The start of 2020 included a spate of homicides in Kokomo, logging nearly as many such deaths in the first quarter as normally can be expected in an entire year.
According to quarterly statistics recently released by the Howard County Coroner’s Office, five homicides occurred in the county from Jan. 1 through March 31. Four of those were within city limits. The city has averaged about four homicides a year over the last decade. However, this spate murders, according to local officials, doesn’t seem to necessarily fit the mold of being attributed to one particular trend.
“I would certainly say if you look overall at these cases, look at them individually instead of lumping them as one, each one of them has some unusual things going on with them that are just isolated to those incidences … I don’t think you can say there’s a trend based on just number,” said Kokomo Police Department Capt. Tonda Cockrell.
For 2020, Kokomo has had about one murder a month. The first came in early January with the shooting death of James Gray Jr., 16. That case revolved around an alleged drug deal gone wrong. A 15-year-old male was charged with robbery as part of the incident, and Jeremiah Neal, 18, was charged with Gray’s murder.
The second incident of the year involved the shooting death of Lashay Young-Beard, 25, on Feb. 3. That case was the only this year to have not resulted in a murder charge to this point, but Cockrell said the case remains very active. However, the spiraling case that involved officers locating a man confined to a bathtub on the scene, has resulted in multiple individuals being charged with high-level felonies.
On March 6, KPD officers were called to investigate another death. This time it was the shooting death of Dennis Vincent, 43, who was found lying in the middle of the road on the 400 block of North Purdum Street. Shortly afterward, it was announced 26-year-old William Mealer would be charged with the murder, with an argument over a firearm allegedly leading to the shooting.
The latest homicide occurred nearly a month later, on March 28. This involved 56-year-old Helen Martin allegedly drowning her 4-year-old grandson in a bathtub.
Last year, Kokomo logged five murders in total. In 2018, four occurred, and in 2017 six such deaths were recorded. Before then, FBI Uniform Crime Report Data indicated four murders occurred in Kokomo in 2016, three in 2015, and three in 2014. Going back an entire decade, Kokomo averaged 3.7 homicides a year.
Howard County Prosecutor Mark McCann acknowledged the first quarter of 2020 has presented challenges for his office.
When asked where his concern was with the streak of murders, McCann pointed to a spate of violent crimes prior to the end of 2019 involving juveniles. This, he said, bled into the beginning of the year with the murder of Gray in January.
“That has gotten our attention, and Kokomo Police Department and our office worked hard to detain those individuals or those who were available to be charged and waived to adult court. We’ve done that, and we’ve seen a decrease since then … That’s what we’re seeing, at least I am, an uptick in juveniles, gun-related crimes, and also violent crimes including murder. I’m hoping it will change, but again that’s the one that jumps out at me as most disturbing.”
According to Cockrell, KPD has managed the spate of homicide well, pointing to the fact that three of the four cases have been investigated to the point of murder-charges being leveled at the alleged offenders. She also noted the department has made adjustments to improve its investigatory abilities.
“The citizens need to know our officers are doing a great job of quickly investigating and being thorough about investigating things that pop up that would be a health or safety risk to the average citizen … They can take peace in knowing our guys are always looking for a better way to use resources and tools that we have,” said Cockrell.
The influx of homicides also has impacted the coroner. Howard County Coroner Steve Seele said that the first quarter of 2020 presented a myriad of difficulties for his office, including increased homicides, COVID-19 investigations, a spate of suicides, nine overdoses, and other deaths.
So far this year, the coroner’s office has investigated 126 cases. Seele said within the same timeframe last year 80 cases were fielded by the coroner’s office.
“Yes, we have felt the strain. It’s a conglomerate of the increased violence, the homicides, the overdoses have picked back up somewhat, and the attitude that is the COVID investigations we’ve had to handle,” said Seele.