Homicide crime scene

With 43 people killed this year, Fresno is on pace to hit a 10-year high for homicide and join a number of cities nationwide experiencing a resurgence in deadly violence.

Homicide has been on the rise the past several years. At the current rate this year in Fresno, the city will finish 2007 with 59 homicides, the highest annual total since 60 were killed 11 years ago.

Most of this year's homicides have taken place in central and southwest Fresno, where the losses go beyond those felt by family and friends of the deceased. Some residents are afraid to go outside, and they keep their children inside.

"It's been devastating," said City Council Member Cynthia Sterling, whose southwest Fresno district has had more homicides than any other district.

Other violent crimes -- aggravated assault, robbery and rape -- are down this year, partially the result of the Police Department's high-profile crackdown on street gangs, Police Chief Jerry Dyer said. But the often spontaneous nature of homicide makes it more difficult to prevent, he said.

Demographics help explain the homicide increase, Dyer said. Echoing what criminologists have said about the national trend, Dyer points to the rapid growth in Fresno's population of young people, who are more likely to commit crimes.

Young people today have more violent tendencies than those in previous generations and are more likely to join gangs and use guns to resolve disputes, Dyer said.

Gang members have been involved in 21 of this year's homicides, compared with 12 during the same period last year, department figures show.

So far this year, 84% of homicides have been committed with a firearm, up from 72% during the same period last year.

In addition, an increased number of felons have been released from prison, further raising the city's homicide risks, Dyer said.

Such factors point to "a gathering storm of crime," Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton said at a conference of the national Police Executive Research Forum last year. As evidence of the "storm," the forum published a survey showing that 28 of 56 jurisdictions had more homicides last year than the previous year.

Among California's biggest cities, Oakland, San Diego, San Jose, Sacramento and Fresno reported homicide increases last year, according to the FBI. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Long Beach recorded fewer homicides.

Nationally, homicide dipped in the late 1990s, a pattern that Fresno followed. Theories abounded about why homicide went down, as is the case now about why it's going back up: drugs, economic decline, gun availability.

The most convincing one is the population boom among young people, said Jeffrey Fagan, co-director of the Center for Crime, Community and Law at Columbia Law School in New York.

"Weapon availability hasn't changed. We don't have a drug epidemic. ... Unemployment hasn't changed," he said. "That leaves very few explanations, except for the birth bubble."

Number of parolees grows

In Fresno from 2000 to last year, the number of people ages 15 to 21 grew by 16%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 60,000 people in that age group live in Fresno. Overall, the city grew by 12% during the same period.

Fagan also considers Fresno's increased parolee population as a credible explanation for its homicide spike.

Since 2001, the number of parolees in the Fresno area has grown by 40% to 4,300, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Parolees receive different levels of state supervision following their release, depending on the risk they are perceived as presenting to the community.

Dyer has long warned community leaders about more felons getting released from prison. Most offenders locked up during an increased emphasis on incarceration in the 1990s were inevitably going to be released.

Young people and parolees are more likely to join a gang than most adults, Dyer said.

Gang members contribute to the homicide figures in two ways.

Gang activity accounts for about a quarter of this year's homicides. For example, police said, Anthony Martinez, 14, was killed in June when he was caught in the middle of a dispute between two rival gangs.

In another quarter of this year's homicides, gang members have been either a victim or a suspect in a killing unrelated to gang activity, said Lt. Mark Salazar, head of the Fresno Police Department homicide unit. This type of killing, for example, could involve a gang member killing someone in a dispute over a girlfriend, he said.

Some areas hit harder

Gangs are a familiar sight in the areas with the most homicide.

Sterling's southwest District 3 has had 17 homicides this year, the highest of any of Fresno's seven council districts. By contrast, District 6, represented by Council Member Jerry Duncan in northeast Fresno, hasn't had any homicides.

Following a drive-by shooting that killed two people this summer, Sterling pleaded for a gang truce and asked members to call her. She said later that no gang members talked to her.

On the west side, gangs such as the Dogpound, Villa Posse and Strother Boys have violent histories, police said.

An alleged Dogpound member is accused of killing Evijeni Mesa Perez, 29, in front of her son and shooting her pregnant cousin during a robbery in southwest Fresno in August.

The killings have created a sense of fear throughout the area, said Paul Binion, senior pastor at Westside Church of God, and Bishop Bernard Hall of Glory Bound World Outreach Ministries.

"They don't feel safe in their own community, which is regrettable," said Binion, who adds that the fear is understandable. "You're dealing with gun-toting individuals without a regard for life."

Darell Murray, 29, a football coach at Edison Computech Middle School, grew up in southwest Fresno. He moved back to the neighborhood four years ago when he took ownership of his parents' house.

He's witnessed a decline in the area.

A 47-year-old Clovis man was shot in a car across the street from Murray's home two years ago.

Murray said someone pulled a gun on him when he was jogging two years ago; he no longer runs in the area.

"This used to be a nice area," he said. "Now it's bad all over around here."

Last month, Dyer announced the Westside Gang Operation, which he said would be similar to the department's attempt to eliminate the Bulldog gang, the predominately Hispanic gang that operates in other parts of town.

Working with other law-enforcement officials, the department uses traffic stops, probation checks and other tactics to try to keep gangs off the street.

Belinda Hall, 57, said the recent police efforts have helped, quieting the gunfire that used to ring out regularly in her southwest neighborhood.

She lives across the street from a temporary memorial of stuffed animals and other memorabilia left for Scott Ray Winston, 31, killed in a drive-by shooting this summer.

While the gunfire has stopped, Hall still won't venture out at night.

"It just does not feel safe after about 8 p.m.," she said.