2017 homicide total leads three-year spike

Map by Pilar Martinez

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

For the third year in a row, the city has seen a significant increase in the number of killings, ending 2017 with a preliminary total of 75 – the highest number of homicides in recent history.

That’s an increase of 150 percent since 2014, when there were 30.

Criminal justice experts say that while the number of homicides has increased across the country in recent years, the fact that it has spiked so dramatically in Albuquerque is concerning.

“If you’ve had three years of increases, that’s obviously a problem,” said Christopher Herrmann, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “You have a growing problem or that might be the new norm.”

The increase in homicides comes amidst dramatic spikes in both violent crimes and property crimes in recent years. Although numbers for 2017 are not yet available, in 2016 the Albuquerque Police Department reported a 180 percent increase in auto thefts since a low point in 2012. The city also had the highest rate of auto theft in the country.

Herrmann said it’s common to see an increase in homicides at the same time other crimes increase.

“Violence is a continuum,” he said. “It might start off with very small stuff – misdemeanor assaults or verbal threats – and the end of that continuum is killing somebody. It’s not uncommon to see increases in assault, increases in robbery, increases in sexual assault, increases in domestic violence, and increases in homicide.”

Guns, knives, vehicles

At least 40 of the homicides this year were committed with guns, at least 12 people were stabbed to death and police say three people were intentionally struck by a vehicle, according to records kept by the Journal.

Albuquerque Police Department spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said the 75 total is a preliminary number and official data will not be available until the beginning of February.

When the department reports the number of homicides to the FBI for its annual Uniform Crime Reporting statistics, he said it won’t include four cases in which the defendant is charged with “depraved mind murder.” That type of death occurred when a suspect fleeing from police crashed into another vehicle, killing someone.

The most high-profile of this type of case occurred in mid-January 2017, when police say a stolen work van driven by Elexus Groves and Paul Garcia crashed into a car being driven by a woman who was taking her two children to school. The daughter, Shaylee Boling, 14, died on the scene and her mother, Shaunna Arredondo-Boling, 39, died two weeks later in the hospital.

Groves and Garcia have both been charged with two counts of felony murder.

The department is also including a case from 2015 in this year’s tally.

The body of Patricia Platero, 49, was found buried and badly decomposed near Bluewater and Coors in July 2015. It took the Office of the Medical Investigator more than a year to determine that she had been killed by blunt force trauma.

The Journal had received a copy of Platero’s autopsy report, which listed her death as a homicide, in November 2016, but Gallegos said detectives did not report the case to the APD record department until 2017.

Not included in the tally are homicides that were determined to be justifiable, of which there were six last year. It also does not include shootings by police officers, which led to three fatalities.

Before the end of November, homicides committed in 2017 had already surpassed the record of 70 set in 1996.

But in 1996, there were 100,000 fewer people living in Albuquerque, so the death rate then was 16.64 per 100,000 people. In 2017, the rate was 13.4 per 100,000.

High homicide rate, but not the highest

Herrmann said in comparison to other similar-sized cities, Albuquerque’s homicide rate is high but not the highest.

Oklahoma City, which has about 100,000 more residents than Albuquerque, reported 92 homicides in 2017, for a rate of 14.41 per 100,000. Baltimore, a city with about 55,000 more residents than Albuquerque, had 343 homicides last year, making for a staggering homicide rate of 55.8 per 100,000.

In contrast, El Paso had a homicide rate of 2.78 per 100,000, Tucson had a rate of 6.03 and Colorado Springs had a rate of 8.17.

In the county, the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office reported five slayings and one justifiable homicide in 2017.

Sgt. John Allen said this total is pretty consistent for the county, which usually sees between five and nine homicides each year. He said that four of the murders have been cleared and that detectives are still investigating the most recent case involving a 46-year-old man who was found shot to death in the yard of his spacious South Valley home in early December.

“It’s been unpredictable,” he said in an interview last week. “There’s no pattern.”

Allen said that, if detectives could isolate one sector of the county that was experiencing higher rates of violence, or zero in on a specific trend in motive, they could try to prevent homicides.

Need for more officers

Crime emerged as the top issue in the 2017 mayoral election, and newly elected Mayor Tim Keller has said he is committed to making changes in the police department to tackle the growing problem.

In late November, he tapped former Rio Rancho Police Chief Michael Geier as APD’s interim police chief. A spokeswoman for the mayor did not respond to emailed requests for an interview.

And Gallegos said both Geier and the acting homicide sergeant were too busy for an interview about last year’s homicides and how they plan to address the problem in the future.

In response to questions, Gallegos released a statement listing the department’s priorities.

“Beyond hiring more detectives to solve homicides, the department is fighting crime from all sides and targeting the city’s most prolific property and violent crime offenders,” he wrote in an email. “The reality is we need more officers on the streets to stop offenders before their behavior escalates to homicide.”

Gallegos said the department will do proactive work regarding domestic violence, intervene with property crime offenders, develop crime initiatives to remove the most dangerous offenders and prosecute firearm violations federally.

He also said it plans to work with experts and advocates to reach out to the homeless who are vulnerable to crime and often hesitant to report it.

Sgt. Elizabeth Thomson, who led the homicide unit for the past five years, retired at the end of December. One of the unit’s detectives was appointed acting sergeant in her absence.

Gallegos said the department is conducting interviews this week to find a new sergeant for the homicide unit, which is comprised of a sergeant and seven detectives.

“We are also in the process of opening up two more positions, which would create a total of nine detectives and a sergeant,” he said.

Gallegos did not respond to questions about how many of the homicides have been solved. In November, however, Thomson told the Journal that 37 of the 63 homicides had been cleared for a rate of 59 percent.

Records kept by the Journal show that three of the 10 homicides that occurred in November and December resulted in an arrest.

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