Pueblo battles soaring homicide rate

LANCE BENZEL Updated: April 22, 2011 at 12:00 am • Published: April 22, 2011

A string of slayings in Pueblo this year has the Steel City eyeing a grim crown — as a contender for Colorado’s deadliest community.

Pueblo, a city of just more than 100,000, has chalked up seven homicides so far, and Pueblo police say it’s possible that a February shooting initially reported as a suicide could be a murder.

If true, Pueblo would be two deaths ahead of Colorado Springs, a city of nearly four times its size.

Meanwhile, Denver, with more than 600,000 people, has tallied about 10 homicides during the same period, a far lower homicide rate given the difference in population.

“I think it’s become a dangerous place to live,” said Dorothy Jacobs, a Pueblo native who echoed concerns of fellow shoppers along downtown’s Abriendo Drive.

Jacobs, a mother of two who works for a manufacturing plant, said the year’s killings have unfolded against an atmosphere of decline in Pueblo, with gangs seeming to take over some neighborhoods, and bored kids clashing, often with violent results, on weekend nights.

Police, however, say the recent killings are more difficult to characterize.

With a recent high of 12 slayings in 2008, the city had been enjoying a drop in homicides that culminated last year, with only one killing.

This year’s about-face came suddenly, but with an unpredictable mix of domestic violence, botched drug deals and drunken fights, police say.

Arrests have been made in all but one of the killings. Explanations are harder to come by.

“We can’t point to one thing or trend,” said Pueblo police detective Sgt. Eric Bravo, who supervises the department’s six detectives who investigate slayings, rapes and other violent crimes.

Among the recent homicides were the April 10 shooting of a woman by her boyfriend, who committed suicide by driving his 2011 Chevrolet Camaro into the Royal Gorge; and a Feb. 12 shooting in which a 45-year-old man was left face-down and riddled with bullets in a park that police called a gay cruising zone.

The suspect in the  park shooting, 19-year-old Devin Downey, who is described in court documents as a gay prostitute, was present during another fatal shooting that same day, police said.

Downey and another witness said that 18-year-old William Baros Jr. suddenly shot himself while the three were smoking marijuana and playing video games, court records show. Bravo said detectives are skeptical and could end up reclassifying the death as a homicide, bringing the year’s total to eight.

The Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office has investigated one homicide this year — that of an 8-year-old girl allegedly shot to death by her suicidal father on April 10. John French Jr. is being held on suspicion of first-degree murder.

If Baros’ death is ruled a homicide, Pueblo County — with a combined population of just more than 150,000 — would be roughtly on pace with Denver County.

Only one of this year’s killings in Pueblo is believed to be gang-related, but police said street gangs are to blame for five slayings in the past three years.

Nonfatal drive-by shootings and other gang-related confrontations are reported nearly every weekend, Bravo said.

Police counted a dozen gangs with 450 active members in a recent informal tally, but those numbers are almost certainly low, said Sgt. Wayne Luizza of the Serious Active Felon Enforcement Unit.

Luizza’s four-person unit is devising an anti-gang strategy that calls for bolstering communication between detectives and the patrol officers who deal with known gang members most frequently.

Whether those efforts will stem homicides in Pueblo is uncertain, police say.

Meanwhile, Pueblo residents are floating their theories about the violence, from the lack of jobs seen countrywide, to the lack of recreation for young people.

Torrence Neal, a retired steel worker, said the year’s homicides feel like a “fluke” but still leave him with an uneasy feeling about his home of more than 40 years.

“It seems like a different place,” he said. “What did an 8-year-old little girl ever do?”

John Perri, 82, blamed the same poor economy that’s leading him to close the doors of the shop he’s run for 26 years, Quilt Shop Antiques at 111 E. Abriendo Ave.

“There are more people who are nervous and agitated, and doing crazy things,” he said.

In a poor economy, only the gangs seem to win, with guns, graffiti and violence to mark their celebration, said Keith Williams, who works in Perri’s store as a clerk and jack-of-all trades.

“It’s kids with nothing to do, and come summer it’s about to get worse,” he said. “They’re going to be fighting and killing each other.

“The cops here, they try, but they’re fighting a losing battle.”

Call the writer at 636-0366.

 

Homicides in Pueblo County

Jan. 6 — A 16-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of a shooting that killed 18-year-old Marco Morales and wounded two teenage boys. Police blamed a fight over a small amount of marijuana.

Jan. 30 — Police record their only unsolved killing of the year — the apparently gang-related shooting death of 22-year-old Carlos Lave outside a local tavern.

Feb. 12 — Pedro Solis-Astorga, 45, is found shot to death in a park police say is popular with gays seeking furtive sex. The suspect, 19-year-old Devin Downey, was described by one friend as a gay prostitute.

Feb. 25 — Pueblo police Officer Phil Trujillo, a 10-year veteran, fatally shot Robert Elmore after the 27-year-old pointed a gun at him, police said.

Feb. 28 — A beating over a necklace led to the death of 60-year-old Theodore “Ted” Gomez more than a week after he was hospitalized. Joseph Anthony Espinoza, 41, was charged in the attack.

March 31 — David Carrillo, 57, allegedly stabbed Merris McDowell, 47, after an all-day drinking binge at a roadside motel.

April 10 — Desirea French, 8, was shot to death by her suicidal father in their trailer outside Pueblo, the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office said. John French Jr. is being held in her death.

April 10 — Police say that Brian Wiersema, 37, fatally shot his 42-year-old girlfriend Roseanna A. Vigil before committing suicide by driving his 2011 Chevrolet Camaro off a cliff at the Royal Gorge.

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