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Senseless killings: 1/4 of victims were 18 and younger

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SALT LAKE CITY — They were crimes that shocked the conscience.

In 2014, Utah had more than its share of harrowing cases that left the public asking, "How could this happen?" and "Could this have been prevented?"

But mostly just "why?"

One-fourth of the year's homicide victims were 18 or younger.

Of the 64 homicides in Utah (not counting the 14 homicides at the hands of police officers), many of them involved family members killing family members. Several tragic cases involved the murder of children and multiple family members.

On Jan. 14, Kyler Ramsdell-Oliva fatally shot and killed her two daughters, ages 7 and 13, before committing suicide in their Syracuse home. Ramsell-Oliva had reportedly been upset over a recent breakup with her fiancé.

Just two days later, Lindon police officer Joshua Boren murdered his wife, Kelly, their two young children, ages 5 and 7, and his mother-in-law in their Spanish Fork home. After shooting each of them, he laid the bodies of his wife and children side-by-side on his bed and then lay down next to them before taking his own life. A seven-month investigation revealed disturbing demons that Boren had been battling since childhood and a marriage that was about to end.

In September, Benjamin and Kristi Strack and three of their four children, ages 14, 12 and 11, were discovered dead inside their Springville home. It appeared all drank some kind of liquid. The children's bodies had been tucked into bedding and positioned inside a locked bedroom where the parents were also found dead. Police are waiting for toxicology tests before releasing the results of their homicide investigation. It was unknown whether the family all willingly participated in a mass suicide or whether the children unknowingly drank a lethal substance that was given to them. Family members point to a combination of mental illness and self-medication, but police fear a motive for the tragedy may never be known.

That same month, Edward Callison, 59, murdered his new wife, Melanie, 46, after intentionally giving her large doses of her prescription medication hoping she would overdose. After her death, he used an ax and a knife to dismember her body and then burned her body parts and scattered her ashes so they wouldn't be found.

Domestic violence

At least 17 and as many as 22 people died in murder-suicides during 2014, depending on how the Strack case is officially classified. The murder-suicides all occurred among family members, except for a Logan man who broke into his former girlfriend's apartment and killed her and a man who was with her before killing himself.

More than half of the 64 homicides — the killing of one person at the hands of another — were committed by someone related to the victim or someone with a personal tie to the victim prior to the killing, according to statistics kept by the Deseret News. That includes intentional killings, accidental killings and acts of self-defense.

The Deseret News does not generally count automobile deaths in its homicide list, but this year two cases were included because prosecutors felt the cases were so egregious that they opted to filed murder charges against the drivers who allegedly caused their deaths.

According to the Utah Department of Health's Violence and Injury Prevention Program, 43 percent of all homicides committed in the state between 2000 and 2013 were related to domestic violence.

The Deseret News counted at least 38 domestic-related homicides out of 64 in 2014, including five child abuse homicides.

"The Utah Domestic Violence Coalition is extremely concerned by the high numbers of fatalities we have experienced in our state and calls on everyone to assist to create change in how we, in our various communities across the state, respond to domestic violence," said coalition executive director Liz Watson.

"Many people simply don't know either how to identify domestic violence or how to respond if they see indicators of an unhealthy relationship within their own partnerships or those of loved ones."

Many times, Watson said, victims of domestic violence also fear being blamed for what happened or simply that they will not be believed. So instead, they often remain silent.

"Many myths still exist about domestic violence, which may prevent those in a position to reach out and offer help from effectively doing so. No one wants to believe that a loved one would hurt or coerce their partner, and yet we are seeing that the reality is very different and are losing mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, and in some cases entire families."

But as for why some people kill their children — seemingly taking an "if I can't have you, then no one can" attitude — experts don't have a good answer.

Information on how to get help can be found at the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition's website www.udvc.org, in addition to the Domestic Violence LINKLine 1-800-897-LINK (5465), a 24/7 number.

Other shocking cases

In addition to domestic violence-related incidents, there were several nondomestic homicides in 2014 that left the public equally in shock because of how random and senseless they seemed to be. Some examples:

Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Cory Wride was shot and killed after stopping to assist what he thought was a motorist that needed help. Another deputy was shot in the head a short time later as he pursued the suspects in Wride's death. The gunman was killed in a final gun battle with police on I-15. His girlfriend and alleged accomplice, who was 17 at the time, is currently facing aggravated murder and other charges.

Anthony William Cline, 30, is charged with murdering 7-Eleven clerk Jamie Blalack after he refused to sell him cigarettes.

Brad Hancock, 24, the singer of a local band, was shot and killed outside a concert venue after kicking Quincy Earl Lawson, 20, of Magna, out of the show.

Mario Zelaya-Zuniga was shot and killed in an apparent drug deal gone bad. One man arrested in connection with the killing still lived with his parents and used his parents' car to make the alleged drug deal.

Accidental deaths

The Deseret News in 2014 counted four accidental shooting deaths. Three of them were committed by children:

Stockton Huot, of Wellsville, was shot with a .22-caliber rifle by his 3-year-old sister. The rifle was used earlier and was left in the living room of the home.

Harley Jarrett, 17, was shot and killed in a friend's Cottonwood Heights basement while he and two 16-year-olds were looking at a gun reportedly stolen from a home.

Adelaide Clinger, 12, was accidentally shot and killed in her Kaysville home by a younger sibling who got the gun from her father's pocket.

Three Utah men who shot and killed others in 2014, and another man who stabbed an intruder, were determined to be cases of self-defense. Those cases include a Leeds man who shot a neighbor who was pointing a gun at him and others at his house, a Salt Lake man who intervened in a fight outside his home, a Provo man who shot his armed brother-in-law in Hyrum, and a West Valley man who defended himself in an assault.

Gun debate

According to Deseret News statistics, the majority of the homicide victims — 37 out of 64 — were shot to death.

"I think people should not have guns in their homes. And if they do, they should be locked up tight," said Steve Gunn, a member of the board of directors of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah.

But while Gunn would like to see legislation passed that makes gun owners strictly liable for the misuse of their weapons, he doesn't believe that will happen.

"I think if we have gun control in this state, it's going to have to be gun control that is voluntarily," he said.

Gunn doesn't believe gun violence is significantly increasing or decreasing. But he is particularly concerned about the number of accidental shootings. Likewise, he is concerned about teachers bringing guns to school — an issue that received renewed attention in September when a gun belonging to a sixth-grade Westbrook Elementary School teacher with a concealed carry permit accidentally went off while the teacher was in the restroom. The teacher later resigned.

In November, the Gun Violence Prevention Center joined with other groups in delivering a petition to Gov. Gary Herbert calling for a ban on guns during assemblies on university campuses.

Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, says eliminating guns from homes, however, is not the answer.

"To eliminate firearms from the home is a lot like saying traffic accidents kill people, but the answer is not to eliminate vehicles on the road," he said. "The Utah Sports Shooting Council, we have never been an apologist for inappropriate storage nor inappropriate training. The storage must be appropriate for the environment. What we say, actually, is you need to store your firearm in such a way that no one who shouldn't have access to it can gain access to it. And that may change depending on the age of the child."

But while Aposhian agrees that guns should be properly stored in a house, he believes adults should not take an "out of sight, out of mind" approach with their children. Children should still be taught about gun safety, he said.

"The reality of it is even if you lock up your firearms in your home, what if someone at another home doesn't lock them up? Thank goodness you've taught your kid what to do if they see a gun," Aposhian said.

"If you look to see what actually hurts kids, what kills kids, it's the burns, it's the poisons, it's the falls and chokings and drownings. And that's just in the home. That's not car accidents," he said.

Aposhian also takes issue with those who lump all "gun owners" into a single category.

"There's two types of people carrying guns, there's good guys and bad guys. And the good guys far outweigh the bad guys and they're not the problem. So we get lumped into one category, guns, and that's negative," he said.

Gunn believes the proliferation of firearms in the country likely contributed to the above average number of officer-involved shootings in Utah in 2014.

"Police rightly feel they have to act more quickly if there is an apparent threat that that firearm will be used against them. Part of the reason I think we're seeing these problems nationwide with police is they have to assume the person they're confronting has a firearm," he said. "We are putting our police in this very dangerous situation where if they don't move quickly they may be shot themselves because they have failed to take quick action. It causes police to have to make split second decisions which in times past they didn't have to make."

But Ian Adams, spokesman for the Utah Fraternal Order of Police and a West Jordan police officer, disagrees.

"I think anybody working law enforcement in Utah has to get comfortable real fast that we're a state that loves gun ownership. The vast majority of police officers are strong gun rights advocates. So there's no gun fear out there. What I hear from a lot of officers is the reality is they're dealing with more, are more violently resisting subjects. For some reason, we're seeing more and more of that," he said.

Cases not on '14 list

One of the most disturbing incidents of 2014 came in April when the bodies of seven newborn babies were found in storage bins in a Pleasant Grove garage. The mother of the children, Megan Huntsman, gave birth to all of the infants between 1996 and 2006 and smothered or choked them, according to prosecutors. Six of the babies were killed shortly after their births. A seventh was believed to have been stillborn. While Huntsman was having babies, police say she was also addicted to drugs. They said she couldn't financially afford to have both children and drugs, so she chose drugs. Investigators say her husband — the father of all seven children — was unaware of the pregnancies and births.

Salt Lake police are still looking for three men who have been missing since Nov. 1. A vehicle with a bullet hole and a large amount of blood that investigators believe may have been the result of an injury that was "probably not survivable" was found abandoned near the Jordan River surplus canal at 1740 W. 1500 South.

There were several homicides reported in 2014 that didn't make the list because the killings occurred earlier. Prosecutors filed murder charges during 2014 in four cases for deaths that occurred in 2012 and 2013. Utah police and prosecutors last year also believe they solved cold case killings from 1988, 1989, 1991 and 2002.

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam