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Police say city's lone murder marks 20-year low for homicide rate

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With less than a week left in 2013, Charleston police have responded to just one murder within city limits this year. 

Officers are calling it a record low for at least the last 20 years.

The number of homicides per year is unpredictable, said Lt. Steve Cooper, chief of detectives, but it was a relief to have gone a whole year with only one murder. The relief was evident, especially when as recent as 2010 the city saw 11 people murdered.

"Murder is a very difficult crime to predict or deter," Cooper said. "Most victims are known to the suspects in one way or another, either domestic relationships or more commonly through a criminal affiliation.

"Most murders are not random."

He said most murder victims are involved in some kind of criminal activity, but there have been instances from time to time where the victim was "perfectly innocent."

This year's lone homicide, a murder-suicide, was such a case.

It happened on a cold February night on the city's West Side. 

Patrick Price, 34, of Randolph Street barged into 36-year-old Michael Cassell's home at 926 Red Oak Street the night of Feb. 10 and shot Cassell to death before turning the gun on himself. The men's daughters were friends and often spent time together at the Red Oak house. Price's daughter told the Cassells during a visit that Price was abusive toward her.

Detectives said in February that it appeared Price attacked Cassell because his family had contacted authorities over the allegations of abuse.

"(Michael) died trying to save a little girl," Cassell's sister-in-law Andrea Holcomb told reporters in the days following the incident. "We were just trying to help her."

Cooper said the cases involving innocent victims, like Cassell, "really stick with you."

He said the homicide rate has peaks and valleys and is somewhat cyclical. Just a few years ago in 2010 the count stood at 11 people dead, but the next year, 2011, it fell to five murder victims. In 2012, there were 10 reported murders. In 2009, the city reported six deaths, double the three it reported in 2008.

"It's hard to take all the credit when you have a low murder total, just like you wouldn't want to take all the blame when you have a high murder total," said Charleston Police Chief Brent Webster. "A lot of murders are fueled by rage. They're impulsive, drug related, domestic violence related.

"But we recognize that a lot of times city police departments are evaluated on the murder rate and so we'd like for that to be as low as possible for all the obvious reasons," he said. "For a city this size we believe that's a very good number to have though of course we'd like to get it to zero."

In addition to the lone homicide, there were two other violent crimes that could have ended in death but did not.

In March, Andre Williamson was leaving the Seoul of Charleston restaurant on Washington Street West when he was ambushed by at least two men wielding guns. More than 60 rounds were fired at Williamson, a known felon, and he was struck once in the leg. An innocent bystander was also struck in the leg by gunfire.

Police arrested Jon Paul Clements, 31, and Robert Jared Smith, 34, both of Charleston, for the shooting that detectives later learned may have been in retaliation for the murder of David Booker a year earlier. Both men were involved with the City Park Gangsters, a local gang that was active during the late 1990s.

A month later, Antonio Collins, 32, of Charleston shot Joshua Lawson, 23, in the face after a breach of etiquette at the 7-Eleven on Washington Street West. Collins bumped into Lawson and when Lawson said something about it to him Collins put a gun to his face. Patrick Moore, 22, tried to intervene but couldn't stop Collins from pulling the trigger and shooting his friend in the face. Moore then ran to the back of the store where Collins followed him and shot him as well.

Both Lawson and Moore survived their injuries. Collins, a felon with a violent past, was arrested and convicted. He was sentenced to 13 to 50 years in prison.

Both Cooper and Webster believe the partnership between the city police and the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Drug Market Intervention initiative on the city's West Side has had a positive effect on reducing the homicide rate.

The initiative targets problem individuals in the area, either for drugs or violence, and then splits them into two groups: the A-listers, typically the more violent of the offenders, are prosecuted in federal court and the B-listers, the lower level offenders, are given a last chance to turn their lives around.

While those on the B-list are not identified, the individuals on the A-list are named. Many of them have prior arrest records. Some of them, like Antoine Brown, have violent histories. Brown was convicted in 2007 in the 2004 shooting death of two men outside of a West Side bar. He was sentenced to prison time and was recently released but now is back in court after allegedly working with two others to sell crack cocaine and heroin in the Charleston area.

"We feel that the DMI initiative that the Charleston Police Department and the United States Attorney's Office partnered in doing has contributed to a decrease in violent crime, specifically because numerous criminals with violent histories have been locked up for potentially a long time," Cooper said. "Those guys have proved to have a propensity for gun violence so we're glad to have them off the streets."

Webster said the DMI initiative has been crucial to keeping violence down but also pointed to the officers' proactive approach to crime. He said leadership at the police department has "preached" to the front line of patrolmen about walking beats in their patrol areas. They can't do it as often as they'd like because their first responsibility is to answer emergency calls for service, Webster said.

"That helps in so many ways," Webster said. "It makes the community feel better. We're seen, so there's visibility, and it's possibly a deterrent because they see us out there. It just creates a community policing feeling."

Community involvement has grown as well in the last few years and may have possibly played a role in the decrease in homicide. Webster said neighborhood watch programs are on the rise. Cooper said officers are appreciative of the community's involvement and assistance.

"There's a lot of good things going on in the city," Webster said. He recalled Florida Street back in the 1990s and early 2000s being a problem area, but said things have quieted down since Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary opened its doors two years ago.

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said the homicide rate was the most important number to keep down. He said a lot of that kind of violence stems from domestic violence and drugs -- a problem he said has been brought in from other states.

Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at 304-348-4850 or ashley.craig@dailymailwv.com.


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