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A Deadly Year 

2016 continues trend of record homicides

A 7-week-old baby girl suffered multiple skull fractures. Jerry Sisson, 81, was killed by his son in an apparent murder-suicide. Redway activist Stephanie Gawboy was shot dead in her home. Friends Faith Tsarnas and Kiya Kitchen, a pair of teenage girls, were run down while skateboarding along a Fortuna road.

These are just a few of the names on the list of 20 homicides recorded in Humboldt County so far this year, making 2016 the deadliest in the last three decades of modern record keeping, even with December still waiting on the calendar.

The county's 20th killing of 2016 occurred last week, when sheriff's deputies responded to a disturbance report on Cal Pac Road in Hoopa to find a woman suffering from multiple stab wounds. Cheryl Bussell died at the scene.

Most of those killed at the hands of another this year died of gunshot or stab wounds, following the deadly trend of 2014 and 2015 when 23 of the 31 homicides in those two years were caused by firearms, according to the Humboldt County Coroner's Office.

A number of issues — ranging from prison realignment to changes in criminal sentencings to a shortage of treatment facilities — have combined to create what Undersheriff William Honsal termed a "perfect storm," but county officials say drugs remain the principal player in the cycle of violence.

While alarming, this year's homicide tally comes as a part of a recent trend. While the county averaged 8.18 homicides a year from 1986 through 2013, it has seen an average of 17 killings annually in the three years since.

"Unfortunately, I think it's a sign of the times," Honsal said. "I hope I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong."

Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills said social scientists may argue over what is causing the uptick on the local, state or national level but there is one common sense rule: Those who engage in risky behavior are more likely to become victims of violent crime.

"That doesn't mean that is always the case and we're not trying victim blame, but there are things people can do to reduce their risk of becoming a victim of violent crime and not drug dealing is one of them," he said.

District Attorney Maggie Fleming expressed similar sentiments, saying her office currently has nine pending murder cases.

"Too many of our recent cases suggest a general decline in the valuation of human life, such as firing weapons during robberies or killing people over accusations about completed drug deals," she said in an email.

That has a trickle-down effect on courtroom dockets.

"While our prosecutors face extreme challenges in preparing for trials because of large caseloads, another concern is that the large number of violent crimes slows their progress through the court system," Fleming said. "The large number of violent crimes also delays non-violent felony and misdemeanor cases; as many people will attest, these cases can also have important effects on public safety."

Having a death recorded as a homicide, however, doesn't always mean there was an intentional act. Three traffic fatalities are included in the 2016 tally, along with one police shooting.

While the county as a whole has seen a spike in homicides, Mills notes there was one in Eureka this year compared to five in 2015. But, he added, aggravated assaults are on the rise.

Addiction and mental illness remain in the top tier of issues facing the region, Mills said, but he also points to a general of lack of civility — encapsulated in this year's presidential election — and an increasing sense of self entitlement as contributing factors that erode the underpinning of societal standards.

He said his department will be working with partners such as the NAACP to help promote a sense of community pride and "reduce the tension that's currently there."

Meanwhile, Mills said, it's important to remember that most homicides are not random acts of violence.

"I think people can rest assured that they are, by and large, safe, but we certainly have problems that we need to get on top of," he said.

2016 Homicide Victims

1) Hugh Duggins
2) Arthur Ruiz III
3) Rodger Alan Yale
4) Unidentified skeletal remains
5) Rhianna McKenzie
6) Faith Tsarnas
7) Kiya Kitchen
8) Brials McCutcheon
9) Dana Hudson
10) Stephanie Gawboy
11) David Alan Fulton
12) Jane Doe (infant)
13) David Sims
14) Lawrence O'Connor
15) Alan Edward Gradwohl
16) Omar Thunder Dean IV
17) Jordan Dennis Antonse
18) Timothy Thomas Smith
19) Jerry Sisson
20) Cheryl Bussell

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