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Fatal assault in Oppenheimer Park marks Vancouver’s first homicide of 2020

Vancouver’s first homicide in Oppenheimer Park
There are renewed concerns tonight about the safety of Vancouver's Oppenheimer Park, after a 62-year-old man died after an assault. Rumina Daya reports.

A man has died in hospital following an assault in Oppenheimer Park on New Year’s Day, marking Vancouver’s first homicide of 2020.

Police say the assault took place near the basketball court in the northeast corner of the Downtown Eastside park just before 1 p.m. on Jan. 1.

The 62-year-old victim, identified as Jesus Cristobal-Esteban, was taken to hospital but later fell unconscious.

READ MORE: After latest Oppenheimer Park shooting, critics ask: will it take a death to spark change?

He was pronounced dead on Thursday, police said.

The suspect has not been identified, but police believe the suspect had “some sort of interaction” with Cristobal-Esteban prior to the assault.

Jesus Cristobal-Esteban, 62, died of his injuries after an assault in Oppenheimer Park on Jan. 1, 2020.
Jesus Cristobal-Esteban, 62, died of his injuries after an assault in Oppenheimer Park on Jan. 1, 2020. Submitted by Fiona York

Chrissy Brett, a liaison for the residents of the encampment, said in a statement that Cristobal-Esteban was not a resident of the park but was “a daily visitor” and an elder in the Latino community.

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“This tragic incident affects a close-knit community, with friends across many spectrums and touching many lives,” Brett said. “We are all saddened by losing this community member.”

The death not only marks Vancouver’s first homicide of the new year, but also the first murder inside Oppenheimer Park since a large encampment sprang up over a year ago.

Calls for action at Oppenheimer Park
Calls for action at Oppenheimer Park

The park has seen several shootings involving campers and visitors, and police have also seized numerous weapons while stepping up their presence in the Downtown Eastside.

“It’s unfortunate that people have to feel unsafe in their community or their neighbourhood,” Vancouver police spokesperson Const. Tania Visintin said Friday.

“We’re aware of these concerns [surrounding Oppenheimer Park] and we encourage anyone who witnesses a crime or sees suspicious behaviour to please call police.”

The city and the Vancouver Park Board have spent months arguing over whether to force the campers out through an injunction or wait until adequate housing is built first.

In December, the park board voted to give its general manager the power to seek a court injunction to remove the campers — but only after a series of stringent conditions were met, including bringing in a third-party consultant.

No timeline has been set for when that consultation will take place or be completed. The park board doesn’t reconvene until later this month.

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Coun. Melissa De Genova, who last month wondered whether it would take a death to spark action at the park, says the time has come for the park board to bring an end to the encampment.

“I think it’s really concerning, and I hope the park board will take a look at this and really prioritize safety,” she said.

“I’m calling on the park board again to look at an immediate injunction and expediting that in the hopes that we won’t see another tragedy like this.”

READ MORE: ‘A million dollars so far’: Oppenheimer Park camp sees rising city costs, 53% spike in police calls

Visintin referred to that third party in deciding whether an injunction is warranted, despite the department pushing the park board for an injunction in the past.

Brett called on the city to provide more resources to the campers, including warming tents and sanitation, along with safe housing to address the city’s homeless crisis.

“This is a difficult time of year for many, in many places, and the Downtown Eastside is no exception,” Brett said.

“We continue to call for … supports to provide a dignified life in less than ideal circumstances where vulnerable people are doing the best they are able.”

Renewed calls for action as police investigate yet another violent incident at Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park
Renewed calls for action as police investigate yet another violent incident at Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park

The city has spent more than $1 million on managing and policing Oppenheimer Park since the camp was created, according to city councillors.

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The latest municipal budget allocates an additional $500,000, which was lowered from a planned $1 million for 2020.

Statistics obtained by Global News show police calls between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31 of 2019 are up 53 per cent over the same period the previous year.

—With files from Simon Little