Norell Harris had just turned 18 months old. Abdul Ghaffar was working the night shift at a 7-Eleven. And Philip Welsh was inside his yellow house in Silver Spring, the one he left unlocked, the one from which neighbors could hear zydeco music as he typed poetry on an electric typewriter.
The three were among eight people slain in Montgomery County so far this year, a concerning number in a county that had roughly the same total for all of 2013. At least four of the suspected killers probably had mental health issues, and four are relatives or family friends of the victims.
But no single cause binds the cases together. And they come as Montgomery continues to become safer. Crime statistics for 2013 show a 35 percent drop in overall violent crime since a peak in 1991 — a trend that experts say is more telling than the recent spike in killings.
“You’re bound to get random fluctuations in homicide totals,” said Gary LaFree, a criminologist at the University of Maryland. As of Thursday, police in the District had counted 26 slayings, up from 12 during the same period in 2013. Prince George’s County has had eight this year but had registered 19 by this time last year.
In recent years, Montgomery has generally recorded 15 to 20 homicides. Last year, county detectives investigated nine. LaFree said the totals “are simply too low, over too short of a time period, to give any meaningful significance to them.”
But each case on its own, of course, means everything.
“You take a single murder,” LaFree said, “it’s amazing how many people can be affected.”
Extending northwest from the District and known for its educated, relatively affluent population, Montgomery is home to 1 million people. Its first 16 days of 2014 were quiet. Then came the morning of Jan. 17 and a call to 911.
“In the car outside, there is a knife, with the blood,” a woman said, speaking in broken English. “They have four children.”
Moments later, officers were racing toward 19041 Cherry Bend Dr., a townhouse in Germantown. The officers took keys from the car and used them to enter the house. What unfolded was unimaginable horror followed by an unimaginable explanation.
Norell Harris and his 2-year-old sister, Zyana, had been stabbed to death. Their siblings, Taniya, 5, and Martello, 8, also had been stabbed. Detectives questioned two adult residents, including the children’s mother. They called themselves “Demon Assassins,” according to authorities, and had come to believe that evil spirits had taken control of the children — and that stabbing the children was a way to cleanse them.
“Clearly there are significant mental health issues in this case,” David Felsen, an attorney for one of the accused women, Monifa Sanford, said Thursday. “What makes the case even more difficult is that it appears that Ms. Sanford loved and cared for these children.”
By Jan. 23, as residents were trying to make sense of that case, Abdul Ghaffar had settled into his early morning routine at a 7-Eleven convenience store about five miles east of the Cherry Bend Drive house. Ghaffar, 63, had seven adult children, two in medical school.
A man walked in, asked for a hot dog, put it in his pocket and walked to the restroom. Ghaffar returned to his duties, straightening up the coffee section. The man came out, approached Ghaffar from behind, and for no obvious reason stabbed and slashed him 75 times with a razor-styled knife, according to authorities.
The suspect charged in the case, Shaun King, had a history of mental illness. And the case prompted Montgomery’s top prosecutor, John McCarthy, to call attention to the high number of people arrested, in all types of cases, who are deemed in need of psychiatric help. The problem is complicated, McCarthy said, but he said everyone needs to do more.
Days later, in a Gaithersburg home, a Montgomery police sergeant named James Stirkens heard a commotion in an upstairs bedroom. He found his son, 25-year-old Christopher, attacking his 53-year-old wife, Denise, with gardening shears, according to authorities. Faced with an impossible choice, according to police, Stirkens shot his son and then tried to save his wife from bleeding to death. Both of them died.
To the extent that a trend was taking shape — of mental health issues driving homicides — things started to take a turn. On Feb. 3, detectives began investigating the death of a 3-year-old boy. Detectives spoke to his father, Brian O’Callaghan, who worked as a division chief at the National Security Agency and has a master’s degree in international relations.
According to detectives, he could not explain the child’s injuries, which occurred when he was alone with the boy. They charged him with first-degree murder, a development that stunned those close to him. “Brian has led an exemplary life,” his attorney, Steven McCool, said Friday.
Until then, the succession of homicides had been followed by rapid arrests — or in the case of Stirkens, an explanation that appeared to make the fatality justified, something short of murder. Then came the killing of Philip Welsh.
Along Hanover Street in Silver Spring, the lifelong bachelor was a well-liked eccentric — someone who extended to neighbors a standing invitation to walk through the open front door for a cup of coffee. One neighbor, Nick Linebaugh, had a routine with Welsh, one centered on Welsh’s lack of a working washing machine and automobile. On Sunday mornings, Linebaugh would drive him to the laundromat so he could drop off his dirty clothes. Then the two would talk about stories in the Sunday papers.
For Welsh, a longtime dispatcher at Barwood Taxi, not driving also meant taking the bus to work — a mode of transportation he preferred. “I like taking the bus,” his brother Joe recalled Phil saying. “You meet people and talk to people you wouldn’t if you were sitting in your car.”
Welsh was found dead in his home Feb. 20. The fact that someone would kill him — and thus far get away with it — has dimmed the spirits of Hanover Street. “Now when I go by his house,” said Eugene Keanon, who lives three doors down, “it’s dark, and it’s a very sad reminder that he is gone.”
Montgomery detectives do not think the Welsh homicide was random. “We are looking at the strong possibility that Mr. Welsh was targeted,” said Capt. Marcus Jones, commander of the police department’s major-crimes unit.
The public often worries more about random violence, even if it’s not homicide. “People are really nervous about getting mugged,” said LaFree, the criminologist. “It’s a good barometer of fear.”
In Montgomery, robberies are down markedly — from 1,166 in 2006 to 747 in 2013, according to county statistics. Police officials cited several factors, including assigning detectives to all robbery cases, even those in which the culprit did not use a gun, and advances in DNA and video surveillance. Other crime categories that affect many people — burglaries of homes, thefts from cars and thefts of cars — also are down. But it’s homicides that get attention.
Last week, two young men were killed in Montgomery within 24 hours. On Monday, Marc Taylor St. Aubin, 23, was found beaten to death outside his Norbeck area home. Police have not made an arrest but said they think he knew the attacker or attackers. The next night, James Allen Frazier, 21, was fatally shot in Germantown. Detectives soon charged Kelvin Parache with murder, accusing him of hunting down Frazier over a $3,000 debt.
As Parache knew at the time, he was only nine days away from being sentenced in an unrelated burglary case. He had agreed to take a plea deal that carried a 12-year sentence. That may have played a role, speculated Norman Frazier, James’s father, who said Friday that Parache had no feelings for anyone else. “He had nothing to lose,” Norman Frazier said.
In the end, though, family members like him are left struggling to understand the numbness, to understand something so unexpected.
“All these people feel loss,” said Joe Welsh, Philip Welsh’s brother. “Like me, they probably can’t explain what it’s like, either.”
Peter Hermann and Lynh Bui contributed to this report.