Record year for slayings; Dupnik wants new task force
By August it was becoming clear Tucson was on track to set a record for homicides in 2008.
The bloodshed prompted police to increase patrols in an attempt to hold down the number of killings.
But the effort failed to stanch the bleeding. The killings continued and in November police tried again, sending additional patrol officers onto the streets.
As of Dec. 31, a total of 74 people had been slain in Tucson, 104 in the metro area. The violence felled the young, middle aged, the elderly and the disabled. The majority of the suspects identified or arrested were Hispanic, as were the majority of the victims. Most of those killed were men and most were shot.
Included among the victims is Kay Frances Read, 62, a disabled woman kidnapped from her Southeast Side home in February and until now publicly identified only as a missing person.
But police recently said the woman, of whom no trace has been found, is considered a homicide victim.
Homicides “are very difficult to predict. It’s difficult to be proactive from a law enforcement standpoint,” said Richard Kastigar the sheriff’s bureau chief in charge of investigations.
The Tucson slayings include four that were ruled justifiable homicides. That leaves 70 criminal homicides, which is still a record. The previous city record was 65 killings in 1995.
The slayings were primarily the result of the drug trade, gang rivalries, domestic violence, robberies and fights, said Tucson police Assistant Chief Roberto Villaseñor.
Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik agreed with much of that, but added illegal immigration to the mix.
The unincorporated county saw 27 criminal homicides in 2008. In 2007, there were 26.
Interim Tucson police Chief Kermit Miller would not grant interviews to discuss the city’s homicides, spokesman Sgt. Mark Robinson said.
Dupnik, the county’s chief law enforcement officer, said, “The fact that Pima County, including the city, and Arizona is the corridor for illegal immigration and narcotics has impacted our communities very adversely.”
“In the Pima County Jail,” Dupnik said, “we average, 200 (illegal immigrants) a day, serious felons who are from other countries, mainly Mexico.”
Dupnik advocated a city/county task force approach to the problem.
“Both the city and the county are substantially understaffed,” Dupnik said.
The police department is authorized to have 1,112 officers, but has 1,041, Robinson said.
The Sheriff’s Department is authorized 429 deputies and has 425, said Lt. Deanna Coultas, commander of the staff services section.
Those numbers, authorities at the two agencies said, give Tucson police 1.9 officers per 1,000 residents and the Sheriff’s Department 1.43 per 1,000.
Nationally the average rate of police officers to residents is 2.4 per 1,000 and the average rate for deputies patrolling unincorporated counties is 1.8 per 1,000 residents.
“If we had a sizable multiagency task force that had no other responsibilities than putting serious and serial criminals in jail, we could impact the safety of this community in a very positive way,” Dupnik said.
The formation of a task force and other measures to reduce the violence are hindered by the economy and the resulting budget deficits, Dupnik said.
The city is in the middle of a 10-year plan that uses any yearly increases in city income to hire more police so the city meets the national average of 2.4 officers per 1,000. The plan has been waylaid by the faltering economy.
Many victims involved in crime
The violence has grown to the point that “gunfire is a nightly event on the Southwest Side of Tucson,” Dupnik said.
Narcotics or alcohol or sometimes both are involved in most homicides, Dupnik said.
“But I think most noticeable is the fact that the level of violence involved in narcotics trafficking has escalated significantly,” he said.
“Most of the victims are involved in serious crimes themselves, but occasionally innocent people become victims.”
A total of 66 suspects were identified by race or ethnicity in city and county homicides in 2008.
Of those suspects 56 percent were Hispanic, 29 percent were white, 12 percent were African-American and 3 percent were American Indian, according to information from the police and the Sheriff’s Departments.
Of the 97 victims for whom race or ethnicity could be determined, 55 percent were Hispanic, 33 percent, were white 11 percent were African-American.
Of the 78 total suspects identified by authorities, 10 were women and 68 were men.
Authorities were able to determine the gender of all 101 victims in the city and county. Twenty-three were women and 78 were men.
Triple slaying is unsolved
Across the metro area, victims have died singly, in pairs and three at a time.
On July 20 on the West Side, Francisco Javier Tanori-Marin, 44; his wife, Raphaela Pereda-Felix, 40; and their 8-year-old daughter, Tania Guadalupe Tanori-Pereda, were shot to death.
The case remains unsolved and a motive for the slayings has not been determined, Robinson said.
But the 8-year-old likely was killed “to send a message,” said Sgt. Fabian Pacheco, a former Tucson police homicide detective now a department spokesman.
Some of the deaths are classified as random acts of violence.
On Aug. 31, Leroy Van Verth, an 81-year-old retired U.S. Marine Corps chaplain, and his wife had just returned from a vacation in their recreational vehicle.
They parked it behind a neighbor’s home in the 3900 block of North Mountain Avenue and were cleaning the RV when a man in his 20s confronted Van Verth and slashed his lower legs with a sharp instrument. He bled profusely and died. The case is unsolved.
Even police were not immune to the violence.
On June 1 Tucson police Officer Erik Hite was shot and killed on North Tomahawk Trail, near East Tanque Verde Road, as he tried to stop a man authorities said had shot at numerous sheriff’s deputies and police officers.
David Nickolas Delich, then 25, shot at neighbors’ homes on the Northwest Side, then led law officers on a crosstown chase as he shot at them, officers said. Two deputies were wounded during the chase.
Hite was shot in the head in his patrol car as he pursued Delich. Hite died the next day.
Delich was arrested the day of the shootings and later indicted on a charge of first-degree murder and numerous charges of attempted first-degree murder, aggravated assault and conducting drive-by shootings. Delich is being held in the Pima County Jail while he awaits trial.
Of the city’s 70 criminal homicide cases, 33 have been solved. In the county, 15 of 23 criminal homicide cases have been solved.
“There are quite a few that are just whodunits,” Villaseñor said. “I think the key that needs to be remembered is that homicides are cyclical in nature and affected by many outside influences. We have had previous high years that have been followed by normal, or lower than normal, years.”
“If you look at homicides over the past 10 years, that is a more accurate picture than just comparing it year to year,” Villaseñor said.
From 1990 to 1994, according to Tucson Citizen records, homicides in the city fluctuated between 33 and 47.
In 1995, the number jumped to 65 from 38 the year before.
In 1996 it dropped to 46 and from then until 2007 the number of killings fluctuated between 38 and 61.
14 homicides per 100,000
“You also have to look at the homicide rate as opposed to just the number of homicides,” Villaseñor said.
For example, the number of people killed per 100,000 residents adjusts raw numbers for population, allowing for more valid comparisons among cities.
In 2008 the homicide rate for Tucson was 14 per 100,000 residents based on a population of 535,000. The rate for unincorporated Pima County was unavailable.
The 159 homicides in Phoenix through November gave the city a rate of 10.5 per 100,000 residents, based on a population of 1.5 million.
San Diego, with a population of 1.3 million, also had a lower homicide rate than Tucson. The city had 54 homicides by late December for a rate of 4 per 100,000 residents.
El Paso, Texas, a border town with a population of 616,029, had 16 homicides through the third week of December, or 2.6 per 100,000, a spokesman said.
Albuquerque, N.M., with 580,000 people, had 37 homicides by late December, or 6 per 100,000.
“By no means do I mean to say that we don’t think this is a significant problem,” Villaseñor said.
“We do recognize the issue and are deploying resources and taking steps to try to address some of the causal factors, such as narcotics, gang activity and large (unruly, alcohol-fueled) gatherings,” Villaseñor said.
Several homicides have been connected to such gatherings, Villaseñor said.
Police commanders grapple regularly with the problems of homicides and other crimes in the city’s five patrol divisions.
“We meet on a weekly basis,” Villaseñor said, explaining that “what we’re looking for are spikes in criminal activity, any type of criminal activity.”
“Then we look at what resources will be necessary to address those” crimes, such as assigning bicycle officers to the crime area, or plainclothes surveillance officers, he said.
Some may wonder if the city’s homicides are tied to a plunging economy, but Villaseñor said he knew of no data that would make that connection. “That is an easy answer people like to point at, but there is no empirical data to support that,” he said.
Dupnik had no answer as to whether the bloody year was a statistical spike or a sign of things to come.
“I hope that it doesn’t continue, but that’s just a hope,” he said.
Smaller police agencies reporting homicides in 2008:
• South Tucson Police Department, 1 in 2008; none in 2007.
• Sahuarita Police Department; 1 in 2008, none in 2007.
• Oro Valley Police Department; 1 in 2008, none in 2007.
• Marana Police Department; none in 2008, 1 in 2007.
• University of Arizona Police Department, none in 2008; 1 in 2007.
• Arizona Department of Corrections, 1 prisoner killed at the South Wilmot Road prison facility in 2008; none in 2007.