With the shooting death of a Woodbridge man late Wednesday night, Prince William County police began investigating the county's fourth murder in nine days and the 10th murder in 1999--a total that surpasses the number of homicides in the county in the last two years combined. [See police chief's letter, Page 2.]

Though alarming to authorities and disturbing to residents, police say that the recent spate of violence is in no way an indicator of any sort of crime wave or trend. Instead, the incidents have been labeled a tragic coincidence in a county where homicides are rare and violent crime is on the decline.

"The crime rate is down, but with the recent murders, the perception of violence is there," said police spokeswoman Kim Chinn. "Of course we're all concerned, but you shouldn't be overly concerned because Prince William is a safe place to live."

Through the first week of July, the county has had more homicides than in any full year since 1995, when 12 people were killed in Prince William. The county has had 40 murders since the end of 1993, and 25 percent of those deaths have come in the first six months of 1999, according to police crime statistics.

Chinn said police can't attribute the increase in homicides to any one factor because most of the slayings were the result of personal conflicts and were isolated incidents. Others, attributable to confrontations or linked to other crimes, do not appear to be part of a larger trend, Chinn said.

The four most recent homicides--all of which have occurred since June 29--were in the urban eastern end of the county-- three in the Woodbridge area and one in Dale City. Chinn said that although the more rural western end has its share of crime, the eastern end is more densely populated and therefore more likely to have a larger percentage of the incidents.

David Mabie, clerk of Prince William County Circuit Court, said last week that he was "amazed" by the recent spurt of murders, something he said is uncharacteristic of the county.

"It seems like for some reason the good Lord has chosen not to smile on us, but hopefully we'll get out from under this cloud shortly," Mabie said. "This is too good a county for this to be an ongoing trend."

But although murder may not be a trend in Prince William, local officials are bothered by a new and growing problem throughout the county: youth violence.

Late Wednesday night, police arrested a 17-year-old suspect in connection with a shooting at a Woodbridge apartment complex that left 20-year-old Isaac Lee Brown Jr. dead. Police have not released details of the attack, but they recovered a gun at the scene.

Last week, two teenage girls savagely beat Natalie Giles Davis, 25, of Woodbridge, after an exchange of words over a traffic altercation, a crime that experts said is highly unusual because it involved two girls violently attacking a woman. Teresa Hattie Dixon, 18, of the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, and Kurebia Maria Hampton, 16, of Woodbridge, have been charged with murder in connection with the attack. Davis died two days after the altercation from massive brain injuries she suffered when her head was slammed into the sidewalk and kicked repeatedly.

Also last week, police arrested Danita Yvonne Corbin, 28, of Dale City, and a 17-year-old Stafford youth for allegedly abducting 32-year-old Joseph Scott Williams, beating him, stealing his wallet and then dragging him into a wooded area and setting him on fire. Williams died.

Juvenile violence figured in another homicide early in 1999, when Paul Warner Powell, 20, allegedly stabbed and killed 16-year-old Stacie Reed and savagely attacked her 14-year-old sister, Kristie, in the basement of their Prince William home in late January. Powell allegedly sexually assaulted one of the girls, and police said that Powell slit Kristie's wrists and slashed her throat before calmly walking out of the house. Powell is in jail awaiting an October trial.

"By and large, Prince William has an outstanding citizenry," said Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert. "Like most jurisdictions, we are seeing an increase in violent juvenile crime. It's indicative of an overall trend in society, that young people are not getting the message."

Prince William Police Chief Charles Deane said Friday that although the recent slayings are alarming, they don't follow any particular pattern and generally are isolated incidents. "The recent series of murders is not what we have come to expect in Prince William," Deane said, adding that since 1975, the number of homicides in the county has fluctuated from a high of 12 to a low of one in any given year. "Crimes of this nature committed by anyone are concerning, but when they are committed by juveniles, it is particularly concerning. What we are seeing here is troubling, but it parallels what we are seeing all over the country."

Deane said his department, which has closed eight of the 10 slayings with arrests, is determined to preserve the county's climate of safety.

"Virtually all of these violent crimes have involved acquaintances, and I think that speaks to the level of safety in the community," he said. "People can feel safe in their neighborhoods. Our community is not at a higher risk as a result of the recent incidents."