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Homicides Up 50% in 1988 to a Record 142 : Violent Death, Which Rang In the Old Year, Also Rings It Out

Times Staff Writer

They both were found dying on the street.

Kenneth Williams was shot while riding a bicycle. When police arrived, the 26-year-old man lay mortally wounded in the chest, writhing on the pavement in the 300 block of Dodson Street. It was 3 a.m., New Year’s Day, 1988.

Patrick E. White was shot several times in what appears to have been a gang-related feud. Again police were called, and this time they found the 31-year-old White lying in the street near 38th and Teak streets. It was 10 p.m., Dec. 30, 1988.

Williams’ death was listed as the first homicide in San Diego for the year. White was the last to die at the hand of another in 1988. He will be remembered for one thing more.

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His death marked the 142nd killing for 1988--a year in which the number of homicides increased more than 50% over the previous year, and a year that became the bloodiest in San Diego history.

“We’re hoping 1988 was just an aberration,” said Capt. Dave Hall, who oversees the police homicide detail.

“But you can’t help but think the numbers are high because many of them are drug-related or gang-related,” he added. “And it seems like so many people are running around with weapons nowadays.”

Death did, in fact, come cheap:

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- On March 30, Roberto Martinez became victim No. 24 when he was stabbed to death during an argument over a pack of hot dogs.

- On May 6, Jose Ramirez-Castaneda became victim No. 43 when he was shot during an argument over the pronunciation of a Spanish word. His cousin was charged with murder.

- And, on Nov. 22, Sean Nichols and Robert Rose became victims Nos. 123 and 124 when they were shot to death, reportedly after upsetting a neighbor by blocking his driveway.

The carnage did not elude those whose career is fighting crime. San Diego Police Officer Jerry Hartless was shot while chasing a drug suspect through a Southeast residential neighborhood.

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And San Diego Sheriff’s Department Recruit Alma Agrio was slain and her husband, San Diego Police Officer Pablo Agrio, was charged with murder after the couple allegedly fought over a handgun in their Paradise Hills home.

Slow Previous Increase

Homicides in San Diego had been slowly increasing in recent years. There were 70 in 1982, 92 in 1985 and 94 in 1987.

But last year’s record-breaking 142 not only far surpassed 1987, but also far outdistanced 1984--the year of 103 slaying victims--with 21 of them killed in one afternoon of bloodshed at a San Ysidro McDonald’s restaurant.

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Of the 142 deaths last year, at least 45 can be traced to illegal gang activity, a problem that has risen dramatically in the city’s Southeast, where drive-by shootings are becoming all too common, said police spokesman Dave Cohen.

Added to that is the lure of drugs. Cohen said that at least 23 of the 1988 slayings have been directly tied to illegal drug activity.

“What we are seeing is an increase in crime that is alarming,” he said.

Police Chief Bob Burgreen has also taken notice. Last week he completed the last of his first round of community meetings with residents at each of the city’s police storefronts. In those discussions, angry and frustrated citizens spoke up about gangs and drugs and poor police response times. And the rising crime rate.

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To fight back, Burgreen is developing several options. A fifth team of detectives was assembled last year in the police homicide detail. In the next few weeks, a sixth team will be added.

“What’s happened is that there are so many cases that, before the investigators can finish one case, they’re already into another one,” Hall said. “The officers are driven. They’re overworked. It’s hard to keep up.”

Put Police Back on the Streets

And, later this month, Burgreen and his top command will hold a workshop retreat to devise plans for moving more sworn officers out of desk jobs and back into uniform.

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Such efforts seemed to have been successful in the past. A walking patrol in the Gaslamp and downtown areas have reduced crime there, and a new Balboa Park police patrol appears to have stopped a rash of killings there earlier this year.

So Burgreen believes putting more officers in uniform now is a stopgap effort until the City Council decides what to do, if anything, about a proposal by the Police Department and city manager to increase uniformed officers to at least 2 for every 1,000 residents. The number now is 1.62 for every 1,000 residents.

“The chief’s goal is to take a good, hard look at where everybody is in this department,” Cohen said. “He wants to determine that we’re making the best use of everyone.”

Hall said other options are to increase specialized units that can combat the drug and gang problems, often the precursor to homicides. If more drug dealers are jailed and more gangs broken up, homicides will probably decrease, he said.

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“A lot of it is in tackling the drug problems,” he said. “We need to beef up that enforcement, because little things like that will have an impact on the murder rate.”

Until then, Hall said, San Diegans may have to simply adjust to the problems of living in one of the nation’s largest cities.

“Some studies suggest the more congested the living, the more crowded people are, the more they are at odds, then the greater the odds are for an act of violence,” he said. “But I really hope we don’t reach an attitude like New York, where it seems the murder rate is accepted.”


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