Tuesday, October 4, 2016

In Las Vegas, Rising Murders Strain a Police Force Used to Solving Them - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

By JACK HEALY and TIMOTHY WILLIAMS OCT. 3, 2016, New York Times

Las Vegas image from article

LAS VEGAS — In the seven months since Heriberto Diaz Marcial was shot and killed
walking home from his job as a casino porter on the Vegas Strip, church volunteers
have knocked on hundreds of doors in his neighborhood and handed out fliers
seeking information. The police released blurry security footage of a gray sedan tied
to his three killers. His wife, Maria Diaz, has gone on television to plead for help.

“I just want answers,” Ms. Diaz said as she sat in her living room, where a
memorial poster from his co­-workers at the Paris Las Vegas hotel is still tucked
beside the TV. “I want to see them face to face. I want to ask them, was it worth it?”
But so far, nothing.

Detectives in Las Vegas pride themselves on having one of the country’s better
track records for solving homicides, clearing nearly eight in every 10 cases while
many other big­-city departments struggle to solve half of their murders.

But like other big cities across the nation, Las Vegas is in the midst of a dramatic
rise in homicides. The rising murder rate is now testing whether the 19 homicide
detectives at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department can keep solving those
crimes as new calls pour in, from parks awash in heroin, from streets where gang
allies are quick to draw their guns, and from poor neighborhoods that lie just blocks
from the shimmering casinos of the Strip.

The nation’s murder rate, which has declined sharply for the last 20 years, rose
by nearly 11 percent in 2015, the largest single­-year jump in nearly 50 years. But
there are still far fewer murders than in the 1990s, and criminologists believe that
many large cities are in a period in which they will see steep, and unpredictable, rises
and falls in homicides, but that murder rates across the country will remain fairly
constant. A few cities were responsible for much of the increase, according to F.B.I.

In Las Vegas, the victims are a mix of African­-Americans, whites and Latinos
who have been killed during robberies, gang shootings, drug disputes and domestic
violence incidents.

For homicide detectives here, the most disturbing factor may be that much of
the killing is being committed by teenagers and men in their early 20s, many of
whom do not understand the consequences of engaging in violence.

Recently, a 22-­year­-old, arrested after a double homicide, asked investigators if
he was going to be released so he could start a new job. In another recent shooting,
one 15-­year-­old boy killed another 15­-year­-old boy amid a barrage of 80 bullets
during a gun battle that encompassed three crime scenes. The police are also finding
more guns on the street — the percent of homicides killed by guns has increased this
year to 72 percent, from 66 percent last year.

“You find out there was a minor altercation and someone pulled out a gun,” said Lt.
Daniel McGrath, who heads the Police Department’s homicide section. “They are so
quick to resort to violence that it goes from profanity to shooting.”

As homicides here have swelled to 125 so far this year — a 27 percent increase
over 2015 — detectives have watched caseloads grow to five or six apiece, and have
become accustomed to phones ringing at 3 a.m. bringing more bad news.

“I’ve got a lot of tired people,” Lieutenant McGrath said.

The pace of the killings has been relentless, even for veteran detectives, who
have seen the number creep steadily upward, from 84 in 2012, and are spending
more of their time at crime scenes.

April was especially violent, with 24 homicides, the most in any month in the
city’s history. While the pace has slowed somewhat, the count this year may surpass
the 157 killed in 2006. The city’s worst year was 1996, when 167 people were

The homicide clearance rate for Las Vegas remains a point of satisfaction for
investigators even as they are swamped with cases. Last week, the unit added two
detectives to bring the total to 21, in order to help with the caseload, Lieutenant
McGrath said.

And Las Vegas is still far better than most cities at clearing homicides — which
generally means that a suspect has been arrested or identified.

In Chicago, for instance, detectives solve about 30 percent of their cases, and
Philadelphia and Baltimore investigators clear about 50 percent. But clearance rates
can swing drastically. Detroit, for instance, solved only about 9 percent of its
murders in 2012, but now reports a clearance rate of more than 60 percent.

Clearance data, like all crime numbers, are self­-reported by police departments,
which arrive at them in various ways. For instance, while some agencies include the
solving of cold case murders to bolster their annual clearance rates, Las Vegas says it
counts only cases solved in the year the crimes were committed.

Higher murder rates do not necessarily mean more unsolved cases. Criminal
research has shown that resolving a case hinges largely on how quickly officers get to
a murder scene, how many detectives work the case, and how motivated
investigators are to solve it.

When a killing happens in Las Vegas’s more violent neighborhoods, volunteer
teams allied with the police head to the scene and to hospitals and funerals to urge
people not to answer blood with blood. Weeks later, they knock on doors with
community policing units to urge witnesses to come forward and help find the killer.

“The root of this problem is poverty and drugs,” said Lekisha Hayes, who runs
the Stars community development program in her central Las Vegas neighborhood
of Cambridge Square. “Drugs are so much more powerful than a gang. People are
hungry. It’s hard times.”

But for victims’ families, the math of murder is simple and unforgiving: More
deaths across the Police Department’s jurisdiction of about 1.5 million people mean
more open cases, more unanswered questions, more fears about killers still
uncaught. And more families like the Diazes left in limbo.

The Diazes worked at the same casino on the Strip, Maria at cafes and gift shops
on the day shift, and Heriberto cleaning casino floors at night. Their opposing shifts
meant they spent most days apart, but she would take him a coffee and he would
come to her shop and tap on the counter to let her know he was there. He did not
care for the Spanish language’s bouquet of affectionate nicknames, so she was
surprised when he called her “mija” shortly before he was killed.

Ms. Diaz passes the spot where her husband was killed, just seven houses from
her front door, each day as she takes her son and daughter to school.

She thinks about his last thoughts, and whether she could be doing something
to unravel the mystery of his murder. His cellphone was stolen in the attack, she
said, and she has kept paying the bills for seven months, just in case someone uses it
and provides a potential clue for the police. She said she called the number for the
first time last week, but it went straight to voice mail.

Ms. Diaz said she and her son and daughter, Eduardo, 17, and Monic, 12, have
been unnerved by the gunshots, ambulance sirens and yells of drunks that animate
the night around their blue stucco home in northeast Las Vegas, perpetually strung
with Christmas lights. Eduardo found a bullet that had pierced the garage door a few
months ago.

On the other side of town, in Amber Santee’s garden apartment, memorial
candles are clustered on the kitchen counter; dried rose petals from her father’s
funeral sit in a glass vase; and newspapers mentioning his unsolved April murder
are piled on the kitchen table.

“This is my life now,” Ms. Santee, 28, said.

The night her father, Mark, was killed in April, he was the lone security guard
working a 5­-to­-11 p.m. shift at a luxury apartment complex being built on the fast-growing
west side of Las Vegas. He traded text messages with Ms. Santee, cheering
her on as she got ready for chemistry and statistics finals. For years, Mr. Santee, 48,
had been just shy of an associate degree, and worked a series of hourly security and
factory jobs.

“Keep on pushing for the gold Am!!!” he wrote at 6:41 p.m.

By about 10:30 p.m., Ms. Santee said, he was dead. The police believe Mr.
Santee may have been trying to stop a robbery when he was shot several times in the

In the months after his death, public attention swelled and faded as Ms. Santee
agonized over troubling details of his murder. The crosses she planted outside the
Elysian apartments to mark his death were torn down recently when rock gardens
were put in. But Ms. Santee said she had faith her father’s killers would be caught.

“We just have to wait,” she said.

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