Chad Danielson, a California gym teacher, awoke to torrential rain hammering his family’s home on April 10. It was his 45th birthday.
His wife, Joy, sipped a coffee and watched the downpour slowly flood the family’s yard. Several brightly wrapped gifts from his children sat on the kitchen table. A homemade ice cream cake chilled in the freezer. Danielson, the family chef, had prepared a smoked salmon and champagne brunch for later that morning.
But first he needed to walk the family dog. Danielson stepped outside into the dreary morning. Minutes later, he was stabbed to death on the doorstep of his Oceanside home.
“I opened the door [and] saw my husband on top of another person,” his wife, Joy Danielson, 42, told Oxygen.com. “It all happened so fast.”
She watched in horror as the alleged assailant drew a knife and stabbed her spouse multiple times. Authorities later found the middle school teacher bleeding to death steps from his front door.
“I saw him lying face down in the rain,” Joy Danielson said. “I held Chad’s head in my hands and begged him to stay with me. That was the last time I saw him.”
The 45-year-old, who suffered several puncture wounds, was rushed to a hospital. He was pronounced dead by authorities shortly thereafter.
Witnesses reported seeing an individual with “long dark hair” fleeing the property, according to police. Jennifer Ramos Mendoza, 22, was later arrested and charged with Danielson’s murder. Investigators said the attack appeared to be unprovoked.
“[Danielson] happened to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time,” Tom Bussey, a spokesperson for the Oceanside Police Department, told Oxygen.com. “It’s pretty brutal.”
Mendoza is “known” to law enforcement. Forensic evidence collected from the crime scene matched her profile in a police database, authorities said. There’s no apparent motive behind Danielson’s slaying.
“I still can't wrap my head around the fact that [he] left to walk the family dog — the morning of his birthday — and never made it back home,” JL Pomeroy, Danielson’s sister-in-law, told Oxygen.com. “He never got to open those presents.”
Pomeroy, 48, raced to the family’s home after the attack. She found her sister, niece, and nephew “shivering and sobbing” in a back bedroom.
“It was the most dire, brutal, excruciating thing I’ve ever seen,” she said.
Pomeroy described the family as “the tightest foursome on the planet.”
Danielson taught physical education at Jefferson Middle School in Oceanside. The school had a reputation for gang activity, his family said.
Dozens of suspected Mexican mafia-associated gangsters were busted by the FBI for allegedly peddling guns and fentanyl across the street from the middle school in 2018, the same year Danielson began teaching there.
“He was fighting every day on behalf of those kids,” Pomeroy explained.
School officials described Danielson as a “loved” and “respected” educator.
“[He] worked hard to develop meaningful relationships with his students,” Oceanside Unified School District Superintendent Julie A. Vitale said in a statement sent to Oxygen.com. “[T]his will be a very difficult loss for our school community.”
Danielson formerly worked as a classroom aide for children with autism and other special needs.
“He was just an all around solid mentor. He did more than the average teacher,” parent Dominic Cooley told Oxygen.com. “It’s just so sad.”
Cooley’s son, a budding artist who’s diagnosed with high-functioning autism, previously worked with Danielson. Cooley, 38, noticed an improvement in his son’s communication skills in their short time together.
“He definitely left a huge impression on our family,” he added.
Danielson loved surfing, soccer, cooking, and working with kids. He was “gentle,” and known as the family “peacekeeper,” relatives said.
“He always wanted everybody to be happy,” Joy Danielson said.
A GoFundMe has since raised nearly $80,000 for Danielson’s wife and children.
Mendoza, who faces first-degree murder charges in Danielson’s slaying, is currently in custody. Her next court date is scheduled for May 1 at 1:30 p.m. according to online jail records.
Joy Danielson called her spouse’s suspected killer a “monster.”
The widowed woman, also a teacher, described packing up her late husband’s unopened birthday gifts and decorations several days after he was murdered.
“I put his birthday presents in the closet,” she said. “It was just so much pain. It’s hard to breathe.”
His uneaten birthday cake, which the couple’s two children made, is still stashed in the family’s freezer. She couldn’t bring herself to toss it, she said.
“It’s a reminder of a lifetime of traditions ahead that we no longer get to share with Chad."
Crime Time is your destination for true crime stories from around the world, breaking crime news, and information about Oxygen's original true crime shows and documentaries. Sign up for Oxygen Insider for all the best true crime content.