There have been 17 homicides this year in Colorado Springs - five more than reported last year on the same date.
In the past three weeks, three sexual assaults have been reported, all allegedly committed by strangers, one in broad daylight. At first glance, it may seem like violent crime is on the rise in Colorado Springs, but police say that's not so and they have the numbers to prove it.
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation released its 2012 Crime in Colorado Report, stating an increase of 2.9 percent in crime statewide last year. However, the study lists a 3.4 percent decrease in violent crimes, with 8.1 percent less forcible rape cases.
In Colorado Springs, there were 22 homicides in 2012, a dip from a record 32 the previous year. CSPD's Violent Crimes Section Lt. Adrian Vasquez said homicides are unpredictable and compared the changes in numbers for the last two and a half years.
"I remember 2011 was a rough year, we had three separate homicides in July. Then in 2012, going into June, we had more homicides than we did the previous year and I remember thinking it was going to be a rough summer," Vasquez said. "It felt like murders were coming at us nonstop, then the numbers leveled out and everything calmed down. It's impossible to expect or predict what's going to happen next."
Despite concerns, Vasquez pointed out the department's 'case-solved' rates for homicide cases are above the national average, which he said is between 63 and 66 percent. For 2011, CSPD detectives cleared 93 percent of homicide cases, then increased to 96 percent of solved cases in 2012.
This year, Vasquez said, CSPD has solved 16 of the 17 cases it has handled, a 94 percent success rate.
"We're well above the national average every year and from that perspective I'm ecstatic," Vasquez said. "But every homicide that's not cleared is horrible, and every case that's not solved is constantly worked and revisited."
May was a bloody month for Colorado Springs' standards, with three homicides - death by strangulation May 2, a fatal stabbing May 8 and a shooting May 25. Angelina Sicola's murder by strangulation is the only one without a suspect, according to police records.
June kept homicide investigators busy, with two fatal shootings within the same week on June 24 and 28. Suspects have been identified for both cases and charged with first-degree murder, court records show.
Most homicides in Colorado Springs, Vasquez said, turn out to be isolated incidents, which is a relief for police because the public's safety is not generally threatened.
"Many of the homicides we handle escalate from domestic violent situations, or are gang-related, sometimes caused by alcohol-induced disturbances," Vasquez said. "There are no trends or patterns to indicate that the public have to fear for their safety."
Conversely, isolated incidents such as sexual assaults perpetrated by strangers catch investigators' attention immediately, Special Victims Section Lt. Howard Black said.
"The vast majority of forcible rapes in Colorado Springs stem from domestic violence situations," Howard said. "Stranger assaults are the most rare, but those cause more concern, because if we don't catch the attacker, there is a high potential for recurrence."
Such sexual assaults get the department's full response, sometimes getting up to six or seven detectives assigned to handle a single case, Howard said.
"Tremendous resources go into each case, we look at it from every possible angle and exhaust every lead, especially because with stranger rapes there is no connection to the victim," Howard said.
The June 19 rape of a woman nearby Hillside Community Center in broad daylight was an example of a massive effort from investigators, victim advocates and forensic analysts, Howard said. Within 24 hours, a man was identified as a suspect, booked into the El Paso County jail, charged with second-degree sexual assault and held on a $500,000 bond, where he remains.
More recently, a woman was raped in her own backyard Monday and a second assault happened Tuesday night during a home invasion.
"Every case gets our full attention, we exhaust every lead," Howard said. "We talk to neighbors, we track the movements of suspects, we check on registered sex offenders, we collect and examine evidence. I am constantly impressed by all the factors that come together to process a case."
According to CBI studies and CSPD reports, there were 319 forcible rapes reported in 2011, 330 in 2012 and 107 in Colorado Springs through the end of May.
An annual report by the CSPD showed the clearance rate for forcible rape cases in 2011 was 23.5 percent. Case clearance information for 2012 and 2013 was not available.
Both Howard and Vasquez agreed that one of the overall strengths of the department's ability to process and solve homicide and rape cases is the teamwork between detectives and victim advocates.
"Our amazing advocacy program is rarely talked about and it is an integral part of every investigation," Vasquez said. "When we build a solid relationship with the victims and their families, they are more comfortable communicating with our detectives, which really helps our investigations."
For sexual assault victims, TESSA is the primary advocacy agency in El Paso and Teller counties. Communication and rapport between advocates and victims are essential to police investigations, because unless the victims give consent, all information is confidential, Howard said.
"When it comes to sexual assaults, all are tough cases," Howard said. "As a community we have to keep working together and recognize that it's about awareness. None of these victims are at fault, but sometimes assaults are inevitable and we have to hold every attacker accountable."