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Last updated: Sun. Jan. 12, 2014 - 09:51 am EDT

2013 homicide count ties 1997 for deadliest year in Allen County

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FORT WAYNE — In 2013, 44 people inside Allen County's borders were intentionally killed.

One was beaten, one was stabbed and the rest were shot. It was an unusual year for its deadliness, tying 1997 for number of homicides. Even though 2013 is over, another death could yet be ruled a homicide, making it the deadliest year ever.

The Allen County Coroner's Office has yet to rule on the August death of 51-year-old Steven Dwayne Turner. His badly burned body was found inside the trunk of a car at Branstrator and Ferguson roads.

Over the past 12 months, victims' bodies were found in alleys, yards, burning houses, their own backyards and inside cars.

They ranged in ages from 17 to 53. Most, however, were young black men.

Unlike years past, no Allen County children were slain at the hands of their parents or caregivers. From 2010 to 2012, four children younger than 10 were killed in Allen County.

Of the 44 homicides in 2013, 42 were in the city of Fort Wayne. When the city submits its annual data to the FBI to be counted in national crime statistics known as the Universal Crime Report, only 41 homicides will be submitted.

The March death of David Thornsley, 53, from injuries suffered in a July 1980 drive-by shooting will not be submitted to the FBI as part of the annual report, Fort Wayne Public Safety Director Rusty York said.

The longtime former police chief talked about the homicides with The Journal Gazette before he took over his new position at the beginning of this year. Along with the unusual number of intentional killings his department investigated in 2013 were the circumstances surrounding those deaths, he said.

"It's been an abnormal year for a lot of different reasons," York said.

"We've had four police-action shootings," York said. "I can think of one other year in my 38 years of experience where (FWPD has) had two. … The officers reacted appropriately, and it is always unfortunate when a life is lost."

Only one of the four police-action shootings has yet to be ruled on by the Allen County Prosecutor's Office as to whether it was justified. That case is the April 27 shooting of 19-year-old Tavontae Haney, who ran from police after a traffic stop.

Comparisons

For the purposes of the Universal Crime Report, the Fort Wayne Police Department reported 16 homicides – technically "murder or non-negligent manslaughter" – as having been cleared from January to November of last year – about 38 percent of the 42 homicides that had occurred by that point in the year.

In 2012, Allen County had a total of 30 homicides, with 28 of those within Fort Wayne city limits. Twenty-two homicides were reported to the FBI for the Universal Crime Report, and nine were reported cleared – about 32 percent.

Under the FBI's definition, a case can be cleared in one of two ways. Cases can be cleared by arrest – which includes an actual arrest, or charges filed or turned over to the court for prosecution.

Cases can also be cleared by "exceptional means" – which means that elements beyond the control of law enforcement prevent agencies from making an arrest. In these cases, the offender must be identified, enough evidence gathered to support an arrest, and their location identified.

Situations that might prevent arrest include the death of the individual, denial of extradition by another jurisdiction, or the refusal of a victim to cooperate in the prosecution, according to the FBI.

Nationally, 62.5 percent of murder and non-negligent manslaughter cases were cleared in 2012, according to the FBI.

By comparison, only 12.7 percent of burglaries are considered cleared nationally, according to the statistics.

Indiana's cities had a mixed year for homicide rates. Indianapolis saw a near-record setting year with 124 homicides in 2013, according to Indianapolis television station WRTV. But according to the South Bend Tribune, St. Joseph County had 10 homicides, a drop from 2012.

Cities with populations over 250,000 are classified by the UCR as Group I cities. With a population of 254,000, Fort Wayne falls into a subset of that group with population between 250,000 and 499,999 residents. In 2012 for Fort Wayne's subset, the percentage of murders and non-negligent manslaughter cleared by "arrest or exceptional means" was 54.7 percent of 1,659 deaths, according to the FBI.

Using the FBI's criteria, many of 2013's homicides are considered cleared, because the shooters are believed to be dead, often in another homicide. A few of this year's homicides appear to have been robberies in which the victims and the robbers shot each other, another unusual characteristic of 2013's violence, York said.

"We know there are relationships in some, but certainly not all," he said.

Cases the police department considers cleared by exceptional means are never forwarded to the prosecutor's office for review, Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards said.

Like York, Richards pins much of the past year's violence on gangs and the illicit drug trade.

And the issue of clearing the cases, preferably by charges, an arrest and subsequent conviction, requires the constant cooperation from the public, Richards said.

"Same issue as in previous years. Unless a citizen is willing to come forward with information, they are pretty darn hard to solve. When we get a suspect we can prosecute the case," she said.

Updating families

In one of the double homicides – the July 31 slayings of DaShawn Martin and Sidney Earl Gates – the dead are believed to have killed each other in a drug-related robbery.

Police believe it was in another robbery that 18-year-old Brenzel Bryant was shot to death and another man injured. The injured man told police Bryant tried to rob him and they both fired their guns. That case is under review by the prosecutor's office.

According to statistics provided by York, a dozen cases have been turned over to the Allen County Prosecutor's Office for review. Of those 12, six have resulted in arrests.

Five of those arrests have resulted in convictions on charges ranging from manslaughter to murder – either through guilty plea or jury trial.

In the September shooting of Joseph Conwell, 38-year-old William Martin was arrested on a preliminary charge of aggravated battery, but that charge was allowed to expire. No formal charges have yet been filed in that case.

Seventeen-year-old Omar Ruffin was originally charged as an adult with felony murder and attempted armed robbery in an armed robbery that resulted in the shooting death of 18-year-old Jaqueze Dandridge. According to court documents, Dandridge, armed with a pellet gun, and Ruffin tried to rob two men on the porch of a south-side home. In a struggle with one of the men, Dandridge was fatally shot by his would-be victim, who was armed with a real gun.

The charge of felony murder accused Ruffin of participating in a crime in which someone was killed. After Ruffin pleaded guilty to attempted armed robbery, the charge related to Dandridge's death was dismissed.

Relatives often ask investigators about the status of the cases, and it can be difficult to explain there may not be judicial closure, York said.

"We try to keep the families certainly up to speed, what's happening, and what we think is happening," York said. "It's a tough situation when our investigators feel pretty certain who the shooter was and he is deceased, but no one will have their day in court."

rgreen@jg.net

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