Homicides in Ventura County Up

Homicides in Ventura County Up
Killings in 2003 more than double to 49. Authorities cite rising gang warfare and state budget reductions as key factors.
By Holly J. Wolcott
Times Staff Writer

December 31, 2003

Ventura County, routinely ranked among the most crime-free urban areas in the nation, saw the number of homicides more than double in 2003, a spike that authorities blame on sweeping state budget cuts and increasing gang warfare.

As of late Tuesday, there were 49 homicides reported in the county’s cities and unincorporated areas, the largest number since 1979 when 59 were reported, according to officials at the Ventura County medical examiner’s office. By comparison, there were 24 homicides the previous year.

“It’s an explosion in violent crime,” said Undersheriff Craig Husband, adding that the last time the county experienced such a deadly surge was in the early 1990s when cocaine saturated the area.

The dramatic increase in homicides, coupled with increasing budget constraints, has officials concerned about their ability to keep a lid on violent crime in a county that prides itself on its reputation as a tough law-and-order community.

Only last year, the county, which lies just north of Los Angeles, reported fewer crimes per person than any other area in the West with a population of 50,000 or more, according to FBI crime reports.

Countywide, there were 22.7 crimes per 1,000 residents in 2002, compared with a state rate of 39.4 and a national figure of 41.2.

Last year was the 10th consecutive year that the county held the coveted designation. However, it was also the first time in a decade that the region reported an increase in crime, with major offenses rising by 3.9%.

Faced with continuing funding problems, Ventura County officials worry that things may get worse. Sheriff’s officials point out that in the past year the department has been forced to eliminate 110 sworn and civilian positions — many involving gang suppression and other enforcement and intervention programs. “A lot of times, people indicate you can’t predict homicides,” Husband said. “In this particular case, I think it is directly attributable to the phenomenon of growing gang violence.”

The year began with the New Year’s Day slaying of Valerie Zavala, a popular 19-year-old college student from Fillmore.

Her partly clothed body was found stuffed inside a concrete drainage pipe in an agricultural area between Fillmore and Santa Paula. Zavala, who had returned home for the holidays, died of asphyxia and had suffered blunt force head injuries, according to her death certificate.

Following a five-month investigation, Samuel Puebla, a Fillmore High School senior whom Zavala had given a ride home from a New Year’s Eve party, was charged with murder and attempted rape in her death. He has pleaded not guilty and remains jailed.

While Zavala’s death rattled the small Santa Clara Valley community, it was Oxnard, the county’s largest city, that accounted for the biggest surge in homicides this year with 23.

In one holiday weekend in May, three people were killed in gang-related shootings and one stabbing, police said.

On May 25, Gregorio Jimenez was found bleeding in the backyard of his home in the city’s La Colonia neighborhood. The 33-year-old died minutes later at a local hospital from a stab wound to the chest.

According to authorities, Jimenez and his friend and neighbor Adam Lowe were partying earlier in the day when Jimenez accused Lowe of taking a fellow partygoer’s cell phone. Lowe became upset and left. When the phone was found under a wastebasket, Jimenez went next door to apologize but a few minutes later he staggered home bleeding.

Lowe, 28, has pleaded not guilty to murder and remains jailed without bail.

That same night, David Anthony Zuniga and Ralph Ismael De La Cerda were shot at a party on Terrace Avenue in Oxnard. The pair had been on the patio smoking when a gunman walked up and opened fire.

Zuniga, 36, of Port Hueneme was shot in the head and died at the scene. De La Cerda, 29, of Oxnard died minutes later at a local hospital of gunshot wounds to his torso. The case remains unsolved.

There were twice as many killings in Oxnard in 2003 as the year before. Oxnard Police Chief Art Lopez believes the rise is a direct result of prison parolees, often gang members, returning to the city.

“I’m not trying to minimize the importance of human life, but the people that were killed or doing the killing this year are individuals with very tenuous, dangerous lifestyles,” Lopez said.

“They were often parolees, drug dealers or someone involved in gangs. This is not like the random killer on the loose. These are situations where people were in the face of danger quite a bit,” Lopez added. “The common, everyday person on the street will not likely deal with this unless they fall into those categories.”

One Oxnard homicide case, however, shocked both residents and police.

On Oct. 11, Froylan Martinez was killed outside a friend’s birthday party on Felicia Court. Martinez — the shy, 16-year-old son of farm workers who had no gang ties — was shot in the head after returning from a market where he had purchased soda and chips for the guests. The killer remains at large.

In suburban Simi Valley, often ranked with neighboring Thousand Oaks as one of the safest large cities in the country, there were two killings compared with none in 2002.

On Dec. 5, Angel Luevano, 30, was shot to death outside a friend’s home. A week earlier, Virginia Smutko, 33, was fatally shot by her husband in their home before he took his own life.

Of the 49 homicides, 18 occurred in the sheriff’s jurisdiction, 23 in Oxnard, four in Ventura, two in Simi Valley and two in Santa Paula.

Medical examiners define a homicide as a person’s death at the hands of another person.

Five of the 49 homicides were officer-involved shootings. That compares with seven each in 2001 and 1998, according to the Ventura County district attorney’s office.

The majority of homicides were shootings, followed by stabbings and beatings and two strangulations. Six victims were female.

A majority of the victims were under 30 years old, including eight who were 20 or younger. The youngest victim was 15 years old.

While the number of homicides may not seem large — particularly considering Los Angeles County, which routinely logs more than 1,000 violent deaths a year — Ventura County’s homicides put the area on par with Contra Costa County, which has a similar-sized population and regularly records more than 40 homicides annually.

According to state Department of Justice statistics, the last time the number of homicides topped 40 in Ventura County was in 1993, when 42 were reported.

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