By Gregory McNamee and Luis Alberto Urrea
NINETEEN-HUNDRED-AND-ninety-five was a bad year to be in Tucson if you were a young Hispanic male living on the southwest side.
It was also a bad year if you were sorting out a relationship, or owned a nice bike or tennis shoes, or were a child in the presence of junkies, or lived in a trailer, or behaved stupidly in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Pima County's homicide and non-negligent manslaughter rate hit an all-time high in 1995, weighing in at 102 dead. In 1975, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Uniform Crime Reports, the figure stood at a mere 36, and that was thought of as a particularly gruesome toll at the time. Just 10 years ago, according to the same source, the number was 17.
The daily newspapers began reporting this record-breaking trend early in the year, although, as many readers complained, most stories wound up being buried at the back of the Metro section. Throughout the year, the papers also published conflicting reports on the exact body count: official sources disagreed on the number killed, and the roster shifted as homicides became manslaughter, as police shootings were ruled justifiable, as cases opened and closed and were reclassified and reassigned. The final toll may yet be revised.
Murder once was a so-called friendly crime, almost always committed by someone known to the victim, as in the case of 74-year-old Mildred Huff, who was shot to death, police allege, by her granddaughter DaShanna Morgan in an argument over money with which to buy drugs. It is not so friendly now. In 1995, according to the FBI, for the first time in American history more than half of all homicides were random, committed by strangers. That trend was borne out in Tucson, as 19-year-old Bryant Keopele Bright found on May 27, when he attended a graduation party for a friend at Pueblo High School and was cut down by one of the 30 or so bullets allegedly fired by 18-year-old Francisco Gradillas Salcido, who apparently had no particular target in mind when he opened his automatic weapon up on a crowd of 75 partygoers.
The vast majority of homicides this year were accomplished by means of handgun, with one grisly shotgun slaying and an emphatic death by assault rifle. (One Tucson Police Department detective commented, "They wanted to make extra sure he was dead.") Following gunshots, the next favored means of extermination were bludgeonings, followed by stabbings. There was one suffocation, and two strangulations. More than two-thirds of the victims were between the ages of 11 and 30, which bears out the long-standing observation that violent crime is the province of the young. (The youngest was one month old, the oldest 80.) Nearly half were Hispanic; 80 percent were male. Most died somewhere west of Alvernon Way and south of Grant Road.
The good news, one could say, is that Tucsonans avoided poisoning, drowning or burning each other to death in 1995. Neither were any serial killers working the streets of Tucson--at least as far as police are willing to say. It was strictly Wild West action in the Naked Pueblo, the paradise of gun-shop owners and morticians.
But the reasons for killing remain constant, regardless of the relationship between murderer and victim. We are left with a sorry legacy that, in an admittedly unscientific breakdown, falls into crimes of cowardice, crimes of passion, and crimes of stupidity.
Crimes Of CowardiceONE LONGTIME TPD homicide investigator calls most of the current crop of murders "crimes of cowardice": the murderer killed his or her victim without giving the target a chance to flee or fight back. Echoing his colleague, TPD public-information officer Sgt. Eugene Mejia remarks, "Random killings, especially where unarmed people are killed, are the biggest single act of cowardice there is."
Those "crimes of cowardice" racked up astonishing statistics in 1995. Of the murders this year, more than half qualify: an Indian transient is stabbed to death by a carload of joyriding Chicano teens here, a bike shop employee is shot to death for an $880 set of wheels there, with no fuss, no prelude. Says one now-retired sheriff's deputy, "Time was, when you had a beef with someone you went out and fought it with your fists. Now it involves guns, and people always wind up dead. Sometimes there's not even a beef, and people wind up dead anyway."
A few of these crimes stand as exemplars:
June 21: 2080 West Speedway. 13-year-old Alejandro Morando was shot in the head and died beside a community swimming pool. Apparently he had traded words with four visiting males, only one of them a juvenile. This was not the only 1995 murder in which, as police note with disgust, older armed males cut down a younger, weaponless one.
January 31: 350 N. Wilmot. Two-year-old Greyson Bennett was beaten to death, allegedly by 35-year-old John Sweet, the boyfriend of Donna Jean Bennett, an exotic dancer. She returned home to find the toddler badly hurt. According to a police source who spoke with The Weekly, Bennett was too high on crystal meth to take little Greyson to the hospital, and he died during the night. An autopsy revealed the boy had drugs in his bloodstream. How they got there police did not say. Bennett recently was sentenced to a prison term of 25 years to life.
March 4: 58-year-old UA professor Roy Andrew Johnson was beaten to death and dumped in a wash off of West Ajo Way. His alleged killer, a 28-year-old transient named Beau Jay Greene, was arrested after using Johnson's credit cards to buy camping equipment.
February 20: 16-year-old Hector Calderon was shot at the corner of South Liberty and West Alaska. A carload of youths pulled to the sidewalk, and the males inside shouted insults at Hector. A volley of gunfire followed. The dead Hector was stripped of his armor--his running shoes and jacket--and left in the street. Jose Garcia, 19, was convicted of first-degree murder.
March 13: 20-year-old Kevin Sorrell, an unarmed Wells Fargo security guard, was robbed and executed near the Sun Tran stop at 4450 N. First Ave., where he worked. His body was dumped in the Rillito. No suspects have been identified.
Crimes Of PassionCRIMES OF PASSION involve claims of sexual ownership and power, almost always misplaced. A domestic squabble erupts in gunfight here, an issue of macho bravado turns bloody there, as when two men argued over a woman with whom, each suspected, both had produced a child. One of those men, Eduardo Morales, was shot to death.
On April 26, 19-year-old Mandy Lund was shot in her apartment in the 1300 block of West Roger Road. She had been followed from the complex swimming pool by a stalker who attempted to rape Mandy and her roommate at knifepoint. During the attempt, Mandy produced a gun and was killed in the struggle. The suspected stalker, Darius Pittman, then tried to steal a car. Police interrupted him. He fired on them but was captured alive and now awaits trial.
On May 16, at the corner of Escalante and Palmdale, 28-year-old Paul Benavides was shot and killed in a domestic squabble by his girlfriend, Andrea Schosie. She led police in a short car chase that ended, spectacularly enough, at the Valencia exit of I-19, when she shot herself and rolled off the blacktop, dead. This crime inspired a bit of police humor when a detective quipped: "The suspect was apprehended, then buried. Offered no resistance to the arresting officer."
On March 11, 44-year-old Keith Morgan was shot to death during a drunken domestic dispute at his home in Three Points. (In most such disputes, the woman dies.) His 41-year-old wife Jill has been charged with the crime. And on August 11, 46-year-old Ofelia Manning murdered her estranged husband, 44-year-old Charles Manning, and then telephoned a friend to report what she had done. She also scribbled a note saying that she had been "depressed and distraught over personal problems" before shooting herself in the head.
In a scenario straight out of a James M. Cain novel, on March 24, 79-year-old Pearl Alice Oman died of a gunshot wound at her home in the 1600 block of North Silverbell. She met her death at the hands of her husband, the artist Sheridan Oman, whose paintings of Arizona history adorn the downtown Bank One branch office. Apparently overcome with remorse, he drove halfway up the Mount Lemmon Highway, left an apologetic note in his car, and walked into the forest. He has not been seen since.
On July 29, at 4300 S. Sixth Ave., Consuelo Lopez was shot and seriously wounded. Put on life support, Lopez could not speak, due to the intubation in her throat, and the crime went unsolved until she chose to be disconnected. Without the intubation, she was certain to die, but she used her last breaths to name her attacker. On videotape, she accused her boyfriend, Abel Pacheco, of killing her. We're willing to hazard the guess Pacheco's defense attorney will argue Lopez's death was a suicide, inasmuch as she chose to be removed from life support. The county attorney takes a different view, of course; in Arizona law, a death that occurs during the commission of a crime is murder.
Crimes Of StupidityTHROUGHOUT HISTORY, BEING in the wrong place at the wrong time is a recipe for misadventure, and Tucson has had its share of deaths as a result. A hefty percentage of recent murders involves the flashing of gang signs in suspect terrain--and, as Sgt. Eugene Mejia remarks, all of Tucson is now suspect terrain, contested by the symbolism of signs rather than by the actual control of turf. Much gang-related violence is thus no longer about ownership per se, but about behavior: the wrong clothing, the wrong hand gesture, the wrong word ineluctably yields a statistic. In the case of Jesus Torres, age 15, the wrong hand signal directed toward a passing car resulted in his termination; in the case of 21-year-old Jason Romero, the wrong buzzwords in the parking lot of a southside Circle K led to his death in a volley of bullets. The first murder of 1995, on January 6, was likewise the result of an unfortunate exchange of gang slogans; Odilon Zepeda, age 17, died for his part in the conversation.
Other crimes of stupidity involve the unwise application of gunpower in, once again, the wrong place at the wrong time:
On March 6, Francisco Burruel, in his 20s, was apparently playing with his buddies, a bottle, and a gun. He was fatally shot. Police can only presume they were playing Russian roulette, although the case is still open. The day before, in an unrelated incident, Mark Wayans was shot at his home on East 30th Street. A 14-year-old was arrested for negligent homicide. Police believe the two were "playing with guns."
Sometimes a death is so tawdry that it becomes embarrassing. Take, for example, the demise of 24-year-old Matt Miller. On October 21, Miller was enjoying a beer blast with friends on the 1000 block of N. Holly. He engaged in a wrestling match with C. Elkins, a neighbor. Police allege that Elkins, enraged at the outcome of the bout, went home and retrieved a shotgun. He allegedly returned to the party and offered some B-movie dialogue: "You want some of this?" Then he blew Miller's head off.
On August 14, Vern Haynes got angry. He attempted to murder his house, in the 2400 block of S. Calle Cordova, by firing several shots into the walls. Vern's family made a 911 call as Vern sped away in his pickup, gun in hand. Police spotted Vern's truck at the corner of East 22nd and Rosemont. Reports of what happened next vary. Attorneys for the Haynes family, who are now suing the city for $5 million, claim Vern was shot nine times while sitting in his truck. Police say Haynes waved his weapon at them, and, after a 911 call with shots fired, they had no choice but to shoot. As the claim against the city states, "either intentionally or by accident" Haynes was hit seven times. Ironically enough, Vern Haynes was a gunshop owner and a lifetime member of the NRA. He was also a civilian volunteer with the Tucson Police Department.
Miscellaneous MayhemSEVERAL OF 1995's murders were hard to classify, hard to codify. Some of them are eerie mysteries--the 80-year-old woman, Tucson's oldest victim, found dead in her trailer on Christmas Day; the skeleton of a man found in the desert; the 35-year-old transient found beaten to death in a culvert on 10th and Bean. Most troubling, perhaps, was the brutal deaths of Antonio Rodriguez and Danielle Wessels, both 18. They were discovered on August 25, in their apartment bedroom at 2100 N. Columbus. Their baby was left unharmed, and was found lying between the two bodies. A police spokesman said, "They had a party the night before. The spooky thing is that the last one to leave that party was probably the killer. But nobody's talking." There is no known motive, and of course, there is no known suspect.
Tucson bucked a nationwide trend last year: the overall rate of violent crime declined significantly in almost all major cities. Only Tucson and Minneapolis marked major growth in the rate of murder and non-negligent homicide. Those two cities, remarks the Denver-based demographic analyst and futurist Kim Long, are to be counted as "statistical aberrations," which is small comfort to those of us who live there.
Plagued by drugs, guns, a large transient population, and what Long calls "closed circles of criminal elements," Tucson will likely continue to set and break records of human suffering for several years to come. Only strong local government efforts and strong policing can reverse our savage decline, actions of the kind that Rudolph Giuliani set in motion when he became mayor of New York and that saw a 32 percent reduction in violent crime in a single year. With such efforts, however, come a level of strong-arming; if they are put in place here, said one TPD investigator, "you people are going to lose a lot of your civil liberties."
How 1996 will compare with 1995 is a matter of the idlest speculation, but trend-watchers and interested parties--including Tucson Mayor George Miller, who has predicted a massive surge of violent crime--see no improvement in the new year. And so another teenager will be gunned down in a parking lot here, another waitress abducted from a roadside diner there, another passerby struck down by an errant bullet, another statistic racked up and filed in a TPD or Sheriff's Department database.
Home | Currents | City Week | Music | Review | Cinema | Back Page | Forums | Search
| © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth