Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
An isolated road on the far West Side of Albuquerque glowed with the reds and blues of police vehicles in the early hours of Sunday.
Investigators went to and from a mobile crime lab idling on the asphalt. A couple collapsed into each other’s arms nearby as witnesses milled about.
A woman who said she was the mother of the man who had been fatally shot ran, screaming for her son, into the crime scene.
And with that, a little less than five months left in 2021, Albuquerque has had 81 suspected homicides – matching the highest annual total ever recorded in the city.
Gilbert Gallegos, an Albuquerque Police Department spokesman, said that around 12:40 a.m. officers were called to Aerospace Parkway off of the Shooting Range Access road west of Atrisco Vista for reports of a shooting.
“Officers arrived on scene and began life saving efforts, however, the male victim did not survive his injuries,” Gallegos wrote in an email. “Several witnesses remained on scene and are being interviewed by detectives.”
Of the record-matching total, 79 homicides were investigated by the Albuquerque Police Department, and New Mexico State Police investigated a double homicide in the city.
The record was set in 2019, when there were 81 homicides in Albuquerque – 80 investigated by APD and one by the FBI. The total dipped to 77 in 2020, during the height of the pandemic.
Gallegos cautioned that, like every year, the number of homicides is subject to change as detectives investigate and the Office of the Medical Investigator completes autopsies and toxicologies. He said he expects that about eight of the deaths that are being investigated as homicides could turn out to be accidental, from natural causes, overdoses or self-defense. Already, five homicides this year, in addition to the 81, have been determined to be in self-defense, knocking them off the number APD will report to the FBI.
The circumstances, scenes and victims in this year’s cases vary widely.
There were the three men killed by a barrage of bullets inside a car behind a pizza place, and a man beaten to death was found with three other bodies in a truck at the Sunport. There was the 18-year-old fatally shot in a spray of bullets Downtown that wounded another man as well as an officer, whose windshield was hit by gunfire. The youngest victim was a 17-year-old shot and killed in the parking lot of Coronado Center. The oldest was a 66-year-old man found with “obvious signs of trauma” inside an apartment in Northeast Albuquerque.
Samuel Hernandez’s family is one of many still reeling after the 34-year-old father of three was found dead outside a Four Hills home in Southeast Albuquerque on July 31.
“It’s been very, very traumatic to deal with this and try to comfort and explain to the kids,” said Michelle Unruh, Hernandez’s sister-in-law.
She said Hernandez’s 10-year-old son kept texting his dad, hoping for a response, days after his death. His uncomprehending 6-year-old still believes he will see his father.
“We don’t want it to be just another name and another body being laid to rest and no justice is going to be served for whoever did this,” Unruh said.
Hernandez’s death is one of 62 this year in which there has not been an arrest.
Gallegos said the department’s 2021 year-to-date homicide clearance rate – which includes some previous cases that were resolved this year – is 43%. This compares with a clearance rate of 60% in 2020 and 65% in 2019.
Spike in violence
Of course, Albuquerque is not alone in having a tremendous spike in violence in 2021. Cities large and small across the country have had similar increases.
public was more distrustful of police in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and daily protests against police brutality. And the third is that Americans – who were already outpacing the rest of the world in terms of gun ownership – bought even more guns during the pandemic, leading to a higher chance of deadly violence.
Data released by the Major Cities Chiefs Association showed that in the first six months of 2021, 45 cities out of the 66 that responded to a survey had more homicides than in the first six months of 2019. The percentages range from a 12% increase in Kansas City, Missouri, to a 350% increase in Mesa, Arizona.
Tucson has had 57 homicides this year, compared with 34 by this time last year. A Tucson Police Department spokesman said that the city’s highest number of homicides was 74, in 2009, and that the department expects to surpass that this year. Oklahoma City has had 50 homicides this year, compared with 35 by this time last year.
By this time last year, Albuquerque had 44 homicides, according to data kept by the Journal.
Paul Guerin, the director of the University of New Mexico’s Center for Applied Research and Analysis, said that while it’s too soon to know what caused homicides to spike across the country, experts have offered a number of theories.
The first possible explanation is that the pandemic and public safety lockdown measures meant fewer services and outlets for people who are struggling with addiction and other issues. The second is that law enforcement was less proactive and the
“I think the best explanations are, it’s not any single one,” Guerin said. “And I think what is the clearest is that we don’t really know.”
He said there is one way in which Albuquerque bucks the national trend.
“If you just looked at national data, you would still see that murders in total, were higher in the early ’90s than they are now,” Guerin said. “… What we’re seeing in Albuquerque is we’re actually seeing a higher number now than we saw in the ’90s.”
Albuquerque had a higher rate of homicides proportional to the population in the 1990s.
The murder rate in 1996 – when the city had 100,000 fewer residents – was the highest ever recorded, at 16.64 per 100,000 people.
In 2021, the rate is 14.41 per 100,000 people, but with 96 killings, or 15 more, Albuquerque would surpass the 1996 rate and reach a rate of 17 homicides per 100,000.
When APD and city officials talk about this year’s homicides, they are quick to point out that a high number have occurred in certain hotels and motels throughout the city. Many more are linked to drugs.
APD spokesman Gallegos said about 20% – 16 out of 81 – of this year’s homicides occurred at hotels. Some hotels, such as the Desert Sands Inn & Suites on East Central and the Motel 6 on Avenida César Chávez near Interstate 25, have been the site of more than one killing.
“We’ve heard that from hotel managers: it’s a local clientele which is different than before,” Gallegos said. “Almost entirely a local clientele who have cash and are renting the rooms.”
He said APD is working with the hotel association and trying to get more security systems in place. And the department is carrying out tactical operations in certain hot spots, including apartment complexes.
“We need them to help hire security …,” Gallegos said. “It’s kind of hard to know when to be there patrolling all the time. We’re trying to be more of a presence at key locations.”
Gallegos said there have also been significantly more homicides related to domestic violence and drugs this year.
Guerin, however, wonders whether the Police Department could do more to focus on the hotels that are particular problem areas.
“The problem isn’t just murder at these places; it’s probably disorder at these places. It’s probably all sorts of crimes. They probably get lots of calls for service,” he said. “So you could imagine if you targeted these places that have large numbers of calls for service that are similar to the hotels or motels that have already experienced this problem of murder, then you could look at those places that are similar, that haven’t had a murder yet.”
APD has not released 2021 data on other categories of violent crime or property crime.
Gallegos said the preliminary data he has seen shows that rape and robbery are down, while shootings with injury have increased. He said although shootings spiked dramatically in the early part of the year, the pace has since slowed.
As they wait for answers, Hernandez’s children help Unruh write his eulogy.
“When he loved, he loved with his whole heart,” Unruh said.
She said Hernandez, raised in the Barelas neighborhood, was the “life of the party” who danced to Michael Jackson, rooted for the 49ers and always chose Superman over Batman.
First and foremost, Unruh said, he was a father.
“The kids were the light of his life, everything he did was for the kids,” she said, adding that he would often cram himself into the McDonald’s play area to be with them and he never missed a baseball game or important moment.
Unruh, whose husband died in the past year, said the loss is “devastating.”
“Now,” she said, “both my sister and I have to take our kids to a gravesite for them to visit their dad.”