  You know, there was an EMT and a cop living down the street?  Let’s start with by saying “hi” instead of fighting over street parking and other entitlement issues.  Also, don’t stare judgementally when you see someone of color or someone under the age of 40 in the neighborhood.  Get real we are just people!

  • Geezr1

    Too bad the victim didn’t meet this animal with a shotgun.

  • berkeleyboo

    My heart does out to the Cukor family. I have lived in the berkeley hills my whole life, and it is always a shock when tragedy strikes so close to home. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Cukor, who did not react with fear or aggression, but with reason. He did not call 911 at first glance of a “suspicious person”, but reported it through the proper channels, and then did the reasonable thing of walking next door to the fire station. This alone speaks about the depth of his character. 

    Unfortunately, there are crazy and neglected people in this world. Weather you meet them on your door step, or in the whole foods parking lot, it is completely random. We do not need to beef up security patrols, increase the police force, or anything like that. The solution is simple, if someone is sick, help them. 

    Again, my deepest condolences to the Cukor family and friends. 

  • The Sharkey

    The communists aren’t the problem.
    The anarchists are.

  • BHills

    Dear Geezr1:

    This is my neighborhood.  What is ‘too bad’ is that violence occurred here.  This is a disaster for all concerned.  The tragedy and shock would have been just as great had Mr. Cukor, as you so artlessly put it, met [the intruder] with a shotgun.

  • Nicolelwebber

    Any quick google search of the poor victim explains to me why he was calm and not afraid: the poor man survived the holocaust. My heart and prayers go out to his wife, children, and grandchildren

  • Take time to read

    You have the wrong Peter Cukor. The Peter Cukor you googled but failed to read the article died in 2007. In Massachusetts.

  • well protected

    A beautiful home like that, heavily vegetated, surrounded by, count them, three roads, aware, contributing, intelligent people – did they not keep dogs? The ignorant humans living on the flat parts of the Bay Area fill their yards with pit bulls and chihuahuas. Why do so many highly educated people always have reasons why they don’t have dogs? Neighborhood Watch? Hah. Doesn’t exist anymore, at least where I live. Dogs are better than any neighborhood watch. They hear incredibly (even when the tv or music is on) see incredibly (even in the dark) and smell incredibly (even the slightest whiff of smoke). If every home in that neighborhood was to get a dog there would be no prowlers, home burglaries, home intrusions. Because dogs pass the bark along. They literally TELL tell the neighborhood when something is wrong. There is no reason for not having a dog. Every reason somebody could come up with has a solution. And yes I agree, a shotgun would have been a help too.

  • Prefernot

    If you will, please suggest some effective methods whereby the elderly victim could have defended himself right before he died.

  • Yummy Yammy Fun Runner

    Very tacky….”ignorant humans living in flat parts of the Bay Area…”  Get real. We’re all just average citizens (unless you have an Olympic Gold medal or a Nobel prize).  Anyway, some people are cat people and don’t appreciate the company of dogs. 

  • Timberviewhomes

    I too am so sorry and my heart goes out to the Cukor family in their horrific and traumatic loss. What continues to disturb me and worry me (as a resident of this neighborhood) is that I have seen no mention in any media story that the accused suspect, Daniel Jordon Dewitt, RESIDES at 144 Fairlawn Ave., i.e., IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD where the murder took place. The residence is listed on Zillow under other members of the family. In other words, he lived right near by the Cukors. He too is a neighbor. He is and has not been living in ‘Alameda’ as the media has repeatedly reported.

  • Lisaview

    I live very close to the crime scene and I have to correct you to say that  there are several  very well attended and coordinated neighborhood associations in this part of the Berkeley Hills.

  • Bob 22

    How come there is no reciprocity agreement with the Kensington Police Department for overload occurrences  such as this?

    On June 16, 2009 ( before Mike Meehan became chief ) I was driving home withy my wife, in north Berkeley, and we saw a thief coming out our front door, with some of my possessions ( he placed them on our driveway and went back inside for more ; we later found out that a never caught accomplice, with a van, was supposed to pick the stuff up ). 

    I drove up the street and called 981-5911 on my cell phone ( the emergency number, felony in progress ).

    The dispatcher asked questions and then very specifically requested that I remain on scene and monitor the situation.

    The response time was over 20 minutes ( in that interim I conversed with the dispatcher regarding same and was not given a straight answer, as it turned out ).

    After an arrest was made, I asked the on-scene Supervisor regarding the amount of time it took for help to arrive ( I believe I noted that I literally could very well have ridden a bicycle from police headquarters to the crime location in less time ).

    She ( a sergeant ) looked me square in the eye and told me it would not have been safe for a lone officer to deal with the situation single-handedly, ergo the delay.

  • BHills

    I am sorry to take so long to reply to this question.  I have two specific responses one of which was posted to a different Berkeleyside story about Mr. Cukor.

    First, I am confident that most of us in this situation would have remained indoors after being able safely to get inside.  I hasten to add that this is NOT as a criticism on Mr. Cukor’s decision to go back outside.  Rather I suggest that HAD Mr. Cukor stayed indoors, he might have avoided the horrific attack that took his life.  Therefore, my first suggestion is to remain sheltered and wait for help to arrive.  This suggestion applies to people of any age confronted with a similar situation.

    The suggestion previously made elsewhere on Berkeleyside is that there ALWAYS should be at least one person at any fire station.  This attack happened literally in the shadow of the Berkeley Hills Station.  The firemen stated to me that they would have intervened EVEN IF Mr. Cukor had not sought their help because they would have heard any altercation that was taking place on Mr. Cukor’s property.

    As it is, the press consistently has reported the Mr. Cukor left the shelter of his home to go to the fire station for assistance AFTER calling the non-emergency police number.  Presumably, only he knew his reason for doing so and we never will know the reason.  What we do know is that had there been even one firefighter at the station, Mr. Cukor  would have avoided being attacked.

    My recommendation, then, is that all fire stations have at least one firefighter on duty at all times.  Part of the rationale for that suggestion is that fire stations are surrender sites for surrendered babies, newborn children who need constant attention.

    Even in an era where there is organized opposition to increased taxes and fees, I beleive that this particular expenditure is fully justified.  Had this policy already been in place, this tragedy would have been avoided.

  • She

    Oh, please. “Ignorant humans living on the flats?” Who are you, the head of the local Eugenics Society? The notion that hiding inside might have saved Mr. Cukor’s life is just that – a notion. When a psychotic announces he is a psychic and has been told to enter your house to find his fiancee, you can’t assume he won’t kick in the door, or climb in a window. I think that the real ignorant human beings are the ones naive enough to believe that evil and insanity can be stopped by good intentions and hiding and that passively being murdered is virtuous.

  • Prefernot

    An intervening firefighter would have likely enabled a better outcome, better than what happened and better than the victim shooting the intruder.  However, it would have been preferable for the victim to have shot the intruder rather than suffer a such a brutal death.  Public services and personal defense are both imperfect means of protection; victims chances for survival are maximized if they can utilize both modes of protection.

  • BHills

    The circumstances of Peter Cukor’s death are shocking, mind-numbingly unfair, and profoundly frightening.  Like you, I deeply wish Mr. Cukor had survived even if his younger and
    stronger attacker had not.

    Because I am sad about and scared by what happened, I have tried to think carefully about it and to confine my consideration of this killing to the information I have read in the press, heard on news broadcasts, discussed with firefighters at the Berkeley Hills Fire Station, and learned from personal friends of Mr. Cukor and of the suspect and his family.

    I recognize that another way to change the outcome of this attack would have been for Mr. Cukor to have owned and chosen to use a lethal weapon.  I’ve no idea whether or not Mr. Cukor owned a gun but have heard no suggestion that he attempted to one.  For this reason, my suggestions did not include the use of lethal force against the attacker.