MANATEE — Ten people have met violent deaths in Manatee County this year, already dwarfing the number of homicides for the entire first half of 2008.
The violence is swamping law enforcement with complex cases and leaving experts pondering the reasons behind the rash of recent violence.
After a significant drop in homicides from 22 in 2007 to 12 in 2008 in Manatee, already there have been 10 homicides this year, compared to only four in the first six months of 2008.
“Right now I have every one of our detectives working full-time on open homicide cases from either last year or so far this year,” said Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Pete Rampone. “I am hoping this trend doesn’t keep up for the entire year.”
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So far this year, there have been seven killings in unincorporated Manatee County — most recently, early Saturday morning — and three in Bradenton. The sheriff’s office has made arrests in four of its seven cases, while Bradenton police have made arrests in two of its three.
The majority of the cases where arrests have been made this year have been ruled incidents of domestic violence, or spurred by arguments where tempers spilled over into violence.
Manatee Community College criminal justice professor Greg Arnold refers to these incidents as “smoking gun” cases, killings in which passions run high and authorities usually can quickly find enough to make an arrest.
And he believes they are the most random of crimes, making it nearly impossible to pinpoint why an area may experience a spike in homicide rate.
“I would call these crimes of passion. These are situations where there is no way to predict it happening and no real way to prevent it,” Arnold said.
There have been several killings ruled to be domestic-related so far this year, including 71-year-old Joseph Scott, who authorities say was stabbed to death by his girlfriend in a Memphis rooming house, according to sheriff’s reports.
Or most recently, Courtney Corinne Walker, 33, who died of a gunshot wound to the head a week ago. Bradenton police say her boyfriend, Alexfel Sotomayor, 23, shot her.
“Domestic situations are almost impossible to prevent. It is really about someone losing control of their emotions, which is impossible to predict,” said Rampone. “The only real prevention is victims attempting to get out of a potentially violent situation.”
Law enforcement in Manatee has not only been dealing with sporadic domestic violence but also more calculated attacks where making arrests can be more difficult.
Arnold said these “whodunnit” cases — in which evidence is sparse, cooperation from the public may be lacking and often the search for drugs or money is a motivator — can be extremely hard to solve.
“I feel for the detectives on these. There is a lot of stress involved in trying to make an arrest, when in reality it could be years before the information or evidence you need falls into place,” he said.
So far this year, both the sheriff’s office and Bradenton police have found themselves faced with such cases.
Take the case of 22-year-old Lauren Whitney Lichon, a Sarasota woman found dumped Feb. 6 off Rye Wilderness Trail at Rye Road. Rampone said detectives have leads, but in such a case it is up to investigators to piece together a victim’s past in order to make an arrest.
“When it isn’t an obvious domestic case where the situation is right in front of you, you really have to get into the victim’s world,” Rampone said. “You have to start with the people closest to that person, then work your way out to friends and acquaintances and really find out where the person was in their life when they were killed.”
Arnold said piecing together a person’s past is hard enough, but working to find a killer who is familiar with the surroundings where a homicide is committed can also present difficult problems in cracking a case.
“I have a theory that most killers are very comfortable with their surrounding when they commit their crimes,” Arnold said.
That could be the case in two recent killings in which clues are scarce and detectives are short on witnesses.
Daniel Case, 59, a homeless Vietnam veteran, was found beaten to death Feb. 23 where he lived on the street at 14th Street West and 12th Avenue West. Police found him dead, slumped over in a chair. No one has reported seeing or hearing anything on the night he died just off the busy Bradenton street.
“We have some forensic evidence we are waiting on, but really we are hoping for any information we can get from the public,” said Bradenton Police Lt. John Affolter.
Detectives and family members of Tevin Yawn, 18, also believe whoever burst into his home in the 2300 block of Fifth Avenue Drive East in Palmetto, killing the teen in a home invasion, knew the area.
The shooter got in and out of Yawn’s house before authorities arrived and is still being sought. The gunman came in through the back door of the home, from a canal with thick foliage and no lighting, according to Yawn’s brother, Glover.
“Whoever did this knows this neighborhood well. There is no way anyone who didn’t grow up around here could know their way around like that,” Yawn said.
Rampone said detectives are receiving little help from the community on Yawn’s killing.
Arnold said homicides are often also the result of the search for money and drugs on the street.
“These are the situations where people commit crimes, often murder, in order to get something somebody has they want,” Arnold said.
Bradenton police said that motive led to an attempted home invasion that left a 55-year-old woman shot dead in her home Feb. 1. Ta Heem Blake, 17, and Marquis Sanders, 18, both Palmetto High School students, are charged with murder in the death of Maria Lerma in her home in the 900 block of 25th Street East in Bradenton.
Detectives say Blake and Sanders heard a rumor that Lerma and her family kept cash in the house and went to rob them, according to reports. Police say Blake and Sanders stormed the home, and Blake opened fire on Lerma.
Sanders ran from the house, but as Blake tried to run, Lerma’s son pulled his own gun and shot Blake, leaving the teen paralyzed, according to police reports.
Discovering what caused someone to commit a violent crime, whether it be passion or profit, can be a lot easier than defining why a community has been stricken with so much violence in such a short period of time.
“Murders often come in waves, and then you might not have one for months,” Arnold said. “But it is more a societal problem that any kind of trend you can put your finger on.”