By Robert Salonga
Mercury News Staff Writer
SAN JOSE -- Rising crime rates have catapulted the issue into the forefront of city affairs, punctuated by 46 homicides, the largest tally the city has recorded in 20 years.
But before anyone coins "the mean streets of San Jose," a look at those deaths shows that most of the victims were killed by people they knew and that despite worsening crime trends, within the context of homicides, residents are generally safe.
"San Jose is still an incredibly safe big city," said Alex Gerould, a lecturer in criminal studies at San Francisco State. "There's been a doubling (of homicides) in two years, which looks extremely startling. But look back into the 1990s, taking into factor the population, we're still down from where we've been."
An analysis by this newspaper of 2012 homicide data furnished by the San Jose Police Department revealed that even after gang-related and domestic violence slayings are parsed out, the majority of the rest were between people who knew each other.
That leaves just more than a handful of genuinely random killings that people tend to have in mind as true threats to public safety. The kidnapping and presumed murder of 15-year-old Sierra LaMar, which occurred near Morgan Hill but was the South Bay's highest-profile homicide of 2012, fits the profile of a rare random instance.
"Stories that are the most tragic are the ones that are going to make the news," said Dawna Komorosky, an associate professor of criminal justice at Cal State East Bay. "If you watch the news on a daily basis, you would think violent crime was the most frequent. It's not the most commonly occurring; property crime is more likely."
Of the 46 homicides in San Jose, the city's highest total since 53 were recorded in 1991, 18 have been deemed gang related and five have been linked to domestic violence. For the rest, all but a few can be described as crimes of opportunity or passion, involving such elements as drugs or strained or severed relationships, according to a search of county court records.
"The victim and killer usually have a relationship and know each other," Komorosky said. "But it makes us all feel fearful for our safety."
One of those killings was in January, when two homeless men fought about how hard the other's handshake was, court records show. Danny Klontz hit Manuel Andrade at least twice in the face. One witness reported seeing Klontz kick Andrade in the head three times. Andrade died five days later. Klontz was convicted of one count of assault with a deadly weapon. A murder charge was dismissed.
In July, Marybel and Pedro Jimenez were gunned down in their San Jose home by a former boyfriend of Marybel's, orphaning the couple's three young children. Police say the suspect, Pedro Castellon Medina, was obsessed with Marybel. He has not been arrested and police believe he might be in Mexico.
One seemingly random incident was the Aug. 13 killing of Joan Anne Hughes, 70, a well-liked homeless woman in the Willow Glen area. She was savagely attacked with a samurai sword by an erratic and addled Marquis Reynolds in front of terrified onlookers near San Carlos Street and Meridian Avenue, police said. The death of Hughes, who also went by "Gail," occurred in the midst of an 11-day stretch when eight homicides were recorded, marking one of the bloodiest stretches in city history.
On Nov. 16, Campbell resident Rory Park-Pettiford, 22, was killed during an attempted carjacking at a 7-Eleven on South Kiely Avenue. He was the unwitting victim of an alleged crime spree by suspects Jonathan Wilbanks, 26, and Adonis Muldrow, 15, who ended up in a shootout that injured an officer.
Outside San Jose, there were eight homicides in Santa Clara County, including the region's biggest case in Sierra LaMar, who disappeared March 16 while heading to school. A suspect with no clear ties to Sierra is jailed on suspicion of her murder, but her body has not been found.
Still, homicides with no connection between killer and victim remain statistically rare in San Jose, and in a city of nearly a million, the homicide tally remains relatively low. As of Monday afternoon, Oakland had 131 homicides in 2012 in a city with just under 400,000 residents, and San Francisco recorded 68 homicides against a population of about 810,000.
San Mateo County had 12 homicides in 2012, six fewer than the previous year. The highest-profile cases of the year were a handful of killings in East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, stemming from a street war between rival gangs.
Gerould, of San Francisco State, cautions against drawing conclusions about the two-year homicide spike in San Jose: 40 occurred in 2011, double the 2010 count that was a 20-year low.
"We had two bad years, but whether that's going to give way to a long-term trend, I don't know," Gerould said.
The police union has said that police understaffing they blame on austerity and pension reform efforts portends a worsening of things to come; city leaders say the policies are necessary to maintain the fiscal viability of all public services.
San Jose police had more than 1,400 officers in 2008 and is now budgeted for 1,109 officers, but in a November memo, outgoing Chief Chris Moore wrote that San Jose had 978 full-duty officers available. The force hasn't been at this staffing level since 1990, when the city's population was 785,000.
That equates to about 1.12 officers per 1,000 residents in San Jose. Oakland, with 616 officers, has a ratio of 1.56, and San Francisco's 1,490 officers put its ratio at 1.83. All are below the Bureau of Justice Statistics' national average of 2.5.
"Police right now have done a good job given what they have," Gerould said. "But when you cut the force by 25 percent, you're going to typically see some crime rises. There's going to be less of an ability to investigate each homicide with the kind of resources you like. With less into each homicide, that means less into each burglary, less into each assault."
Gerould and Komorosky say that residents are rightfully concerned about more common crimes, such as burglaries, which saw a double-digit percentage spike in 2012.
"If I were in San Jose, what I would be most concerned with is whether there's a sentiment amongst the kind of criminal or lawless segments that there is less police," Gerould said, "and therefore less chance they will get caught."