By Darrell Todd Maurina: CNJ staff writer
Curry County Sheriff Roger Hatcher is tired of all the homicides in Clovis and Curry County. He’s tired of the words “killed” and “Clovis” in the same sentence in newspapers and on television as far away as Amarillo, Roswell and Albuquerque.
He’s not the only one concerned that almost as many people died by homicide in the last 16 months as in the previous five years combined.
In fact, 9th Judicial District Attorney Brett Carter said Curry County is well on its way toward racking up more homicides this year than any other year in his nearly 17-year stint in the DA’s office, and the trend shows no sign of letting up.
Carter’s statistics show five homicide cases reached his desk so far this year in just four months. Last year, the DA’s office had six cases of murder and negligent homicide — all of which are reported to the FBI as homicides — and one vehicular homicide which is reported to the FBI separately. In addition, one unsolved case, that of Clovis business owner J.C. Tucker.
Homicide in Curry County shows a steady increase from year to year over the last half-decade. According to Carter’s numbers, the county had 11 homicides from 1998 to 2002 — four in 2002, three in 2001, one each in 2000 and 1999, and two in 1998. The county also had one other vehicular homicide case in 2001 and concluded with a conviction this year.
Carter cautioned that some unsolved homicide cases for the earlier years have not reached his desk, but Capt. Dan Blair of the Clovis Police Department said he didn’t believe there had been more than two or three cases that hadn’t been referred to Carter’s office.
“Criminal homicides will never go away but we are hoping it slows down and we have no more for the rest of the year,” Carter said. “We hope once people realize these cases are being prosecuted that these individuals will stay away from firearms and find another way to settle their disputes.”
The Curry County homicide numbers are almost as high and in some cases higher than those of comparable larger communities in eastern New Mexico such as Roswell and Hobbs. Moreover, those communities show a steady decrease in homicides during the same period Clovis homicides have increased.
In Roswell and Chaves County — which, with a population of 60,177, is one-third bigger than Curry County — four people have died this year in homicides. That compares to eight last year, nine in 2002, five in 2001, 13 in 2000, six in 1999, and six in 1998. Those numbers are a significant decrease from earlier years when Roswell and Chaves County sometimes had as many as 14 or 15 homicides in a single year.
The city of Hobbs in Lea County has a population close to that of Clovis. However, Hobbs reported consistently fewer homicides over the years and generally declining totals — none so far this year, one in 2003 plus one vehicular homicide, four in 2002, two each in 2001 and 2000, and five in 1999. Countywide law enforcement numbers for Lea County weren’t immediately available, but homicide statistics reported by the state medical examiner’s office — which include deaths that aren’t considered homicides by police — show the same pattern.
Law enforcement officials in Curry County agree that drug dealing and gangs underlie many of the homicides.
“The majority of our homicides we are dealing with, the defendant or victim or both were using controlled substances,” Carter said. “A lot of these are related to drugs or alcohol or gangs.”
“Years ago they would use their fists or sticks, now they’re using weapons,” Carter said.
The good news, Carter said, is that despite the increase in homicides the average person in Clovis is still relatively safe since the homicides are mostly occurring within the drug and gang community. The bad news is that when the shooting starts, innocent people may get in the way.
Carter cited the Carlos Murillo case in which Murillo was shot after being pursued by his assailants in a car chase.
“Since that was a chase, whatever street they decided to turn down became a crime scene,” Carter said. “(In another case) there were two groups of individuals on Sycamore Street who were firing weapons at each other. One of the bullets went down an alley and hit an innocent bystander walking in Hillcrest Park. He wasn’t killed, but he was shot.”
Since a number of recent homicides have been in rural parts of the county or housing areas immediately outside the city limits, statistics provided by Morris don’t show the rise in total homicides reflected in the countywide numbers.
“There have been years that had very few homicides and others with a large amount,” Morris wrote. “Clovis has had several homicides so far this year. The number compared to years past does not reflect a major homicide problem.”
Hatcher said his department has been overwhelmed by increasing crime.
“We do not effectively patrol the county, we do not effectively investigate crimes, simply because we do not have the staff …” Hatcher said.
Hatcher warned that with industrial growth in the rural Curry County such as the incoming Glanbia Cheese plant, crime is likely to increase.
“We are going to have more burglaries, we are gong to have more assaults, we are going to have more domestic situations, and we are probably going to be having some situations at the bars,” Hatcher said.
“We’ve been able to make do for the last 10 to 15 years and I think it is one of the issues the county commissioners maybe didn’t think was that serious until the jail started filling up,” Hatcher said. “We’re not going to change the climate of our community until the community decides they are tired of seeing people driving up and down the street shooting and reading headlines over and over again of people being killed.”