Crime & Courts

Fatal Wichita stabbing: the death of a friend

Jason Harding wore dark sunglasses Monday afternoon, so if tears were welling in his eyes, they weren’t visible. But the grief in his voice came through clearly.

Harding’s voice kept catching as he leaned against a big elm tree at River Park Plaza Apartments, at Central and Waco. He was at the same spot where the night before three dozen people gathered in a candlelight vigil to remember their friend and neighbor, Francisco “Tito” Perez.

Police say the 39-year-old died after being stabbed in his chest and abdomen Saturday night during a confrontation on a riverbank walking path behind River Park, where he lived.

“It’s a horrible loss for a lot of people,” Harding said. In recent years, he had been Perez’s roommate, neighbor and co-worker. “His heart and his laugh were twice as big as him,” Harding said.

On Monday, a 25-year-old man and a 27-year-old man remained in the Sedgwick County Jail on suspicion of second-degree murder in Perez’s death, records show. They each had a $500,000 bond. According to state records, the 27-year-old has convictions in 2006 for criminal use of weapons and sale of illegal drugs, and the 25-year-old had a conviction in 2009 or 2010 for burglary of a motor vehicle or aircraft.

Residents of the apartments say the two men have been seen around the riverbank.

Apartment residents say the wooded path along the river is a hangout for homeless people who come there to drink.

Perez’s neighbors and friends said that depending on the weather, he would take food, blankets and beer down to the homeless people gathered by the river.

What led to his stabbing about 8:30 p.m. Saturday isn’t clear. Police on Monday — Labor Day — weren’t available for questions about the killing but are expected to address it at the regular morning briefing for media Tuesday.

Evidently, Perez was on the same riverbank path where he had been charitable in the past when he encountered someone who stabbed him. Just moments before the stabbing, Harding got back a text message from Perez saying “OK” to an invitation to attend a party later that night.

Harding figures that Perez sent his text only about 50 yards from where he got stabbed.

Later Saturday, before Harding learned of the stabbing, he ran into someone who asked, “Did you hear?”

“Hear what?”

“He said, ‘Uh, Tito.’ Said he got stabbed. Said it looks pretty bad.”

Harding later heard that neighbors came out of their apartments to give Perez first aid.

Perez worked a part-time job at a liquor store near the apartments and had worked for years delivering building supplies. He also worked mixing paints. Friends say he had two children who live out of state and who visited him this summer.

The liquor store where he worked has set out a collection jar for donations to pay for his funeral expenses. Taped to the jar is a snapshot of Perez, wearing a wild-colored, frizzy wig and holding a small girl dressed in a bunny costume.

A co-worker at the store, who asked to be unnamed for privacy reasons, said of Perez: “Good guy. Always came to work. Always a cheerful guy.”

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