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City sees highest number of murders in 20 years

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

The killing of 10-year-old Victoria Martens while her mother allegedly watched. Three children shot and killed in Four Hills. A man found decapitated outside a northeast Albuquerque Walmart. These gruesome murders made for a string of shocking headlines in 2016.

But they were just a few of the 61 killings throughout the city last year, a number that marks a 32 percent jump from the year prior and the highest figure in 20 years.

The city’s violent crime rate has risen each year since 2007. And four double homicides last year, and the triple murder of three young children in Four Hills, contributed to an increase of 15 killings from the year before – from 46 to 61.

In an interview with the Journal on Friday, homicide Sergeant Elizabeth Thomson said the high number, as well as the brutal nature of so many of the murders, is cause for concern for her and her detectives.

“We’ve seen some horrific murders in 2016,” she said. “It’s been a rough year overall.”

The recent spike in murders in Albuquerque is at odds with a national trend of low murder rates in the majority of American cities, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice that provided crime projections for 2016.

While a couple of large cities have seen a huge jump in murders, overall violent crimes across the country remain near a 30-year low, according to the study.

Chicago had more than 750 homicides, according to the Chicago Tribune, and Baltimore had more than 300, according to the Baltimore Sun.

In El Paso, a city with a slightly higher population than Albuquerque, there were only 18 homicides in 2016.

While this year’s total number of murders is the highest it’s been since 1996, it doesn’t reflect a murder rate because it doesn’t factor in population growth in Albuquerque.

It’s not possible to accurately calculate 2016’s murder rate because the city’s estimated population isn’t yet available for 2016. But, calculating the 2016 rate using 2015’s estimated population results in a rate of 10.9 murders per 100,000. That would make it the highest per capita murder rate since 2002, when the rate was slightly higher at 11.2, according to Journal calculations based on FBI crime data. The murder rates in 2009, 2005 and 2003 were more than 10 but less than 10.9.

A rough summer

A significant portion of 2016’s killings – 41 percent – remain unsolved, according to data kept by the Journal. That 59 percent clearance rate is the first dip in recent years for the Albuquerque Police Department’s homicide unit, which usually maintains a clearance rate of around 80 percent, well above the national average.

Sgt. Thomson said that, while many of the murders haven’t been cleared yet, she is confident her seven-member detective team will be able to clear most of them in the upcoming months. She said the increased number of murders in 2016 affected the clearance rate.

“The summer was rough; we had seven in July and seven in August, those were heavy months and it puts a strain on the detectives,” she said. “We are close on a lot of them.”

Thomson said the most notable trends she found were the increases in murders stemming from fights or drug activity. Seventeen murders were the results of fights and 11 were connected in some way to drugs or drug dealing. Two thirds of the murders involved guns, an increase from previous years, according to Thomson.

Several victims were homeless, including Clifford Miller, whose decapitated and mutilated body was found outside the Walmart near Menual and Wyoming NE in mid-December.

And murder-suicides skyrocketed last year.

“There are some years where we don’t see any murder-suicides, or we see one,” Thomson said. “Last year, we had eight people who were murdered as part of murder-suicide. That is a very disturbing trend to me.”

But perhaps the most defining feature of the year was a total of six young children who were tragically killed at the hands of family members or in acts of domestic violence, sending repeated shock waves through the city as the year wore on.

Motives and other details of many of the less high-profile killings haven’t been reported and aren’t publicly known.

That’s because, in 2016, the department, along with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, did not provide basic information to the public about several murders, especially for those that remain unsolved.

Thomson said they withhold information from the public so that when detectives are interviewing a suspect they can be sure the person has first-hand knowledge of the crime and didn’t just see it on television or read it in the paper.

Shocking deaths

Some of the details that were released on the city’s worst crimes – those involving the death of children – shocked the city and made national news.

The brutal murder and dismemberment of 10-year-old Victoria Martens in August was one of the most gruesome crimes Albuquerque has seen.

Police say Victoria was drugged, raped and either strangled or stabbed to death and dismembered by her mother’s boyfriend, Fabian Gonzales, and his cousin Jessica Kelley. Victoria’s mother, Michelle Martens, looked on and made no move to stop them, according to police.

All three are charged with murder and other charges.

Four days after Victoria’s death, another young girl was found dead. Nhi Nguyen, 11, was shot and killed by her stepfather Trinh Tran Van, who also shot and killed his wife Cam Thi To in their Northwest Albuquerque apartment before turning the gun on himself.

In late February, 1-year-old Jayden Dayea was beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend, according to police.

In early December, three more children were killed when police say their mother’s ex-boyfriend broke into her house and waited for the family to return. Then, police say suspect George Daniel Wechsler shot all four of them, killing the children and critically injuring their mother before killing himself.

Elijah Mascarenas, 5, Olivia Mascarenas, 6, and Ian Mascarenas, 9, were buried Monday.

Thomson said that the number of children killed last year is not unusual, but the manner of their deaths was often more shocking than in years past.

“The trend isn’t that there were more children killed,” she said. “The trend is that we had more murders where the nature of them is more horrific. Victoria is one of those, and then the three children killed in one incident – it weighs heavier on everyone.”

Fight for more officers

The rising property crime and violent crime rates have not gone unnoticed.

In an interview Friday, Mayor Richard Berry said he hopes to bring the police force back up and is fighting for return to work legislation in the legislative session to get more officers on the streets.

“There are a lot of things we can do holistically to fight crime,” he said. “There are some things we can do within the city and some things we need the Legislature to do to help us get more officers in the field.”

Thomson said that it’s up to police to build good relationships within the community so people feel comfortable reaching out to officers in times of need. But, she said, murder is unlike any other crime that officers deal with.

“Murder is very different from other crimes that people experience in our city,” she said. “It is a symptom of things going wrong in people’s lives.”