A year-end surge of fatal shootings pushed the District’s homicide count for 2014 over 100 for the second consecutive year since the city hit a half-century low of 88 in 2012.
Early in December, city officials privately expressed hope that there would be fewer than 100 killings in 2014. Starting Dec. 10, the District went 12 days without a homicide. But eight people were fatally shot since Dec. 23, including four on Christmas Eve, bringing the total to 105.
Although street violence remains a significant problem in the District and its suburbs, there was a grim theme through 2014: killings that were linked to domestic and family violence. Within that category is an even grimmer statistic: An unusual number of infants and young children were slain, most — according to police — by a parent or caregiver.
In the District, at least 17 of last year’s victims were killed by relatives or others close to them, police said, up from 12 in 2013 and nine in 2012. Four of the victims were 3 years old or younger. Homicides investigated by Prince George’s County police dropped from 56 to 54, with 19 of those domestic-related and seven of those victims younger than 4. In Montgomery County, police investigated 18 homicides in 2014, more than double the eight cases from a year before. Among the victims, police said, were three children ages 1, 2 and 3.
Cities across the country are confronting different trends in violent crime. In New York, the number of homicides continued to fall, reaching a little more than 320. With a population of about 8.4 million, that puts its per capita rate among the lowest in the country. It’s the equivalent of 25 killings in a city the size of Washington.
The number of homicides remained steady in Philadelphia, rose in Boston (ending a four-year decline) and fell in Baltimore. Killings edged down in Chicago, although, according to news reports, gun violence went up. Violent crime jumped 12 percent in Los Angeles, the first increase in a decade, while the number of killings remained about the same, according to news reports.
In the District, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier identified the disturbing trend of domestic killings midway through 2014 when she noted a high number of women slain. The chief singled out the killing of a 31-year-old woman who police said was strangled and stabbed in front of her young son. “Horrible,” the chief said.
Prince George’s State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks carries the names of the seven children slain in the county last year and reads them aloud at public meetings.
“The deaths of the children keep me up at night,” Alsobrooks said. “To have a community where it’s possible to have seven children be murdered, something about that enrages me.”
One child in Prince George’s was killed by a bullet fired into a home. A father is suspected of drugging his 3-year-old son. Police said another man slit the throat of his 3-year-old daughter before he was shot by officers. A mother is accused of suffocating her two children, ages 1 and 3, with plastic bags. Alsobrooks noted one case in which a man charged with killing a toddler by smashing his head into a wall said the boy had given him a look that “challenged his manhood.”
Three infants killed in the District had not yet turned 1. A 3-year-old boy was beaten so severely that the first-degree murder charge filed against the mother’s boyfriend adds that the killing was “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.” And a newborn was dismembered and later given a named by police — Baby Alvarado.
In Montgomery, police say that a mother, along with her companion, stabbed her four children, killing a 1- and 2-year-old. The mother and companion told authorities that they were “Demon Assassins” cleansing the children of evil spirits. Of all child deaths, the county’s top prosecutor, John McCarthy, said, “You’re talking about complete innocence.”
Two painful cases not on any homicide list involve children who remain missing but are now feared dead.
Montgomery authorities suspect that Jacob and Sarah Hoggle, who were 2 and 3 years old when they disappeared, were killed by their mother, who suffers from mental illness. And D.C. police believe that Relisha Rudd, who disappeared at age 8, was killed by a janitor who befriended her at the shelter where she and her family lived. He was later found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The District also had an unusual number of children struck by stray bullets, as well as five homicide victims older than 70. Among them was former White House press secretary James S. Brady, 73, who was shot in the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan and died Aug. 4. A medical examiner concluded that the decades-old bullet wound caused his death and ruled it a homicide. Police count such killings when the medical examiner makes a ruling, and thus Brady became the District’s 70th homicide of 2014.
In Northern Virginia, music teacher Ruthanne Lodato was killed in February in a case police have linked to a suspected serial killer. She was among four people slain in Alexandria last year. Fairfax County counted six homicides, and there were six in Loudoun, including one in Leesburg.
In Prince William County, the shooting deaths of two young people in Woodbridge caused particular concern in the community. A 16-year-old Woodbridge High student was killed in a case police said was drug-related, and a 19-year-old was slain about a week later.
In the Virginia suburbs, there were also several cases in which women were slain and police said that husbands or boyfriends were responsible.
Alsobrooks, the top prosecutor in Prince George’s, said the county is trying to reduce domestic violence by focusing its information campaign on reaching men, when for many years “we’ve only been talking to women.” She called that “an incomplete solution.” Police in the county have created a specialized domestic-violence unit that responds to calls and connects victims with social services.
Despite the concerns, overall crime is down in Prince George’s and the District.
It was not long ago that Prince George’s recorded annual homicide figures in the triple digits. Between 2000 and 2010, the county averaged 126 slayings a year. Homicides are now down nearly 40 percent compared with four years ago. Now, resources can be better focused on domestic disputes.
“We’re now at a point to look more closely at things that have been issues but may have been overlooked because our crime numbers were so much higher in the past,” Prince George’s Police Chief Mark Magaw said.
In addition to the cases investigated by county police in 2014, Laurel and Greenbelt each reported one homicide. In Montgomery, an additional homicide was investigated by Takoma Park police and another by federal authorities.
Although killings rose in the District, it is a long way from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, when more than 450 were killed during some years. The number dropped to under 200 in 2004 and under 100 in 2012 for the first time since 1963.
Among last year’s 104 victims were the 12 people killed in the mass shooting at the Navy Yard. Violent crime in the District has fallen, as have robberies, but assaults with guns were up. Incidents of property crime, such as theft, also increased.
The homicide counts do not include those that were ruled justified.
The District’s first homicide of 2014 had begun with a domestic dispute.
Persistent arguments over her husband’s failure to help pay household bills prompted Claudia Hall, 53, to put Alphonso Cleveland out of their apartment in Northeast Washington. Their final argument — over an unpaid cable bill — came New Year’s Day, and it ended with Cleveland choking and stabbing Hall to death.
“He took a good person from us,” said the victim’s sister, Irene Hall. Cleveland, initially charged with second-degree murder, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to serve nine years.
The Halls liked to dance. Three sisters and a brother, each born a year apart, never missed a holiday. And so after a giddy News Year’s party on the Southwest Washington waterfront, Claudia Hall excitedly called each of them to relive the moment.
“That was the last time Ms. Hall’s family was to hear her voice,” a prosecutor wrote in his sentencing memorandum.
Irene Hall said that her sister’s life at home was difficult but that she never talked about it. “I don’t think about Alphonso so much,” Hall said. “I’m angry with him for all that he has done to this family and what he has taken from us. He took a good person, a lady who was prepared for life.”
Although Hall doesn’t want to think of what her sister endured with her husband, she offers this sober advice: “Don’t be afraid to walk away.”
Dan Morse, Dana Hedgpeth, Jennifer Jenkins, Victoria St. Martin, Tedd Mellnik and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.