The slaying of a 24-year-old man found sprawling out of a car on a Huntington Beach street Tuesday put the number of homicides in Orange County so far this year at 177--the highest annual number in the past decade, law enforcement officials said.
The Orange County coroner's office said the number of murders this year surpassed the 174 recorded in 1990.
Victims this year include the young and old, and they represented all ethnic and racial backgrounds. They were in most cases shot, stabbed or bludgeoned, police records show. So far this year, as with previous years, guns are the leading weapon of choice for killers in Orange County.
The motives for murders are as varied as their victims. Some are killed during a fit of rage, others during robberies, still others were cut down during violent gang activity or because of jealousy, criminologists say.
Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, say trends are difficult to spot because each murder is different. For example, Anaheim broke its previous murder total of 30 in one year this October, while Garden Grove has seen a decrease since 1990. Some police officials say murders continue in the county, without any sign of leveling off, partly because U.S. society overall has become more violent.
People "have basically, in certain places, turned into violent junkyard dogs" to survive, said Lt. Timm Browne, who heads the Orange Police Department investigation unit.
"I think overall society has made violence a more acceptable part of life," Browne continued. "People have escalated to new levels of violence."
But police maintain that predicting when a person is about to kill remains impossible.
"Murder is not always a planned event," said Sgt. Mike Millington of the Costa Mesa Police Department.
"There's no way you can predict a crime that (sometimes) happens on the spur of the moment," he said as his detectives were busy with their latest case, the gang-related weekend murder of two men at the Bel Congo Motel on Harbor Boulevard.
The victims were identified as Hung The Nguyen, 18, of Santa Ana and Tam Than Nguyen, 28, of Costa Mesa. They were not related, and police said they have not established a motive.
The increased number of homicides in the county is partly an offshoot of the increasing population, said Daniel Glaser, a professor emeritus of criminology at USC. And despite the higher total number of killings, Orange County's homicide rate this year is below the 1990 level of 7.3 victims per 100,000 residents. The rate this year is 7 victims per 100,000.
Supervising Deputy Dist. Atty. Jay Moseley said that along with the steady flow of homicide cases, he has noticed another disturbing phenomenon.
"It's like human life is devalued. Motives (in murders) are inexplicable or trivial in more and more cases," he said.
"Some of the younger people don't seem to recognize the magnitude of the consequences" when someone is killed, he said.
The death toll impacts the local judicial system as well.
Murder trials, which can be some of the longest criminal trials, are increasingly taking up more time and resources, said Orange County Superior Court Presiding Judge Donald E. Smallwood.
While the court system here is not overwhelmed by felony cases, including homicides, "it's always a burden" that takes up more people for juries, which translates into more money that the county pays for their time, Smallwood noted.
The cold statistics mean nothing to people like Amrit Kaur Sidhu, 33, who continues to deal with the pain left in the wake of a murder this year.
Sidhu's 22-year-old nephew, Varinder Singh, was shot in the chest and died three days later after a robbery at a Santa Ana convenience store.
"It's very hard," for family members because of the brutal manner in which Singh died, Sidhu said as she worked Tuesday. "We really miss him a lot," she said.
Singh's alleged killer, whom Santa Ana police identified as Miguel Naranjo Zamora, 22, remains at large.
And in Huntington Beach, detectives on Tuesday continue to search for the killer of Mark Vernon Gesford of Huntington Beach. Detectives would not say how Gesford was killed, and they tried to piece together when and where he was last seen alive.
A Murderous Record in O.C. One week before the New Year, Orange County has set a record for homicides in a calendar year, eclipsing the 1990 mark of 174. Murder totals have grown substantially since 1987, which marked a decade-long low point. The murder rate this year, however, is still below the 1990 level of 7.3 per 100,000 residents. '92: 177* '92, Rate per 100,000: 7.0* * As of Tuesday The Means Guns are the overwhelming weapon of choice in Orange County homicides. And last year, handguns were used in 80% of the 120 gunshot murders. Method used in homicides from 1987-91: Gunshot: 68% Stab: 14% Bludgeon: 8% Other: 11% The Victims Murder victims are mostly men, and those between the ages of 20 and 29 are by far the largest group. During the 1987-91 period, when the number of homicides in the county soared, men 20 to 29 accounted for 37% of all victims, and 47% of all male victims. Victims by sex, 1987-91: Men: 79% Women: 21% All victims by age, 1987-91: Less than 10 years old: 6% 10-19: 15% 20-29: 43% 30-39: 17% 40-49: 10% 50 and older: 9% All victims by sex and age, 1987-91:
Men Women Less than 10 21 22 10-19 95 13 20-29 273 43 30-39 96 31 40-49 52 21 50 and older 38 26 Total 575 156
The Venues Most murders in Orange County occur in the seven largest cities. In 1991, the most recent full year for which information is possible, the total was 64%. However, the individual cities have far different rates per 100,000 population: Murders per 100,000 residents, 1991 Anaheim: 8.8 Fullerton: 3.5 Garden Grove: 4.1 Huntington Beach: 3.3 Irvine: 0.0 Orange: 4.4 Santa Ana: 21.0 Countywide: 6.9 Source: Orange County coroner's office; Researched by ERIC YOUNG / Los Angeles Times