Kokomo ended the year with a dark number attached to it.
According to the Kokomo Police Department Chief Doug Stout, there were eight murders in the city limits last year, up from five in 2019. In addition, two more homicides took place in 2020 in the county, for a total of 10 murders in all of Howard County last year.
This marked the second year murders increased in Kokomo. In 2018, Kokomo logged four murders. In 2017, seven were logged. Before then, statistics from FBI Crime Reports indicated that four murders occurred in 2016, three in 2015, and three in 2014.
Five of last year’s murders occurred in the first quarter, running from Jan. 1 to March 31, four of which were in city limits.
The first came in early last 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 last year involved the shooting death of Lashay Young-Beard, 25, on Feb. 3.
On March 6, KPD officers were called to investigate the third murder of the year. 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, 26-year-old William Mealer was charged with the murder that allegedly took place after the pair argued about a firearm.
The next homicide occurred later that month on March 28. This involved 56-year-old Helen Martin allegedly drowning her 4-year-old grandson in a bathtub.
On July 4, officers responded to a call at 1824 N. Jay St. in reference to an unconscious and unresponsive man in a yard. The man, identified as Anthony Hardimon, was pronounced dead. He allegedly was beaten to death. Darrin Thomas and Sabirina Nix were arrested four days later. Thomas faces charges of aggravated battery and voluntary manslaughter. Nix was charged with aggravated battery.
Another murder occurred in the early hours of Sept. 27. KPD officers were dispatched to the area of Fisher and North Washington streets in reference to a shooting, where investigators learned of an altercation that took place after a hit and run occurred at The Country Palace.
The suspect, Daniel R. Bray, was arrested after he fired a single shot that hit Cody Kuefner and James Conwell. Kuefner later was pronounced dead at Ascension St. Vincent Kokomo. Bray was charged with voluntary manslaughter, criminal recklessness, operating a vehicle while intoxicated, and reckless homicide.
Then on Oct. 28, James Charles was arrested for strangling his girlfriend, Elizabeth Rodriguez, and hiding her body under a mattress in an alleyway. Charles was arrested after police contacted the victim’s mother and brother, alleging that Charles had choked her on multiple occasions that same week. Charles admitted to investigators that he had murdered Rodriguez and hid the body the next day.
On Dec. 23, officers responded to the area of East Elm Street in reference to a shooting, where they located a male, later identified as Sharman M. Pearson II who was found suffering from multiple gunshot wounds. Pearson later died at Community Howard Regional Health. The case is still under investigation.
When asked if he predicted a trend in rising murders, Kokomo Police Chief Doug Stout said the murder rate in Kokomo fluctuates and is unpredictable.
“One thing that absolutely can’t be predicted is daily actions of violent offenders,” Stout said. “Murder rates always rise, and they always decrease, every year. I have access to stats back for so long obviously, but murder trends always rise. And they decrease. And then they rise, and then they decrease. However, the number that occurred in 2020 definitely reassures me as chief that we need to provide the citizens of this community with more resources in order to keep them safe, healthy, and enjoy their way of life.”
At the end of 2019, Stout said there were 81 officers at KPD, six of whom were scheduled to retire in 2020, essentially starting out KPD last year with 75 officers. That number, according to the police chief, was an all-time low for the department. However, 15 new officers were hired throughout 2020, leading to a net of three officers hired last year.
Howard County Coroner Steve Seele acknowledged that 2020 was a busy year for his office with an increased caseload of not just murders but deaths overall. For example, in 2019, 245 cases were investigated by the coroner’s office. In 2020, 310 were investigation.
Several weeks ago Seele said his office had three calls come in within a 15-minute timespan.
Despite the increase, Seele pointed out that the death rate was not just up in Kokomo but also across the United States as a whole.
“We’re managing,” Seele said. “There’s a lot of man hours put in, and I’ve got a very dedicated staff that has stepped up to the plate and has given up their days off and has been willing to come in … The increased death rate, that’s not just over in Kokomo. The death rate across the nation is up. The coroner’s cases are up. It’s not just here; it’s across the nation.”