The woman who was killed at the garbage-strewn end of a north Omaha street died at the hands of man from a nearby homeless encampment, police and witnesses said.
Rachel C. Ham, 32, was killed on Yates Street, about a block east of the intersection with 16th Street, police said. Officers later arrested Ernesto Lugo, 53, on suspicion of second-degree murder and use of a firearm to commit a felony in connection with her death.
The end of Yates Street is near the top of a bluff, at the bottom of which sits a sprawling homeless encampment. Witnesses said Lugo lived at the camp and that he and Ham were there that night. Police were called to the area about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday on a report of people drinking outdoors and screaming.
Francisco Santiago, a homeless man who lives in a field near where Ham was killed, said he heard a gunshot and ran to help Ham. It was too late.
“I stayed with her when she got shot,” said Santiago, 50. “I watched her die.”
He said police showed up quickly and chased down Lugo, who tried to get away but appeared too impaired to run far.
Santiago and Ramon Diaz, 63, said they had known Ham for years.
“She’s a good lady,” Diaz said. “Everybody helped Rachel.”
Lugo, they said, had a drug problem and could be fierce when he had been drinking or smoking crystal meth.
“He’s nice when he’s sober,” Diaz said. “But when he’s drunk, he’s crazy.”
The police report states that were indications that Ham had been drinking Wednesday.
Raul Versalles pointed out the blue camping tent where Lugo lived among about a dozen homeless people near a railroad track. The camp is at the bottom of a bluff strewn with litter and broken glass just below where Ham was shot. Rubber hoses stretched between trees helped the residents to climb up and down the steep hill.
Tony Coleman, 30, said he has lived in an adjacent apartment complex for about six months. He was watching TV when he heard gunshots outside, and then ambulances.
“You come out and see somebody lying in the street,” he said. “It’s a shame.”
He said several residents of the apartment want to get the city to move the homeless people out.
“They need to come over there and bulldoze all that,” Coleman said. “We pay our taxes. We shouldn’t have to live with that.”
Mike Saklar, executive director of the Siena-Francis House, a homeless shelter, said the area had long been the site of a homeless camp.
“There’s been camping up and down that little area for years, for as long as I have been here,” he said.
A First Responders Prayer Walk took place late Thursday afternoon near where Ham was killed.
Sheanna Symons, 20, looked down at a blood stain from her friend’s slaying. She and Ham had stayed together a few months ago at the Siena-Francis House.
“It hurts,” she said. “If I needed help to read, or to spell something, she was there to help me.”
The two would attend Bible study at the Siena-Francis House, and go downtown to the Gene Leahy Mall and sit by the waterway and talk.
“I would tell her my story, how I came here,” Symons, originally from South Sioux City, said. “She always told me it’s OK to cry about things ... Let it out. Jesus is always there.”
Zeferino Cruz Rodriguez, 53, of Omaha, described himself as an ex-boyfriend of Ham’s. He described her as a “beautiful woman” and as a nice person. He didn’t understand why anybody would want to kill her.
During the prayer walk, the Rev. Dave Gehrls, its leader, worked to make sure the homeless people in the area felt welcomed. “This is a safe place,” he said. “No one here is forgotten and we are here to tell you that.”
Said Pastor Greg Johnston: “It moves our heart desperately when we see the bloodstains on this street, oh God ... We pray, God, that there will be a revival, Lord. That there will be love spread, not blood spread, on the streets of Omaha.”
Toward the end, Chico Barnard, 27, of Omaha used plastic bags to tie together two sticks against a nearby tree, making a cross.
World-Herald staff writer Emerson Clarridge contributed to this report.