Austin Police Open Internal Investigation Into South Congress Stabbing
Governor baselessly blames “lawlessness” via tweet
This story has been updated since publication.
Austin Police have opened an internal investigation into an incident that occurred on the morning of Friday, Jan. 3, that resulted in the city's first homicide of the year. Johnathan Aguilar, a longtime Austin resident with deep Eastside roots, was stabbed while opening the Freebirds World Burrito on South Congress, which he managed. Aguilar, 34 and the father of a teenager, later died at the scene.
The suspect, Dylan Woodburn, 27, entered the Freebirds after fleeing from an APD officer responding to suspicious person call at the Bennu coffee shop, located in the same shopping center on South Congress. Witnesses said Woodburn began attacking a customer at the coffee shop as two bystanders restrained him. 911 dispatch received a call reporting the suspicious person at 7:49am, and labeled it as “priority 2” which requires the response from two units. (Update: This paragraph has been clarified with additional information about the incident response.)
At 8:02am, the first unit was assigned, and at 8:09am, they arrived on scene. An officer approached Woodburn with his handcuffs ready, but as he did so, his duty belt became detached. The officer used both hands to reattach it, which Woodburn used as an opportunity to flee. After Woodburn stabbed Aguilar and another Freebirds employee, he climbed the building and jumped from its roof. He died that evening from injuries sustained in the fall.
At a press conference on Monday, Jan. 6, Chief Brian Manley said the department was investigating the incident to ensure the officer's response was "compliant with our policies and practices." Manley added that the officer's belt becoming detached was "unexpected" and that it would be part of the internal review. "We expect to provide our officers with the best equipment," Manley told reporters, "and we expect our equipment to perform appropriately."
It's unclear at this point whether or not the total response time – 20 minutes from when 911 was called until the officer arrived on-scene – is unusual for an early Friday morning call, but an APD spokesperson confirmed to the Chronicle that the internal review would also look at that question. (Update: On Friday, Jan. 10, the department provided media with a timeline of the incident response, saying "According to Emergency Communications Standard Operating Procedures for Priority 2 calls, dispatchers should send the two closest available units within five minutes of the call entering the queue. This did not occur and is part of the internal review." We'll have more information as the story develops.)
Police officials also determined that Woodburn was experiencing homelessness at the time of the alleged homicide, a fact seized upon by Gov. Greg Abbott to attack city leaders over their decision to loosen restrictions on public camping over the summer. Abbott's first tweet on the tragedy came on the evening of Jan. 3, before police officials had confirmed whether or not the suspect was homeless. "When all facts are revealed I bet you'll learn that the killer was a homeless man with prior arrests," the governor wrote. "If so Austin's reckless homeless policy puts lives in danger to murders like this. Austin leaders must answer for their perilous policies."
In another tweet, Abbott clarified his intention, in case anyone had the idea that his fearmongering on homelessness was a threat to some of the most vulnerable people he was elected to represent. "I'm not attacking homelessness," he wrote on Jan. 4. "I'm criticizing the lawlessness promoted by the City of Austin." On Jan. 7, he continued to press this line of baseless misinformation, telling reporters at the Capitol, "What Austin has done over the past half year is to perpetuate a sense of lawlessness in this city about the homeless."
Just what "lawlessness" he's referring to is unclear. In October, Chief Manley shared data that showed the loosened camping restrictions did not result in an increased threat to public safety, while advocates and individuals experiencing homelessness continue to say the new ordinances have provided greater safety to a vulnerable population through increased visibility.
As for the Jan. 3 homicide, investigators say they don't see any reason to connect the senseless tragedy to the ordinance changes. When we asked about any connection, an APD spokesperson sent a statement attributed to Lt. Jeff Greenwalt, who oversees the department's homicide and aggravated assault units. "We have no reason to believe that [Woodburn] was able to commit this homicide as a result of [the ordinance changes]," the statement reads.
If the police department in charge of protecting the city doesn't see any connection between the new rules on public camping and decreased public safety, what is the governor on about, exactly? Council Member Greg Casar, who helped lead the charge on Council to change the camping and no sit/no lie ordinances, has a theory. "Abbott knows that our camping rules are in no way connected to this tragic killing," Casar told us. "But he's happy to get on Twitter and exploit a homicide to score political points, and to demonize all people experiencing homelessness. It's disgusting, but what more can you expect from our governor?"
Aguilar is survived by his wife and son, Amy and Daniel. His family is accepting donations through a GoFundMe page for anyone who is able to help.