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San Diego Union-Tribune
By Joe Hughes, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
November 21, 2003
Sifting through a box overflowing with photos, Sheila Newbery is looking at more than just pictures. She is searching for clues. The collection belonged to San Diego fashion photographer Tobias “Toby” Branton, who police said fatally stabbed a downtown hotel manager before killing himself by running in front of a passenger train Aug. 19 in Encinitas.
Branton’s small circle of friends, as well as the devastated relatives of the man who was killed, Francisco Valdovinos, 22, are still trying to figure out what happened.
“I couldn’t understand why,” Newbery said. “Tobias seemed like a kindhearted person. He was very talented.”
Branton’s parents, who had been estranged from their son for 20 years, gave Newbery permission to go through his belongings.
Among the items Newbery found was the extensive photo collection. Newbery, whose 15-year-old daughter, Adena, often posed for Branton, is now trying to identify the people in the pictures so she can talk to them and arrange to have their photos delivered.
Branton, 43, photographed mostly as a hobby. He kept no records of the photos he took.
Rocky Forguson, a colleague of Branton’s for 20 years, said he never saw anything to suggest Branton could kill others or himself.
“Maybe I really didn’t know him,” Forguson said.
Also at a loss are the victim’s relatives.
“We were hoping for some answers,” said Valdovinos’ sister, Delia. “Without a trial or anything else, we don’t know why it happened.”
She has been in contact with people who knew Branton in hopes they could help.
Valdovinos was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States with his parents, brothers and sisters. He graduated from Mission Bay High School and attended San Diego State University for three years, studying for an engineering degree. He dropped out of college to help support his family, and went to work in hotel management.
That brought him in contact with Branton, a tenant at the 100-year-old Lincoln Hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter.
Valdovinos was repeatedly stabbed in the attack. Police believe Branton then ran to the downtown Santa Fe Depot, boarded a Coaster to Encinitas, got off and ran in front of another train.
Authorities found what turned out to be the murder weapon taped to Branton’s body, but didn’t make the connection between the homicide and suicide for weeks.
Branton did not leave a suicide note. Newbery and others were hoping answers could be found in Branton’s past, perhaps in the cardboard boxes he left behind.
In Branton’s belongings, Newbery found letters and notes indicating he periodically suffered from depression and had been taking anti-depressants.
There also were copies of complaints he mailed to the hotel management.
Police, however, believe the slaying was triggered by a personal issue between Branton and Valdovinos.
Acquaintances described Branton as a loner with few friends who seemed most comfortable taking pictures. His camera was one of the few items Newbery couldn’t find when she went to the Lincoln Hotel to get his belongings.
Those who knew him say he lived near the beach for years before moving four years ago into the Lincoln, a residential hotel where tenants cannot have an income of more than $837 a month or $10,051 annually.
Branton came to San Diego in the 1980s when he was in the Navy. Friends in Wisconsin said he was given a medical discharge because of a bad back and could not hold a regular job because of the injury. He lived mostly on disability payments.
Although his parents had not seen Branton in 20 years, old friends remembered him fondly. His high school photo club held a wake for him after they learned of his death.
Meanwhile, Newbery asks that people who believe they were photographed by Branton contact her at (619) 256-0006.
Joe Hughes: (619) 542-4591; firstname.lastname@example.org