County on Track Toward a Deadly Year : Crimes: Homicides for 1991 may hit the highest level in more than 10 years, the coroner’s office says. There have already been 33 killings this year, 13 more than the 1990 total.


Ventura County appears on its way to a dubious record in 1991, a year in which homicides could soar to the highest level in more than a decade, according to the county coroner’s office.

So far this year there have been 33 homicide cases in the county, already exceeding last year’s total by 13 slayings.

In addition to the increase in killings, the Sheriff’s Department reports that major crimes--particularly sex offenses--are on the upswing this year in Ventura County.

The highest total of homicides in county records dating back to 1931 was 59 in both 1974 and 1979. Since 1979, the highest number of slayings in any year was 42 in 1986.


An analysis of homicides by Deputy Coroner Craig L. Stevens shows that the 33 committed this year already equal the annual average total of slayings since 1974.

“It’s startling when you look at it,” said F. Warren Lovell, the county’s chief medical examiner-coroner.

Comparing this year’s proliferation of killings to the county’s earlier homicide records casts an even more dramatic light on the climbing rate.

In 1955, for example, the coroner did not record a single homicide in Ventura County.


In the 1930s, there were no more than four homicides recorded in any one year. The 1940s saw only a slight increase, but still no more than six slayings in a year. The next high water mark was 1958, when nine homicides were recorded. This was topped by 12 homicides in 1969. No records were available for the years 1970-73.

In 1974, Ventura County changed the coroner’s position from an elective to an appointed post, and also began keeping more detailed statistics on the office’s work.

As for this year’s homicide rate, Lovell challenged anyone to try to find a pattern or make any sense out of the rapidly increasing carnage.

“The difference between a homicide and a serious injury by a knife or a gun is often less than a quarter of an inch--whether you hit a major vessel or not.”


If there is any pattern among the 33 killings, he said, it is that eight of the deaths appeared to result from family related quarrels, including the deaths of two infants.

Unlike other violent crimes--such as rape, robbery and assault--it often is almost impossible to ferret out common denominators amid a rash of homicides in an effort to concentrate police manpower, law enforcement officials said.

Unless a serial killer is on the prowl, “homicides are a bizarre thing to track,” said David G. Keith, the Oxnard Police Department’s crime analyst.

“A lot of them are crimes of passion,” he said. “And you can’t prevent that. You can’t really find trends in homicides.”


In short, it is all but impossible to foresee such grisly events and exceedingly difficult for professional crime sleuths to make sense out of them.

“It’s just a random group,” summed up Lovell.

A sheriff’s official said, however, that three of this year’s homicides have raised concern with his agency.

The reason is that they reflect the first gang-related drive-by killings in recent memory in jurisdictions patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department, said Lt. Joe Harwell, chief of the major crimes unit. Two of the killings occurred April 7 in the Saticoy area; the third, May 31 in Thousand Oaks.


“It causes us a lot of concern,” Harwell said. “It represents an escalation of violence of the gang phenomenon, something that was a Los Angeles experience.

“Now it isn’t isolated to any one area.”

Another category that has shown a major increase in 1991 is sex crimes such as rape and child abuse, Harwell said.

Already, in the first six months of this year, the sheriff has recorded 83 such crimes, against 52 for the same period a year ago, a 60% increase.


Like homicides, Harwell said such crime also is difficult to defend against, either by the victim or the police.

“It’s hard to patrol against rape,” he said.

More broadly, he said, major crimes are occurring in the county with greater frequency this year in Sheriff’s Department jurisdictions, which include the cities of Camarillo, Fillmore, Moorpark, Ojai and Thousand Oaks, plus unincorporated areas.

In the first six months of 1991, the department investigated 302 major crimes, including homicides, rapes, robberies and assaults, compared to 286 for the same 1990 period, Harwell said.


However, bank robberies in Ventura County are slightly down this year, according to FBI Supervisory Special Agent Gary G. Auer.

Through Aug. 29, there were 19 bank robberies in the county compared to 24 in the same period last year, Auer said in a report to the FBI’s regional office in Los Angeles.

”. . . So long as we are not faced with a high volume repeat robber situation, we do have a reasonable expectation of reducing this particular crime problem,” he said in a letter to the special agent in charge of the Los Angeles office, Lawrence G. Lawler.

As for Ventura County cities which have their own police forces, at least one--Simi Valley--has shown a dramatic rise in homicides. Simi Valley recorded six through July compared to one for all of 1990, its Police Department reported. But its number of rapes and aggravated assaults tumbled while robberies are on the rise.


Oxnard, the county’s most populous city, and the one which also has the highest crime rate, is running about even so far this year in its homicide and rape rate compared to the first half of 1990, police crime analyst Keith said. From Oxnard’s six-month figures for 1991, however, it appears that its robbery and assault levels will exceed last year’s 340 robberies and 793 assaults.

For Port Hueneme, robberies and assaults in 1991 could top last year’s figures of 39 and 51, respectively, while slayings and rapes could remain relatively unchanged, according to police statistics.

The city of Ventura’s crime figures for the first six months of 1991 show that it probably will exceed last year’s number of homicides--there have been three this year, the same number as all of last year--while there could be a decrease in rapes in 1991, according to police. However, the figures also show that robberies and aggravated assaults appear to be on the rise this year in Ventura compared to 1990.

Santa Paula has recorded six rapes through June of this year, compared to one for all of 1990, according to its Police Department. It also appears that the city will exceed its number of robberies this year compared to 1990, but that the number of assaults will remain about the same.


“Statistics are something we look at,” said Santa Paula Police Chief Walter Adair. But, he added, there is more to the crime increase than mere statistics.

For example, Adair estimated that about 70% of all burglaries and robberies in Southern California appear to be “driven by drugs"--that is, the need to acquire cash to buy cocaine or heroin.

“Just look at the way crime rates have skyrocketed in recent years and you can tie that into drug usage,” Adair said. “Now, the question as a society is what we can do about it.”

Homicide Trend in Ventura County 1974: 59 ’75: 22 ’76: 37 ’77: 32 ’78: 33 ’79: 59 ’80: 40 ’81: 27 ’82: 35 ’83: 23 ’84: 32 ’85: 23 ’86: 42 ’87: 20 ’88: 30 ’89: 23 ’90: 20 ’91*: 33 Source: Ventura County Medical Examiner Coroner