Den­ver’s 2015 homi­cides hit high­est point in nine years

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Noelle Phillips

On Jan. 4, 2015, Daerius Churchill walked along Bruce Ran­dolph Av­enue on his way to a record­ing stu­dio to make mu­sic with friends when some­one be­gan shoot­ing from a pass­ing car.

Churchill col­lapsed on the side­walk. He died less than an hour later at a hos­pi­tal, be­com­ing the first homi­cide in Den­ver in 2015.

By year’s end, 50 peo­ple would be killed on Den­ver’s streets, mak­ing it the most vi­o­lent since 2006.

The Den­ver Post tracked the city’s homi­cides through­out the year to ex­plain how peo­ple were killed, where homi­cides hap­pened and who died. Gangs and guns were com­mon themes, and many of the mur­ders re­main un­solved.

Of the 50 killed, 37 died from gun­shots. Ten vic­tims, or 20 per­cent, were white, even though whites make up 80 per­cent of the city’s pop­u­la­tion.

Only five were fe­male. The av­er­age age was 34. Two neigh­bor­hoods bore the brunt of the vi­o­lence. And an ad­di­tional seven peo­ple were killed by law en­force­ment.

Den­ver’s jump in homi­cides fol­lowed a na­tional surge. Still, its pro­jected 2015 mur­der rate was lower than av­er­age among the na­tion’s 30 largest cities.

Aside from gang vi­o­lence, dozens of peo­ple died at the hands of oth­ers in shoot­ings, stab­bings, beat­ings and drown­ings that were not pinned on gangs.

Den­ver’s death toll in­cluded Ju­dith Katchen, a 78-year-old grand­mother who was stabbed and beaten in her home. Katchen, the old­est of those killed, en­joyed play­ing bridge and fol­low­ing the stock mar­ket.

Two in­fants — Javion John­son and Karla Gar­cia — died be­fore their life sto­ries were writ­ten. Their moth­ers have been ac­cused in their deaths.

And there was Renita Jack­son, a 51-year-old mother of two who be­came the last vic­tim when she was stabbed to death on Dec. 2 at an apart­ment com­plex on South Fed­eral Boule­vard. Jack­son, a mother and grand­mother, was known as an avid Bron­cos fan who gath­ered her grand­chil­dren for fes­tiv­i­ties on the Fourth of July, Hal­loween and Christ­mas.

The killings took a toll on the fam­i­lies of those who were lost and raised con­cerns about pub­lic safety, es­pe­cially in north­east Den­ver, where the most vi­o­lence oc­curred.

“It’s just re­ally heart­break­ing when you have to bury your son,” said Therell Churchill, Daerius Churchill’s mother. “That’s ev­ery par­ent’s worst night­mare, and mine has be­come a re­al­ity.”

No one has been ar­rested in the 22-year-old Churchill’s death. Or Katchen’s. Or Jack­son’s.

Of the 50 homi­cides, ar­rests have been made in 28 cases, a 56 per­cent clo­sure rate, said Sonny Jack­son, a po­lice depart­ment spokesman. The clo­sure rate drops when look­ing at the gan­gre­lated killings, with sus­pects charged in only 40 per­cent of those cases.

Po­lice Chief Robert White ex­pects his depart­ment to close out more cases in the next few months. In­ves­ti­gat­ing cases and pre­par­ing them for the district at­tor­ney’s of­fice are time con­sum­ing, he said.

“When we talk about gang mur­ders, those are the most dif­fi­cult to solve,” White said.

While 2015 turned out to be one of the most vi­o­lent years in nearly a decade, it was not Den­ver’s worst year. Nor is the city among the United States’ most dan­ger­ous.

Across the na­tion, mur­der rates spiked in the 1990s and then tapered off in the mid-2000s. Den­ver has fol­lowed that pat­tern.

In Den­ver, peo­ple still talk about 1993’s no­to­ri­ous “sum­mer of vi­o­lence,” a year when 74 peo­ple were killed. That was the year gang vi­o­lence cap­tured the city’s at­ten­tion.

But 1992 recorded the high­est mur­der rate in the past 30 years with 95 peo­ple killed.

The low­est num­ber of homi­cides came in 2010 when 28 peo­ple were slain. And 2014 had the se­cond-low­est num­ber of deaths in 30 years, with 31.

Last year, homi­cides rose around the coun­try, with 14 of the coun­try’s 30 largest cities on track to show in­creases, ac­cord­ing to the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice’s re­port, “Crime in 2015: A Pre­lim­i­nary Anal­y­sis.”

How­ever, the re­port in­di­cated Den­ver had one of the high­est jumps of any city it stud­ied, al­though its crime ranked below the na­tional av­er­age of 10.1 mur­ders per 100,000 res­i­dents.

Den­ver had a mur­der rate of 7.6 per 100,000 res­i­dents. In com­par­i­son, Seat­tle’s pro­jected mur­der rate was 4.1 and Mem­phis’ was 18.9, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. Detroit; Wash­ing­ton, D.C.; and Louisville, Ky., also had higher rates.

While Den­ver is not as vi­o­lent as other ma­jor U.S. cities and while its mur­der rates have been trend­ing down­ward, White said he is con­cerned.

“It’s not a num­ber to me,” he said. “It’s not a num­ber to any of them. We re­al­ize the im­pact it has on a fam­ily’s life.”

A one-year jump should be a con­cern for any city, but it’s im­pos­si­ble to know if it is an in­di­ca­tion of a com­ing crime wave, said Dar­rel Stephens, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Ma­jor Cities Chiefs As­so­ci­a­tion, which has 76 mem­bers.

“When you have that many cities that are hav­ing in­creases in homi­cides and vi­o­lent crime, it seems like it’s more than a co­in­ci­dence,” Stephens said. “We’re won­der­ing if this is the be­gin­ning of a trend, but we just don’t know.”

Chiefs, may­ors and pros­e­cu­tors from 41 cities met in Oc­to­ber to dis­cuss the is­sue. Some cities, like Den­ver, pointed to gang vi­o­lence. Oth­ers blamed a resur­gence in drug traf­fick­ing, par­tic­u­larly heroin.

Gang vi­o­lence is a long-stand­ing prob­lem in the United States, and it is un­ac­cept­able in any city, Stephens said.

In Den­ver, the gang vi­o­lence cap­tured of­fi­cials’ at­ten­tion af­ter a par­tic­u­larly vi­o­lent week­end in March when four peo­ple were killed in a 24-hour pe­riod.

Three were re­lated to gangs, in­clud­ing the deaths of Dean­thony Wil­liams, 30, and Tyrael Adams, 28, who were gunned down in the park­ing lot of a Lowry apart­ment com­plex as po­lice were on the eighth floor of a build­ing clear­ing out a loud party.

Jef­frey Starks, 27, also was killed that week­end.

He was shot while smok­ing on the front porch of a home on Pon­tiac Street. Starks once had been in­volved in a gang but had left Den­ver to work at his father’s auto glass busi­ness, his fam­ily said. He was in town to at­tend a baby shower with his girl­friend.

The next week, Mayor Michael Hancock and White held a news con­fer­ence on the steps of City Hall to de­mand an end to the vi­o­lence. Heated com­mu­nity meet­ings soon fol­lowed, at which res­i­dents ex­pressed out­rage and frus­tra­tion.

While po­lice be­gan crack­ing down on sus­pected gang mem­bers through a “Zero Tol­er­ance” cam­paign that led to nearly 400 ar­rests, com­mu­nity groups mo­bi­lized to of­fer al­ter­na­tives.

To­day, White be­lieves the ef­forts suc­cess­fully slowed the pace of the killing.

“We got our arms around that even though we had our chal­lenges in 2015,” he said.

He says the depart­ment has not eased its strat­egy.

“We’re con­tin­u­ing to eval­u­ate it and see if there’s any­thing we need to do dif­fer­ently,” White said.

For Therell Churchill, the an­guish of los­ing her son is com­pounded by not know­ing who did it or why.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “I don’t know where to go. I’m scared for my kids. I don’t want them out of my sight.”

She is do­ing what she can to make sure her son did not die in vain.

In De­cem­ber, Churchill re­leased a post­hu­mous CD of his mu­sic. She gave discs to friends and fam­ily who at­tended a peace march and youth arts per­for­mance in her son’s mem­ory. She and her old­est daugh­ter want to cre­ate a foun­da­tion to help other young artists pur­sue their dreams be­cause Daerius Churchill did not live long enough to achieve his.

“I did this so peo­ple would know what he’s about,” she said. “My son wasn’t a gang­banger. He didn’t bang at all. I taught my chil­dren to wear what­ever col­ors they wanted. They’re God’s col­ors.”

Joe Amon, The Den­ver Post

Therell Churchill 41, and her daugh­ter Paris, 24, say a prayer at the site where her son Daerius Churchill, 22, was gunned down Jan. 4, 2015, in a drive-by shoot­ing at the cor­ner of Bruce Ran­dolph Av­enue and Steele Street in Den­ver.

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