Mother’s life cut short

Recent killing of homeless woman reminiscent of 2015 murder in Chico

Audra Houston leaves behind two young children.

Audra Houston leaves behind two young children.

Photo courtesy of Facebook

Audra Houston’s life certainly wasn’t easy. Addicted to methadone by age 12, she faced an uphill battle from the start. But she was also blessed with a magnetic personality that made her easy to get along with, easy to love.

“She was vibrant and outgoing and fun to be with,” said Sharon Corley, grandmother of Houston’s two young children. “She’s someone I will miss very much. She was like a daughter to me.”

Corley and the rest of her family are now in mourning, as 34-year-old Houston was found dead last week in a room at Chico’s Safari Inn. She’s unsure of how to talk to her grandsons about their mother’s passing. “They don’t understand,” she said.

The women met when Houston was a teenager. She’d attended high school with Corley’s son, Justin Kraus. They reconnected five or six years ago, when Corley ran into Houston and her mom, and invited the two over to dinner. “Audra had had a crush on Justin,” Corley recalled. “It eventually evolved into a loving relationship. … It’s been really hard on him.”

Houston became addicted to methadone as a preteen, after being exposed to it through her mother, who died about a year and a half ago, Corley told the CN&R.

“Our family had never experienced methadone,” said Corley, a former operating room nurse. “It took a lot for us to prepare ourselves for that lifestyle, and not wanting the grandchildren to be exposed to the methadone clinic.”

Recently, Houston and Kraus had broken up, Corley said, but they had plans to reunite. Houston had made an agreement with the Safari Inn to trade work for a room, in an effort to better herself. “She was trying so hard,” she said.

A maid found Houston’s body underneath the bed in her room at the Safari Inn last Wednesday (July 12). She’d been beaten and strangled, said Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey. There was no evidence, however, that she’d been raped.

“She fought for her life,” Corley said by phone from her home in Paradise. There was sadness in her voice. “She didn’t deserve what happened to her.”

Upon arriving at the scene, Chico police detectives immediately named a suspect—Marc Valcarenghi, a 39-year-old homeless man who’d also been staying at the Safari Inn. According to Ramsey, there was video surveillance of a suspect—believed to be Valcarenghi—pulling the screen off the window of Houston’s room and climbing in, only to emerge several hours later.

“There were indications that people were taking drugs, including the suspect,” Ramsey said. Autopsy results will determine whether Houston had any drugs or alcohol in her system.

The case, Ramsey said, reminded him of a murder that occurred in Chico in 2015—that of Cass Edison, another homeless woman. Edison had been beaten and strangled and discarded. And like in this case, a suspect was named immediately—Christopher Swihart pleaded no contest to murder in Edison’s killing and was sentenced to 17 years to life in prison.

“They live in a dangerous world,” Ramsey said of the homeless population. “There are people out there that they associate with, live with, camp with, that have records. It can be a violent world.”

He sees the homeless population as a vulnerable one, one that falls victim to robberies, assaults, thefts and rapes. “Anecdotally, they are more at risk because of the environment in which they live,” he said, adding that women may be even more vulnerable, if only because they “have less ability to physically defend themselves against bigger and stronger males.”

Valcarenghi was on probation for previous drug offenses when he was found and arrested a little after 2 a.m. Monday (July 17) sleeping in some bushes near the Great Harvest Bread Co. on The Esplanade. He was scheduled to be arraigned after press time on Wednesday (July 19).