Houston reaches grim milestone with 400th murder of 2020

The number is a sharp increase from 281 deaths last year but the rate is comparable to those of 2006 or 2007


By Nicole Hensley
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Just before the end of a harrowing, exhausting, virus-ridden year, Houston police were dispatched to the city's 400th murder — a 15-year-old boy who was shot at an apartment complex in the Alief area.

Police found the teen's body around 8:30 p.m. Monday in a parking lot outside the complex in the 8000 block of Cook Road. Investigators found witnesses to the shooting, police Lt. Larry Crowson said, and authorities are hunting for the two men believed responsible.

Investigators believe the shooting stemmed from a narcotics deal and that the unidentified boy did not live at the apartment complex.

The killing solidified the year's murder rate — calculated by the number of known murders per 100,000 people — as one of the worst in three decades. The number is a sharp increase from the 281 deaths last year but the rate is comparable to those of 2006 or 2007, according to a Chronicle analysis of Houston Police Department statistics.

The current rate — which does not include accidental deaths, those killed by police officers or charges dependent on a grand jury indictment — is still dramatically lower than that of 1990, when 681 people were killed and Houston was home to over 1.6 million people (compared with about 2.3 million now). Violent crime, which has been on the decline in recent years, increased slightly in Houston during the pandemic months, with aggravated assaults driving that uptick, records show.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo marked the implications of the latest death Tuesday in a tweet and vowed to "stem the tide" next year.

"2020 can't end fast enough," the chief said. "Our city, state, & nation have suffered much from the impact of COVID; illness, death, economic malaise, and an increase in violence. Sadly, as of today, 400 Houstonians have been victims of murder." Hours later, investigators hurried to another fatal shooting at West 34th Street apartment complex, which could increase the count.

Houston's killings loomed just shy of 400 on Sunday, when Mayor Sylvester Turner cautioned that Houston was not alone in its crime wave, pointing out that other major cities also have reported a rise in violence. Clearance rates for solving murders have also declined.

Turner pointed to pandemic-induced pressures as a predominant factor, highlighting domestic violence among the issues.

"The challenges that people are facing: Losing their jobs, losing their businesses, dealing with the stress of social isolation, substance abuse, mental behavior and health issues," the mayor said. "This pandemic has created a number of issues for a number of people."

The mayor addressed the rising murder rate alongside community leader Deric Muhammad during the launch of an anti-violence campaign. Dozens of people in white shirts emblazoned with "Is It Worth It" gathered outside Green House International Church to hand out food and encourage others to think twice about violent outbursts.

"Our communities are beginning to implode," Muhammad said.

Holiday deaths

With two days left in the year, Acevedo's recent prediction that the final 2020 count could reach 407 is proving accurate.

Prior to the teen's death Monday, four people died in holiday weekend shootings. Those deaths include the Christmas Eve shooting of 54-year-old Jose Diuza, whose wife discovered him fatally wounded outside their home in the 8000 block of Bauman Road. His death remains unsolved.

The next day, two people — Kisha Brown-Garcia, a mother of three, and Pablo Martinez — were shot to death during a packed fundraiser for Hondurans, according to court records. At least 150 people attended the party in the 9600 block of Bissonnet Street as it stretched into Christmas morning.

A Louisiana man, Dixon Bulnes, 33, turned himself in over the deaths and has since been charged with capital murder.

Court records show Bulnes told police that two men he knew from New Orleans confronted him at the party. One showed off a gun in his waistband and Bulnes grabbed it, he said, according to investigators. The two fought and Bulnes opened fire. He chucked the firearm into a flower bed and left. He is being held without bond.

Police believe Christopher Pickney, 22, shot and killed his sister Sabrina Smith, 24, over house chores at their apartment Sunday morning in the 9700 block of Mesa Drive.

Court documents show Pickney — an armed security guard — came home to find a stack of dirty dishes in the kitchen. He stormed outside in an apparent fit over the "lack of cleanliness" at the home. He later told investigators that his sister followed him. He turned around and saw her charging at him, court records show.

He drew his holstered weapon and shot her in the stomach, according to those records.

Pickney, who has no known criminal history in Harris County, remains in custody with bail set at $40,000.

'She snapped'

After the Nov. 9 deaths of Sgt. Sean Rios and five others, Turner sternly said that the pandemic is no excuse to commit a crime regardless of whatever anxiety people face. But officials agree the stress and anxiety are real.

As the virus exploded in Houston, defense attorney Dorian Cotlar began seeing what he perceived as pandemic-induced burdens among his clients, many of whom are already economically disadvantaged and tangled in substance abuse. The stress of "the unprecedented economic catastrophe that COVID has caused" is not helping.

"People are not being able to go out and blow off steam like they normally would be able to," he said.

Domestic violence is a common theme in Cotlar's cases. He pointed to one woman who recently told him that "she snapped" after an argument with her boyfriend.

"She just lost it and rammed his car with her car," Cotlar said, adding that the woman mentioned being unable to consistently see a mental health provider during the pandemic.

The woman, whom Cotlar would not publicly identify, bonded out of the Harris County Jail and again used a vehicle to hit the same man, court records show.

"It's just a mess," the lawyer said.

Another lawyer, Murray Newman, was more cautious about citing the pandemic as the sociological force behind his case load. Recent months, he acknowledged, have been an ordeal.

"There's just so much negative energy out there right now," Newman said.

Several of Newman's clients have been accused in the deaths of people they know, he said. One case involved the falling out of two friends.

"They had a good relationship but tensions rose," Newman said. "If you don't have the ability to get away from it all, you're just stuck in one place. I think a lot of people have idle times on their hands."

The weight of the year was hinted at in court documents involving the Dec. 3 arrest of Jakhari Jackson in the death of Houston retiree Stanley Iscovitz — father to KRIV-TV meteorologist Mike Iscovitz. During his arrest, he tried explaining his actions to a homicide investigator. The encounter was recorded on a body-worn camera.

"He was having a bad year, he was blue, and he was evil," the investigator, Sgt. Mark Holbrook, wrote of Jackson's statement in court documents. "The defendant did offer his condolences."

The same suspect told an officer in May that he stole a car "to 'enjoy' what little he could out of life," court records show.

(c)2020 the Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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