News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

November 16, 2013

Despite recent spike, violent crime falling in Wabash Valley

Close proximity of homicides, media attention belie actual statistics that show falling rates

TERRE HAUTE — With two recent homicides and a suspected murder-suicide being investigated by area police agencies in recent weeks, it may seem that violent crime is on the increase in Vigo County.

But a preliminary look at statistics may not support that assumption.

Most recently, a man was found dead in the basement of a home on First Avenue in Terre Haute. Police are seeking suspects in that homicide.

On Oct. 26, a woman was found stabbed to death in her home at Gaslight Estates. She was killed allegedly by a person who knew her.

On Oct. 19, the bodies of a man and woman were found under a bridge in northwestern Vigo County. An investigation revealed that the woman was strangled, and toxicology results are pending on the man. The couple had been in a relationship.

Other violent crimes also seems to be on the increase in recent weeks, local authorities acknowledge, but a check of court and jail records shows no rise in violent deaths compared to past years.

“It may just be that in the past six weeks we have been busier after a pretty slow summer,” Sheriff Greg Ewing said this past week when asked to review local crime statistics.

Assistant Chief Shawn Keen of the Terre Haute Police Department agreed.

“The summer was quiet,” Keen said last week. “Then it seems like it has just hit all at once. But really, we aren’t seeing a big rise in violent crime. In fact, it’s gone down over the past few years.”

Vigo County Prosecutor Terry Modesitt agreed.

“I know there are more A and B felonies filed this year, but that includes a lot of drug crimes,” Modesitt said, noting that drugs and alcohol are also common factors when violent crimes occur. “It feels a little worse because it seems a little hectic right now.”

Sheriff Ewing pointed out that the public may be more sensitive to violent deaths in recent weeks because of a triple fatality at a railroad crossing in northeastern Vigo County on Oct. 23, as well as some suicides that occurred in September during National Suicide Prevention Week and soon after.

“It all tends to add up,” Ewing said. “We are hearing more about it now, because things are happening right now, but overall, it’s not worse than last year.”

Assistant Chief Keen said that city police have noticed a decline in crimes such as robberies and batteries, in addition to gun crimes, but he said the statistics for 2013 will not be released until early 2014 so that comparisons can be made.

Part of the feeling that violence may be on the rise is that more media attention is being given to criminal activity, especially through online sources.

"Violent crime rates have been steadily dropping across the nation since the early 1990s, however media coverage has of such crimes has escalated,” said Dr. Franklin T. Wilson, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Indiana State University. “Just this past year, the FBI released a report documenting the steady decline of violent crime.”

But Wilson noted that when violent crimes occur in a particular city or region, and there is heightened media coverage of the crime, public fears can and usually do escalate. It creates a heightened perception of danger.

“Specifically, it often raises the public’s fear of strangers – what we criminologists refer to as ‘Stranger Danger’,” Wilson said.

Statistically, however, a person is more likely to be harmed by someone they know, rather than a stranger. An examination of the recent violent crimes in the Terre Haute area reveal that most of the alleged victims knew their attackers.

For example, Vigo County Jail booking records show that 211 people had been arrested for domestic battery as of Nov. 14. For all of 2012, there were 210 arrests made for domestic battery. That is an increase from 183 in 2011, but in 2010, there were 230 individuals arrested for domestic battery. Ewing said that seems to indicate that the incidences of domestic violence fluctuate some, but arrests are remaining steady.

As for robbery, those arrests also tend to fluctuate. Arrest records show that 32 people were arrested for robbery in 2010, compared to 21 in 2011, 40 in 2012, and so far in 2013, only 27 robbery arrests have been made. That does not mean that there are numerous unsolved robberies in which no arrests have been made, by the way.

As for aggravated battery, in which a victim sustained permanent physical injury, the arrest numbers have been in decline. In 2010, 58 people were arrested on the charge, while in 2011 there were 45 arrests made. In 2012, police made 17 arrests for aggravated battery. And with about six weeks left in 2013, police have arrested 18 people on the same charge.

Ewing said that the booking charges typically reflect the crime as seen by the officer who responds to the scene. While a person’s criminal charge may change later when the prosecutor’s office files the formal charges, the officer making the arrest must have probable cause for the initial charge.

A look at homicide statistics show a similar steady trend.

Three people have been charged with murder in Vigo County in 2013. Another two people have been charged with attempted murder related to shootings in which the alleged victims survived. And a third person has been charged with involuntary manslaughter after he allegedly battered a man who later died while incarcerated in the Vigo County Jail.

That amounts to six active murder cases filed in Vigo County, with a seventh case pending related to the Nov. 8 shooting death.

In 2012, arrests were made in five murder investigations. Two of those cases have been resolved – one with a jury trial conviction and another with a plea agreement. In both cases, the victims and suspects knew each other. Another attempted murder has been resolved with a plea agreement. In the two murder cases still pending in the county court system, both victims knew their alleged attackers.

In 2011, police investigated two shooting deaths that resulted in convictions. Two other murder convictions came as the result of one incident in which a teenager died in a carjacking in which three teenagers participated. Another conviction came for attempted murder when a person robbed a local motel, shooting the desk clerk, who survived.

In 2010, three murder charges were filed in county courts, along with an attempted murder. Two of the cases were resolved with plea agreements for guilty convictions. The attempted murder case – in which a woman admitted to attacking the parents of a newborn infant in an attempt to steal the baby – was also resolved by a plea agreement. The third murder case – filed in a decades-old murder case in the Riley area – remains active after two mistrials, with a third jury trial set for January.

Vigo County is not alone in experiencing violent incidences that result in death this year.

Greene County has experienced a

highly publicized homicide of a Linton teenager. Two suspects have been charged in her death and are awaiting trial. Investigators have stated that drug use was a factor in the Greene County homicide case.

In Parke County, a Rosedale man is awaiting trial in the homicide of his girlfriend during the summer.

In Sullivan County, a December 2012 home invasion and the murder of that rural resident remains unsolved, though Indiana State Police continue the investigation. Police have stated that theft and robbery appear to be the motives for that home invasion.

ISU’s Wilson said that one of the most accurate predictors for an increase in violent crime is the economic condition of the city or region. That is due to various stressers placed on individuals. Wilson said that many stressers can be alleviated by funding more social services for those suffering from unemployment or other socioeconomic-based issues.

While the local economy may play a factor in many property crimes, Assistant Chief Keen said that even property crime statistics have shown a decline in thefts during recent years.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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