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Originally published December 25, 2009 at 6:04 PM | Page modified December 25, 2009 at 7:08 PM

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25 homicides this year in Yakima County

Twenty-five victims — gang members, drug users, a Toppenish father eating dinner with his family — have been killed this year in Yakima County. It's a bloody total unmatched since 1987, when the Yakima Valley drug trade was in full bloom.

Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA — Twenty-five victims — gang members, drug users, a Toppenish father eating dinner with his family — have been killed this year in Yakima County. It's a bloody total unmatched since 1987, when the Yakima Valley drug trade was in full bloom.

The only other year that has come close in recent times was 2005, when 24 homicides were reported.

Considering that gunfire — most of it gang-related — is reported across the county at least weekly, the number should be higher except for some combination of dumb luck, divine intervention, physics or modern medicine.

"We're just lucky we don't have twice as many homicides," said county Coroner Jack Hawkins, whose cellphone rings with disturbing regularity late at night.

From Yakima to Grandview, cops this year have needed Hawkins on average twice a month to oversee an autopsy that will record the number of gunshots, measure the knife wounds or define exactly how badly the victim was bludgeoned or choked.

In 2005, a 25th death was initially treated as a possible homicide.

That was because of the case of a Toppenish woman, whose corpse was found by a nosy dog weeks after she disappeared.

An extensive investigation never resolved how the woman arrived in the alfalfa field, but few people would mean to die there.

Sheriff Ken Irwin agreed that 2009 has been a bad year for violence, but he said the public should recognize that such streaks come and go.

"On the larger, longer view of it, you run into these spikes. They're very tragic, but you know it will go back down for a variety of reasons," Irwin said.

Irwin attributed the 2005 number to the popularity of methamphetamine and suggested that gangs are to blame this time around.

Police agencies across the county, social-service programs and community members are working to address the gang problem.

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Gangs are historically linked to a large number of the county's homicides — about a third this year. Drugs and domestic violence are the other major factors, although a random innocent victim enters the line of fire from time to time.

One of Yakima's 10 homicides was a self-defense case in which the intended victim pulled a gun on a robbery suspect who hit him in the head with a stick.

Besides the Yakima cases and two investigated by the sheriff's office — one deemed self-defense, the other a Montana woman's puzzling death on Interstate 82 — the rest of the county's homicides took place in Lower Valley communities or rural parts of the county.

Police have made arrests or identified a suspect in 12 of the deaths.

But investigations continue, as demonstrated by the use of DNA this year to arrest a suspect in the 1987 death of a Lower Valley woman.

Irwin credited the Yakima County Violent Crime Task Force — launched this year with sheriff's deputies, Yakima police and their federal counterparts, among others — with targeting bad guys.

"I can't imagine how things would be going right now if we didn't have that task force working so well," he said.

Meanwhile, communities across the county are searching for ways to reduce the gang influence on their streets. Work continues on an initiative for caseworkers to meet with gang-involved families in the Outlook area in hopes of reducing their criminal activity.

A 2008 dispute in Outlook led to the stabbing death of a Sunnyside girl whose body wasn't discovered until February in the Yakima River. Months later, an Outlook boy was arrested in connection with shooting at two sheriff's deputies, wounding one of them. Investigators say witnesses reported he wanted to gain gang status by "flaming these two pigs."

Despite budget cuts that recently forced a sheriff's drug detective back to patrol, Irwin said he was hopeful that continued work by police and others would keep hammering away at the crime rate.

"You've got to keep moving. You can't just bunker down and say, 'We'll let the bad guys come to us.' "

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