Violent Trends: An interactive look at Stanislaus County homicides

01/11/2009 3:38 AM

06/01/2009 8:20 AM

Their faces tell just one piece of the story. They were young and old, a range of races. They came from all corners of the county, though the majority were concentrated inside Modesto's city limit.

Thirty-six people were homicide victims in Stanislaus County in 2008, more than during any year in recent history. Twenty of those killings were in Modesto. They took place all over the city.

Countywide, a third were victims of domestic violence, including some killed by parents, partners or former partners. Some of the killers then took their own lives. Many of the incidents were gang-related. Still others were the result of robberies gone wrong, a drug-induced car crash and fights that turned deadly.

Not all the victims were innocent. Some died breaking into homes to harm or steal from their inhabitants. Some family members turned on children or wives they should have protected.

There is no way to explain all the deaths. And because homicides are so unpredictable, law enforcement officials say, there's really no way to address a spike in the numbers.

But the deaths can be mapped and the facts and circumstances analyzed, as The Bee has done for this report . Suspects who have not been tried in court remain innocent until proven guilty. The data in this report is based on information from law enforcement agencies as well as independent reporting on the various cases.

Since Jan. 1, 2006, Stanislaus County has recorded 94 homicides. Some have been deemed justifiable, including cases in which a police officer killed a man who beat his son to death in a rural area outside Turlock, or a terrified couple who killed a stalker who broke into their home.

Of the 94 cases, about 47 percent involve suspects still awaiting trial; 33 percent are open, with no arrests.

Just 20 percent are closed, meaning the suspect was convicted or made a plea in connection with the crime; the charges were dropped, such as in cases of self- defense; or the suspected killer committed suicide.

Demographically, 2008 showed several changes compared with previous years. The number of white victims jumped to 16 from eight in 2007. Most of these victims were male and ranged in age from 1 to 71. In previous years, Latino victims, ages 18 to 39, outnumbered other groups.

The number of female victims nearly doubled, from four in 2007 to seven in 2008.

Gun is the weapon of choice

As in other years, guns were the most commonly used weapon for killers: Half of the 36 cases involved guns.

Fatal stabbings jumped in 2008 to five, from just one in 2007. In 2006, four people were stabbed to death.

The ages of victims appear to be shifting. In 2006, 13 victims were ages 18 to 29. The number in that age range has dropped steadily to seven in 2008. For all other age ranges, the number of victims grew.

Older victims in particular were more common. In 2006 and 2007, just six people 40 or older were killed. In 2008, that number jumped to 15.

In 2008, November and December were the deadliest months, followed by February and April. Overall, from 2006 to 2008, there were 13 homicides each in November and December, and 12 in February.

Spring and fall were the most dangerous seasons, with 28 percent of the homicides from 2006 to 2008 happening in the spring and 31 percent in the fall.

Family violence

Stanislaus County Undersheriff Bill Heyne said that during the holidays many families come together, which potentially could increase violence. For the most part, though, he said there isn't any particular reason for which months end up with the highest number of homicides.

Local authorities said 2008 was notable for the number of family-related killings.

The Sheriff's Department had six homicides, including two young boys who appear to have been killed by their fathers. The agency also handled a Waterford smothering case apparently involving an 18-month-old girl and her mother's boyfriend.

Such cases are difficult to prevent, Heyne said. Agencies can try to respond quickly to family violence to prevent it from escalating. They also can point domestic violence victims to local agencies, such as the Haven Women's Center, to help educate and empower victims.

According to Modesto police spokesman Sgt. Brian Findlen, it can be more fruitful to focus on getting to know the gang- and drug-related activity in the community to try to stem the violence.

Findlen said his department is aware of the city's high number of homicides last year and has made it a priority to crack down on gang activity.

"Gang-related deaths can become more predictable because there are cycles of violence," he said.

"There's usually an initial action and a reaction by another group. We can take steps to get between that cycle with the intelligence we gather and prevent violent acts between rival gangs. But we can't be everywhere at once."

In 2008, when the contributing factor was known, about six, or 17 percent, of the county's homicides were related to gang activity in some way: a gang member either was killed or was believed to be the killer. But eight cases, or about 22 percent, had unknown killers, so it's possible the number of gang-related cases could be higher.

In addition to gang suppression, departments can increase their profile on the streets, putting more officers on patrol around the county to make residents feel safer, Heyne said. They also can work to build stronger relationships with community members to learn more about what happens in the neighborhoods when officers aren't around.

But it's nearly impossible to spot trends in the statistics or predict how many homicides will happen in the coming year, Heyne said.

"If we had five domestic violence homicides this year, how do we predict that for next year? How do we prevent that?" he said. "As a law enforcement agency, we really have to focus on the areas we can impact."

Success can be hard to measure.

"That gun you took off the street last week from a gangbanger," Heyne said, "that could have been used next week in a homicide. There's no way to know."

Go to www.modbee.com/homicide where you'll be able to search homicides by date, gender, age, race, status of case and method. You'll also find links to past stories and videos, including a forward by reporter Emilie Raguso about the project and how to use the map.

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.

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