It was in May when Felicia Jenkins heard that her seven-week-old grandson had been beaten to death.
Authorities said the killer was the child’s own father, who crushed his son’s head because he said Karter Smith had been crying too loudly.
The crime was traumatic to the family, one of many families that would have to deal with the killing of a loved one in St. Tammany Parish in 2017.
"Everybody's thinking this boy is sane," Jenkins said of her grandson’s father. "Nobody's thinking he's going to do this."
Karter was the youngest victim in a year of unprecedented killing in St. Tammany.
While the 20 homicides may pale in comparison to New Orleans — which saw 22 in the month of January alone — the number breaks the yearly record for St. Tammany, which had been 17 in 1996, according to statistics from the Coroner’s Office.
It’s more killings than the parish saw in the previous three years combined, with 19 homicides taking place from 2014-2016. In 2013, the parish had only two.
“That’s a dramatic spike to go from three or four over the last few years to 20. It’s a huge jump,” said George Capowich, a Loyola University criminologist. “That increase alone is unusual. If it went from three or four to six or eight, no big deal. But to go from three or four to 20 would suggest that something unique is driving it.”
What drove the violence in 2017 is something Sheriff Randy Smith is working to find out. Smith said he plans to enlist Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the LSU School of Public Health, to help evaluate what the issue may have been in 2017.
The problem Smith sees is that, of the 17 homicides that occurred in his jurisdiction in unincorporated St. Tammany Parish, about half were domestic and half drug-related, with only a handful not falling in either group.
Policing domestic issues is difficult, Smith said. Although his office follows up on every case of domestic violence and investigates things as minor as a harassing text, he said, there is only so much law enforcement can do to prevent these crimes.
As for drug-related killings, Smith said St. Tammany may be falling victim to a problem that has led to a rise in homicides across the country.
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting statistics showed a national increase in homicides from 2014 to 2015 and then again from 2015 to 2016 — only the second increases in consecutive years since the 1980s.
Overall, total drug-related deaths also increased during this time, as they have since at least 1999, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
But while St. Tammany’s homicide count doubled from four in 2014 to eight in 2015, 2016 actually saw a decrease, to seven.
What then caused the sudden rise to 20?
Covington Police Chief Tim Lentz, who has a master’s degree in criminology from Loyola, offers one theory: It's an aberration.
“I’m hoping it’s just an anomaly,” Lentz said. “Some things you just can’t, from a law enforcement perspective, prevent. You don’t know what goes on behind someone’s closed doors; you can’t patrol inside of someone’s home.”
George Cox, a major in investigations with the Sheriff’s Office, agrees.
Cox said looking through information on the individual homicides, it’s possible the parish may just have been unlucky this year.
“You always have cases where people could die but normally don’t. A lot of these people just got the short end of the stick” in 2017, he said. “I’ve gone over these numbers over and over and over, and there’s no true connection. I just think it’s anomalous.”
Smith said there also doesn’t seem to be any sort of geographic correlation to the homicides: “They’re scattered out.”
Lentz said there is one issue that drives violence in the parish and will continue to do so until it’s taken care of. “You get rid of drugs, you get rid of crime — plain and simple. It’s all fueled by the drug culture,” he said.
Lentz said he’s seen St. Tammany suffer from the national opioid crisis like many other communities across the country, something he recognized in 2015.
After a 911 call came in that year from a woman saying her husband was overdosing on heroin, emergency medical responders rushed to the site. The man was taken to a hospital and survived.
But police were also called out. And upon the man’s release from the hospital, he was arrested. So was his wife who called in that he overdosed.
“I listened to this particular call and at the end of the day I asked myself, ‘What in the hell did we accomplish?’ These people are sick. They’ve got a disease. They didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be a heroin addict,’ ” Lentz said.
That led him to research alternatives, which he found in Operation Angel, a program in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that allowed addicts to turn themselves in with their drugs to police, who then help them seek treatment.
Working with the District Attorney's Office, Sheriff’s Office and other agencies, Lentz brought this program to St. Tammany, where he hopes it will help bring the crime numbers down. Drug addicts in the parish can now go into any law enforcement office and get help, Lentz said.
“On May 2, 2016, we announced a new way of doing business … that we give them help instead of handcuffs,” Lentz said. “You take the drug culture away, you take the crime away.”
With Operation Angel already in place going into 2017, Smith’s office also added a more proactive measure in September because of the higher homicide rate, creating a new intelligence task force that goes into areas seeing a spike in crime.
“We’re getting these individuals not only identified, but we’re getting drugs and guns off the streets,” Smith said.
Smith agreed with the assessment that the high 2017 homicide rate looks anomalous, but he still sees the task force as a solution to lowering crime in general.
And he said he knows one thing for sure that’s not increasing the crime.
“Every time there’s a crime committed or there’s a homicide — every one of these, the first thing the citizens of this parish think is: It’s the people from across the lake. Every time that’s exactly what I get: ‘That’s them son of a guns from across the lake. They’re coming from New Orleans, they’re coming from Jefferson.’ It’s not true,” he said.
Crime in St. Tammany, he said, is committed mainly by people who live in St. Tammany.