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PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Manatee’s 2010 murder rate down 93 percent from last year

MANATEE — Local officials are almost nervous to even talk about it, for fear of some kind of jinx.

But the fact that the homicide rate is down 93 percent from this time last year is not lost on many officials who spent 2009 fighting to stem a record pace of violent deaths.

Last week, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement released statistics that showed 26 murders occurred in Manatee in 2009, the most ever in the county’s history, the closest being 22 in 2007.

For now, 2010 is shaping up to be a better year with two reported homicides so far, one in unincorporated Manatee and one in the city of Palmetto.

Palmetto police are still investigating the January shooting death of 44-year-old John Carl Ruger in an industrial park.

And 77-year-old Lim Chhea had a case management hearing this week on a second-degree murder charge for allegedly killing his son-in-law during a February domestic dispute in Myakka City.

This time last year Manatee had already suffered 11 homicides. “It seemed like last year whenever someone said something about the violence, it felt like someone would try to step up to make a point and we would have another one,” said Manatee County Commissioner Gwen Brown. “So I have just been kind of quiet this year.”

But Brown said efforts by officials last year to publicly denounce the violence that struck Manatee might be having a positive effect this year.

“If it was just a phase, then I am thrilled,” Brown said. “Just talking about it, along with efforts by law enforcement, hopefully got through to people and caused a lower crime rate.”

Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube also expressed skepticism about talking about the homicide rate in the first few months of 2010, fearing a “jinx.”

“I will say the same thing I said last year when we going through hard times, that I don’t know why it goes up or down,” Steube said. “I just hope it is a trend that continues.”

Homicides are very hard to prevent through law enforcement as they are often are related to domestic disputes, drugs or gang-related activity, Steube said.

But last year’s record murder rate did lead to extensive publicity on violence in Manatee, especially in the wake of the killing of two teenagers — Bayshore High cheerleader Jasmine Thompson and Bayshore grad DeJuan Williams — within weeks of each other last summer in unrelated incidents.

“Maybe through all the publicity, all of the talk about what happened, maybe people started thinking about talking out their problems, or walking away, before resorting to violence,” Steube said. “I don’t know if that’s the case, but it’s what I hope.”

Last year’s violence is now playing out in court, and Steube said recent guilty verdicts and life-in-prison sentences in various cases might also be having an effect.

It has already been a busy 2010 at the Manatee courthouse, and the pace is progressing as murder cases will remain steady throughout the year.

So far there has been closure in six murder cases from last year, the latest being a guilty verdict for former Palmetto High School student and football player Marquis Sanders.

Sanders, 19, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison for his role in a home invasion that left 55-year-old Maria Lerma dead.

The man accused of shooting Lerma in the home invasion, Ta Heem Blake, is scheduled for trial in October.

In addition to the Blake case, there are 13 other murder trials scheduled between now and October. They include the trials in August of 18-year-old Daniel F. Williams in the shooting of Jasmine Thompson; and of 17-year-old Byron Galloway, who is accused of shooting DeJuan Williams.

“I don’t know that the right people see verdicts that occur in the courts,” Steube said. “But when you see teenagers getting sentenced to life, I think that can have an effect.”