A 33-year-old man gunned down after telling the alleged shooter to quit selling drugs in an apartment building parking lot. A 21-year-old man shot outside a church gym while leaving a basketball league. The ex-wife of a Baton Rouge car dealer found in a shallow grave in what authorities called a murder-for-hire scheme.
At least 78 people were killed in East Baton Rouge Parish in 2015 in ways law enforcement concluded were neither negligent, accidental nor justified. The homicide victims came from nearly all walks of life, from a couple who owned large tracts of land across the parish to a homeless man found beaten to death under a highway overpass. They included a baby still in his mother’s womb when she was shot to death and a 14-year-old boy not yet out of middle school, killed while riding in a car.
And yet the bulk of 2015’s murder victims fit a disturbing pattern, as 50 percent of local homicide victims were black males age 15 to 35.
“I don’t understand why we are not rioting for the black victims,” said Keon Preston, the 21-year-old leader of Together We Stand, Divided We Fall, an anti-violence group in Baton Rouge. He raised eyebrows when he entered two floats in the recent Gus Young Christmas Parade, one featuring a man pretending to be a corpse in an open casket and another with a body bag wrapped in crime tape. He said the acts were meant to provoke discussion about the violence that’s taken the lives of too many community members, including his brother, Calvin Smith, 19, who was shot and killed Jan. 11.
After two years of declining murders in Baton Rouge, the number jumped back up in 2015, with 15 more people slain this year than last. Officials don’t offer any one answer to explain the increase but point to the expansion of drug markets, an unusual bump in killings with multiple victims and the inevitable fluctuation in murder rates as possible factors. Several other cities across the country, including New Orleans, Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee, also saw the number of homicides climb.
“I’m disappointed and somewhat frustrated,” said East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III, who often shows up to homicide scenes. “We’ve been watching all around the country, seeing the homicide rates spike in other cities. … We were thinking we would be a shining star, but then June came.”
There were 11 homicides in the parish that month, more than any other — in February, there were none.
Mayor-President Kip Holden called the homicide upturn “a breakdown in the moral fiber of Baton Rouge” as more people, he said, “think they should be the law, they should be the judge and they should issue justice.”
East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said the majority of the homicides, as in years past, are domestic or drug-related.
“Domestic homicides are difficult to predict and prevent as they often occur spontaneously as a result of a disagreement in the home,” he said.
In congruence with Gautreaux, one theory behind the rise in killings in some cities across the country is an expanded drug trade, particularly for heroin, bringing with it violence to those who buy and sell, said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.
“Heroin clearly is the illicit drug of choice on the streets right now,” he said. Since narcotics traffickers can’t seek help from police, disputes are often settled violently, he pointed out, and cash held by drug buyers and sellers makes them targets for robberies that can end in killings.
“It was clearly the case back in the late ’80s and early ’90s when crack cocaine was the drug of choice on the streets. And we saw an uptick in homicide during those years,” Rosenfeld said.
Fatal heroin overdoses in East Baton Rouge hit a record high of 42 deaths in 2015, up from 28 in 2014 and 35 in 2013, said parish Coroner Dr. William “Beau” Clark. In 2012, there were only five heroin-related deaths, he said.
While the fatal heroin overdoses aren’t necessarily homicides — though murder charges can stem from distribution of the drug — the climb in number of deaths is an indication of the drug’s increased use. Prescription pill abuse has driven demand for heroin nationwide, Rosenfeld said, as people addicted to Xanax and Oxycontin sometimes end up turning to an easier-to-obtain alternative with similar effects.
The Baton Rouge Police Department does not track narcotics-related homicides, said spokesman Cpl. Don Coppola. But a glance at the initial reports from authorities show several killings stemmed from alleged drug deals, including that of George Reusch, 27, who was shot dead Dec. 21 in the Esplanade Mall parking lot on Corporate Boulevard in what police said was a planned drug transaction.
A few officials, including Moore, Gautreaux and Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr., said an exceptional year of multiple killings — two triple homicides and seven doubles, up from one triple and two doubles in 2014 — drove up the murder rate.
“That really skews your numbers,” Dabadie said. “If you’re looking for a reason why, I don’t have it.”
Dabadie said the Baton Rouge police clearance rate was hurt in the process — 45 percent of the department’s 60 cases were closed. Parishwide, just 55 percent of homicide cases were closed.
“We haven’t been as successful this year in solving our homicides,” he said, partly because some of the homicides not solved by the BRPD were multiple homicides, including one triple killing.
One area of progress Dabadie mentioned was the lack of gang-related homicides, saying the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination — a 3-year-old effort to rehabilitate violence-prone youngsters primarily in the 70802 and 70805 ZIP codes — has been successful in achieving its goals.
“Our group violence here in Baton Rouge has been drastically reduced,” Dabadie said.
On the other hand, Gautreaux, with 17 cases, said he is “pleased that (his) homicide detectives have worked tirelessly to solve all but two of the murders this year.”
In addition to the BRPD and Sheriff’s Office cases, there was also a killing in Zachary, the strangulation and stabbing of Robert Noce on July 4. These deaths classified as homicides are those reported by police agencies to the FBI under the agency’s Uniform Crime Reporting standards, which generally limits reportable killings to those that would be considered murder or manslaughter.
LSU criminologist Ed Shihadeh said a certain amount of variation in murder rates is normal.
“Crime is on everybody’s mind, but I think we don’t realize how low it actually is,” he said.
For families of the victims, the losses are felt every day. Months after his younger brother was killed in an unsolved triple homicide on Jefferson Avenue, Troydell Harris said he was still hoping for police to identify suspects.
“I just need some type of closure to this,” Harris said in October. But by the end of the year, police still had not made an arrest in the Aug. 2 killings of Kevin Ford, Fredrick Corner and Antoine Harris.
Birthdays, holidays and family gatherings have all gone by since Joseph, Perry and Mark Allen were shot to death in a driveway in Central on Sept. 13 by an acquaintance who later turned the weapon on himself. Another birthday is coming up in January. Each has been tough for a tight-knit family, accustomed to celebrating together.
“I didn’t want to put up a tree this year. I didn’t feel like it,” said their mother, 75-year-old Vera Faubion, who wound up putting up a tree in Mark Allen’s trailer, next door to her own in Denham Springs, and hung on it a stocking for each of her missing sons. She asked each of her four surviving children to place notes for them inside.
“I live in a different world now,” said their sister, Patricia Allen. “One day, I had five brothers, and the next day, I had two. I wake up crying. It’s hard to even get through the day.”