The number of homicides in Prince William County rose to an all-time high of 14 last year, a record that law enforcement officials said is more happenstance than any indication of a trend. Rather, police said last week that the county is experiencing a consistent decline in overall crime, and that they expect new lows when final 1999 statistics are computed this spring.

Although 1999 saw more slayings than the previous three years combined, officials said the county's homicide rate--the number of homicides per 100,000 residents--stayed well within recent averages because of a steady rise in population. Police say there is no way to derive a pattern from the homicides committed in Prince William because most of them involved personal disputes and few were considered random killings.

Police Chief Charlie T. Deane pointed last week to several murder-suicides and domestic conflicts resulting in homicides last year as evidence that many of the disputes could not have been prevented by law enforcement officials and essentially erupted out of private situations.

"When you analyze what we saw last year, you can see that the vast majority of the murders were committed by acquaintances," Deane said, referring to the three murder-suicides and one infanticide last year. "They're no less tragic, but they do give some context to the numbers. It certainly distinguishes the cases from what we fear most, which is random street violence. Prince William County remains a safe community," Deane said.

Sean Connaughton (R), the newly elected chairman of the Board of County Supervisors, said that the number of homicides in the county last year concerns him, regardless of whether it represents a trend or is indicative of the overall crime rate.

"Yes, we have a very safe community, but you don't remain a safe community unless you remain very vigilant in identifying sources of crime and also preserving and protecting the lives of citizens," he said.

The chairman said it will be important to continue to "beef up" the county's law enforcement agencies to ensure that Prince William remains safe.

"Any time we have this number of murders, it's a concern to me," Connaughton said. "I don't care what the population size is or what the statistics are. We have to be vigilant."

According to the Prince William County Police Department, the overall crime rate has been dropping since 1995, and violent crime makes up less than 8 percent of all crimes committed in the county annually. Last year's complete crime statistics have not yet been tallied, but county police say the number of crimes for the first 10 months of 1999 dropped 4.4 percent from the same period in 1998.

Because Prince William's population has been growing and the overall number of crimes has been dropping steadily, police expect final numbers for 1999 will reveal one of the lowest overall crime rates in the past decade. While the most recent five-year average for the annual crime rate--the number of crimes per 1,000 residents--was announced as 35.6, the crime rate in 1999 is expected to drop below 30, down from a high of 39.1 in 1995.

County officials also pointed to the importance of the homicide rate, which has held at or below 5 per 100,000 residents since the early 1980s. Though 1999 represented the highest total number of homicides in the county, the highest homicide rate was in 1975, when 10 slayings jumped the rate to 8 homicides per 100,000 people.

"We have experienced over the last 30 years dramatic fluctuations in murder from year to year," Deane said. "If you focus on individual years and try to identify trends, we really haven't found any trends in this past year or in any other year. Last year's murder rate is the same as the rate in 1995, 1991 and 1984."

Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert (D) called last year's homicide statistics "likely an anomaly." Ebert said much of the reason citizens become concerned about crime in Prince William is because of the "unusual" nature of a number of the more serious crimes that garnered significant public attention.

"For some reason, we've had some unusual crimes here, and I don't know the answer to that," Ebert said. "We do such good police work that every detail comes out. We've thankfully been able to retain a high conviction rate, especially in homicide cases. A lot of it is because our citizenry is intolerant of violent crime."

Of the 14 homicides last year, police were able to close all but three of the cases with an arrest. The three unsolved crimes included the murder of a known drug dealer, who was beaten to death; an out-of-state tractor-trailer driver who was found dead in his truck; and a traveler from the Netherlands who was found lying in a creek bed. Deane said detectives are working on all of those cases.

The most publicized murder of the year--the beating death of Natalie Giles-Davis in June as she was driving to church with family members--resulted in convictions for two teenage girls who participated in the road-rage altercation.

That crime, which alarmed residents of the Bentley Circle town house community in Woodbridge and highlighted regional concerns about road rage and juvenile violence, resulted in almost immediate arrests, and both teenagers were convicted by juries less than six months after the fatal beating.

The first murder of last year was the highly publicized slaying of Stacie Reed in January, which was notable mainly for its viciousness. Reed was stabbed in a bedroom in her home, and her younger sister was later tied up in the basement and left for dead. Police arrested Paul Warner Powell, who has been charged with capital murder and is scheduled to go to trial in the coming months.