When 24-year-old Ricardo Vasques was shot dead at Modesto’s Mellis Park late last month, he became Stanislaus County’s 49th and final homicide victim of 2017.
It capped the area’s deadliest year in the past decade.
The number of homicides fluctuates from year to year and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. However, the county total has remained relatively steady, in the 30s to low 40s, with the exception of 2009 and 2012, when there were 47.
That mark was eclipsed in 2017 when two homicides toward late December brought the year’s total to 49.
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In stepping back from that number, there are a few trends that emerged – the seemingly high number of homicides in east Modesto, the concentration of deadly incidents in south Turlock and the difficulties detectives face when investigating crimes in rural areas.
Last year’s deaths include three fatal officer-involved shootings, one by Newman Police, one by Modesto Police and one by Ceres Police. Those cases are under review by the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office.
Also, there was one homicide committed by a resident in which charges were not filed. A man, who was never identified by police, strangled 53-year-old Rick Foreman in February when Foreman broke into his estranged wife’s home with a gun. Self-defense was part of the reason no criminal charges were filed, according to the DA’s office.
Each year, the vast majority of homicides are investigated by the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department and the Modesto Police Department. Who has jurisdiction over a case sometimes is a matter of which side of the street the death occurred.
Some years, sheriff’s detectives have the heavier caseloads, others it’s Modesto detectives, like in 2015, when the city broke its homicide record with 28 people killed.
In 2017, Modesto police and the Sheriff’s Department each had 22. Ceres had one homicide and Turlock had four.
The deadliest month in 2017 was October, when nine people were killed, including two double homicides. On Oct. 12, two men were found dead near a shop behind a home in the country south of Oakdale. On Oct. 21, two woman were found shot to death along a rural road outside of Newman.
The only other multiple-victim incident occurred June 17 when a man is suspected of killing his wife, his 9-year-old stepson and 4-year-old son in their Modesto home.
Here’s a closer look at the trends that emerged from 2017.
When someone is killed in south or west Modesto, people will inevitably comment on social media that violence in those areas is ubiquitous and not surprising.
When the murder takes place in east or north Modesto, people ponder whether those neighborhoods are becoming the new south or west Modesto.
While south and west Modesto long have been considered the poorer, more gang- and drug-infested and overall more dangerous areas, Modesto homicide Sgt. Steve Hinkley said the neighborhoods east of Coffee Road have been the scenes of a number of homicides over the past several years.
This year, five of the city’s 22 homicides took place in east Modesto, compared to four in west Modesto, one in south Modesto and two in the airport neighborhood. The other 10 were scattered in other parts of the city.
While it is upsetting to come home to find your street lit up with police cars or learn the neighborhood park where you take your children has become a crime scene, it’s not necessarily an indication you or a loved one is more likely to become a victim, too.
(Click here for a PDF of the 2017 homicide map)
Still, the deadly shooting in Ustach Park in November that took the life of 21-year-old Cody Lea led to a neighborhood meeting planned for this week featuring speakers Douglas Ridenour, the city council representative for that area, Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll and other police representatives.
Ridenour, who organized the meeting, said various neighborhood associations in the area expressed concern about the homicide, which has not yet been solved, as well as other crime issues in the area.
Hinkley said it’s rare that a person is killed by a stranger.\. “There is usually some kind of underlying factor.” The homicides in east Modesto mostly have been motivated by domestic disputes or drugs, he said.
The first homicide of the year, in a neighborhood behind Memorial Medical Center, appears to have been precipitated by a love triangle, but drugs also were involved, Hinkley said.
A shooting death in March near Oakdale Road and Floyd Avenue also was drug-related.
Hinkley wouldn’t comment on the motive of the other three east Modesto homicides, including one that left a 5-year-old boy dead, because all remain under investigation.
Most of the east Modesto homicides over the past few years have been the result of domestic violence.
The most notable cases were in 2015 when a man allegedly killed his girlfriend, three children and his mother in a Village I neighborhood and a New Year’s Day murder-suicide in which the gunman killed his wife and two adult children in east Modesto.
Last year, domestic violence appears to have led to the death of three children in north Modesto.
A man is accused of beating to death his wife and her two sons, ages 9 and 4, at their home in the area of Briggsmore Avenue and Carver Road in June. At an apartment complex at Standiford and McHenry avenues, the alleged repeated abuse of a 3-year-old boy by his mother and her fiance led to his death in March.
Hinkley said there are not many gang-related homicides in east Modesto; gang violence continues to occur mostly in south and west Modesto. He credits a decrease in gang violence over the past few years to the work of the department’s gang unit.
The unit, he said, has been proactive in getting weapons off the streets and holding gang members accountable through parole and probation searches.
He said even the recent homicides committed by gang members or associates have more to do with altercations that escalate into shootings and stabbings rather than ordered hits.
“I think you are seeing a huge shift with the younger generation’s inability to talk or let stuff roll off their back,” Hinkley said. “They have to take some kind of action to prove they are a tough guy.”
While law enforcement can be proactive with gang members and drug dealers, that is not the case with domestic violence.
“When stuff is going on behind closed doors in someone’s home, there is really nothing proactive we can do as law enforcement,” he said.
Modesto Police Department spokeswoman Heather Graves also points out that while homicides were up in east Modesto in 2017, aggravated assaults are down 6.9 percent from January to September compared with the same time frame in 2016.
In the early hours of Aug. 1, Gregory Mendoza was found dead in front of a home in a south Turlock neighborhood not far from where four other homicides were reported in a four-month span.
Out of 10 homicides that occurred in the Turlock area in 2017, half of them were in the neighborhood several blocks south of Main Street and East Avenue and northeast of Highway 99.
Just one of the investigations into these deaths has resulted in an arrest.
In Mendoza’s case, it’s still unclear to the public how he died, and investigators are still looking to determine who is responsible.
Sgt. Jon Howard, who supervises homicide investigators for the sheriff’s department, said every homicide investigation presents a variety of challenges in identifying suspects, gathering evidence and obtaining witness statements.
“In some cases, there may be people identified as suspects or possible suspects, but additional evidence must be identified in order to submit a prosecutable case to the district attorney,” Howard said.
Mendoza, 29, and a 25-year-old man were assaulted. They were found injured in front of the home in the 100 block of West F Street. Mendoza was pronounced dead at the scene, and the other man survived.
While these deaths occurred over a few months and several blocks from each other, investigators with the sheriff’s department and the Turlock Police Department say there’s nothing to link the crimes.
Four of the homicides are sheriff’s department cases, the other Turlock police.
The agencies are sharing information that might be helpful, including people seen with the victims.
“We have shared information with (sheriff’s) detectives because we have had previous contacts with some of their victims,” said Turlock police spokesman Sgt. Russ Holeman.
Sheriff’s detectives did identify and arrest a suspect in the Sept. 30 death of Adam Wagner. The 24-year-old man was shot after an argument escalated to gunfire, sheriff’s officials have said.
Jaymar Ray Brown, 39, has been charged with murder in Wagner’s death, and his criminal case is in the pretrial phase.
Investigating a crime in the county’s rural areas can be difficult with a lack of witnesses and video evidence, but sheriff’s officials say it doesn’t stop them from seeking justice for victims.
Lisa Herger, 29, of Patterson, and Tiffany Herrera, 27, of Newman, were found injured by gunfire near Orestimba and Bell roads west of Newman. They were both pronounced dead at the scene, a desolate area near Interstate 5.
No suspects have been identified.
The lack of an immediate arrest in this case illustrates the challenges detectives face in solving murder cases in rural areas, typically under the jurisdiction of the sheriff’s department. Out of 18 sheriff’s homicide investigations in 2017, just three have resulted in arrests.
Howard with the sheriff’s department said all criminal investigations are driven by the information available to detectives from witnesses, evidence and sometimes video. In rural areas, a lot of that simply doesn’t exist.
Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said most homicides are not random acts of violence. He said drugs and addiction are prevalent in homicide investigations, and in many cases motive is sometimes difficult to prove.
“Criminals don’t respect jurisdictional boundaries, and working together, sharing information and meeting on a regular basis is a tremendous benefit to public safety and the people we serve,” the sheriff said.
Christianson said violent crime reported to the Sheriff’s Department, such as rape, robbery and assault, has been in a decline in recent years. Reported burglaries and thefts also have declined, according to statistics from the sheriff’s department.
The sheriff said the homicide rate is not an accurate barometer of the amount of violence in a community.
“Our crime rates are lower than other similar jurisdictions, with similar public safety challenges,” Christianson said. “Unfortunately, homicides are neither predictable nor preventable.”
He said law enforcement agencies that are critically short-staffed are unable to be proactive in the community, so they become reactive to crimes after they happen.
2017 homicides by the numbers
County total: 49
Modesto Police Department jurisdiction: 22
Sheriff’s Department jurisdiction: 22
Gender: 43 males, 6 females
Leading weapon: Gun
MPD past five years: 22, 15, 28, 12, 15
Sheriff’s Department past five years: 22, 13, 16, 16, 16