by MATTHEW REISEN / JOURNAL STAFF WRITER
Monday, January 21st, 2019
A grandmother stabbed to death by her family over a rent dispute, her body doused in fuel and set afire atop a flimsy box spring on the desolate mesa.
A prominent Albuquerque attorney and his roommate beaten to death, their bodies stuffed in garbage bins and left a couple of miles apart in a remote area 50 miles east of the city.
A 17-year-old lured with $40 worth of marijuana only to be gunned down on a neighborhood corner allegedly by a man and two teens during a violent rampage that left others blind and paralyzed in execution-style shootings across the city.
These brutal slayings were among 66 homicides perpetrated in Albuquerque in 2018, a year punctuated by increases in gun violence and juvenile arrests in homicide cases.
But the news isn’t all bad.
Albuquerque managed to record its first drop in homicides following a dramatic spike that had played out over the past three years.
The 66 slayings in 2018 represented a 12 percent decrease from last year’s 75, but the number is still 8 percent higher than 2016 when there were 61 homicides.
“Hopefully in 2017, we peaked, and the numbers start going down,” Albuquerque Police Department homicide Sgt. Dennis Tafoya told the Journal.
The year-end total still represents one of the highest in recent history and does not include the seven fatal shootings by police. Nor does it include the nine that were determined to be justifiable homicides, which nearly doubled from 2017.
And the 2018 homicide figure could still increase. Two Albuquerque teens whose bodies were found in a shallow grave outside Rio Rancho, for example, would be added to the Albuquerque homicide tally if it’s discovered they were killed in Albuquerque.
Tafoya chalked up the rise in justifiable homicides to the public’s “awareness of crime.”
“I think, because of that, they are probably arming themselves more,” he said. “They’re being more vigilant in protecting their property and their lives, as well as their loved ones.”
As homicides decreased by 12 percent, Albuquerque police and Mayor Tim Keller released statistics late last month showing a sizeable drop in most property and some violent crimes – with smaller decreases in rape and aggravated assault.
The numbers represent a change from the past few years, which saw large spikes in crime that dominated public discourse and pushed the city to the top of nationwide rankings in undesirable categories such as auto theft and robbery.
Don’t take it for granted
And while the drop in crime is welcome news to Albuquerque residents, Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, warns that Albuquerque police and local leaders should be cautious and not take the decrease for granted.
“A one-year trend, it’s not actionable. There’s no policy relevance to that,” he said. “The numbers, they fluctuate, and the only thing you can do is interpret trends over time. Five years in a row of decreases, or increases, is something to pay attention to.”
However, on a statistical basis, Butts said the homicides category has an edge over other crimes when it comes to drawing conclusions about how safe a community is.
“That’s the best number to compare public safety over time, like over decades or even centuries,” he said. Butts said it’s also the best way to compare cities.
Albuquerque finished 2018 with a homicide rate of 11.82 per 100,000 people.
Tucson, with around 20,000 fewer people, tallied 53 homicides in 2018 for a rate of 8.78 per 100,000. El Paso, with around 130,000 more people, had 17 homicides for a rate of 2.46 per 100,000.
Meanwhile, Baltimore, a city known for high crime and with around 70,000 more people, had 309 homicides for a rate of 51.40 per 100,000.
Butts notes that statistical improvements to homicide rates nationwide over the last couple of decades “could be actually about the increasing efficiency of our medical system and trauma response.”
And while homicides went down in number in Albuquerque, non-fatal shootings went up in the city. In some of the worst cases, they resulted in paralysis, permanent blindness and brain damage for victims – some as young as 16.
Tafoya said detectives cleared, or solved, 56 percent of the homicides this year.
“Not as high as I would like. … But we’ve made huge strides from the beginning of the year until now,” Tafoya said.
That clearance rate includes six homicide cases from previous years.
According to records compiled by the Journal, at least 30 suspects have been arrested in 22 of the cases. The numbers don’t match up exactly because three cases were double homicides and at least six involved multiple suspects.
Two suspected killers were shot by police and another two ended up killing themselves.
Also, some of the suspects in cleared cases are listed as accomplices or were arrested in other states and have not been charged in New Mexico.
Tafoya said at least five of the cleared homicides from 2018 have been turned over to the District Attorney’s Office for prosecution. DA’s Office spokesman Michael Patrick said they have all been assigned a prosecutor. So far, charges have not been filed in those cases.
More illegal guns and more young killers
In just a year’s time at the helm of the unit, Tafoya said a few statistics stuck out, including a rise in shooting deaths and more juveniles arrested in slayings.
Records show that 68 percent of the homicides in 2018 – at least 45 – came at the pull of a trigger.
And most of the guns used in those homicides were obtained illegally, police said.
During a recent press conference on crime, APD revealed that nearly 1,000 guns had been stolen out of vehicles and homes in 2018, however it’s unclear how many have been recovered.
“When I stare at the numbers, it just screams out,” Tafoya said. “Gun violence is a problem in Albuquerque.”
Every homicide committed by a juvenile last year was done with a gun.
In some cases, the guns were “passed on” to be used in multiple crimes, like the pistol Timothy Chavez, 15, and Anthony Gallegos, 17, allegedly used to take turns shooting 50-year-old Ronnie Ross a dozen times “for fun.”
Police found Ross’s body riddled with bullets and, a few blocks away, a painter discovered the gun wrapped in a shirt.
Police traced the weapon to a drive-by shooting on the West Side and a robbery that ended with a man shot in the face – also allegedly done by Chavez, Gallegos and another teen.
Journal records show the number of juveniles arrested in homicides also rose after being nearly non-existent in 2017.
At least 11 teenagers, between the ages of 15 and 17, have been charged in 2018 in connection to murders across the city.
During interviews with some of those teenagers, Tafoya said, he was struck by how little respect they seem to have for human life.
“There ain’t no compassion in these guys’ eyes. There’s no remorse,” Tafoya said. “It’s like changing a pair of shoes to them – not a big deal.”
Butts, who has spent 30 years studying crime, said youthful homicides are nothing new. And he warned against drawing inferences based on short-term trends.
“The older you get, the more you’re disturbed by the behavior of the young, which has been going on for centuries,” he said. “Whereas when you first got into the field at 25, you come across a 17-year-old that did something horrible, it doesn’t shock you.”
Spike in homicides in Bernalillo County
Looking at the 12 homicides in the county last year, Sgt. John Allen has worries of his own – in 2017 the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office only investigated five.
“(Twelve) is probably higher for us than the status quo that we’ve had – over the past five or six years,” he said.
Allen said the unit has cleared nine of the 12 homicides and made arrests in seven cases.
The shooting of Andrew Ball, initially seen as possible self-defense, is awaiting prosecution by the district attorney, and one of the suspects in the beating death of Ivan Bocanegra is on the run.
The three uncleared homicides are the shooting deaths of Charlot Cordova and Brian Romero as well as a human skull discovered by two workers trimming trees in the East Mountains.
Allen said detectives have leads in the two shootings and anticipate arrests soon, but the skull might take a while. It’s currently being analyzed at the University of North Texas.
“Each case is different,” he said. But there are similarities.
Of the homicides the unit has solved, Allen said drugs and, more recently, guns have become a common thread and the two often go hand in hand.
“Most of the homicides I’m looking at are narcotics related,” he said.
Allen said for the new year he hopes to focus on being more proactive rather than reactive, and trying to address the crimes that tend to escalate, like carjackings and robberies.
“All of these stats start to blend in with each other,” he said. “A lot of them, when it’s all said and done, are turning into homicides.”
Butts said as the numbers of homicides go up and down, there is something undeniable.
“Compared to 25, 20 years ago, the whole country is incredibly safer,” he said, adding that the trend is worldwide. “Most cities in the industrialized world had significant crime declines over the past 20 years. That can’t be about any one city’s police department, you have to think about the global phenomenon.”
Albuquerque, however, has bucked that trend for much of the past decade.