Denver’s 2015 homicides hit highest point in nine years
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.”
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.