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Utah 2018 homicides dip slightly, but police shootings way up

SALT LAKE CITY — A total of 78 people died as a result of homicide in Utah during 2018.

But while domestic violence and guns were again involved in most deaths, those numbers were down somewhat from previous years. The number of juveniles killed in 2018 was also down. Killings that could be linked to gangs, likewise, showed a decrease.

One category that saw a dramatic spike, however, was fatal officer-involved shootings.

A total of 18 people, ranging in age from 17 to 64, died as a result of an officer's use of deadly force, including 11 since Oct. 11. The 18 people fatally shot by police in 2018 is more than triple the total of six shot and killed during 2017.

According to statistics collected by the Deseret News, the 78 people who died as a result of homicide in 2018 — the killing of one human being at the hands of another — was slightly down from the 80 homicides in 2017, and a record 90 homicides in 2016.

It's Utah's lowest homicide total in four years.

Half of all the homicides in Utah in 2018 happened in four cities: Salt Lake City, West Valley City, Ogden and South Salt Lake, according to the Deseret News statistics.

A firearm was used in the majority of homicides during 2018, accounting for at least 52 deaths, according to Deseret News statistics. Stabbings accounted for nine deaths while there were eight who died by assault. Four deaths were attributed to abuse.

Utah's youngest homicide victim in 2018 was 4-month-old Nevaeh King, who police say died of abuse and neglect. The oldest was Rose Martinez, 89.

The Deseret News does not count automobile homicides, which often stem from drunken drivers, in its statistics.

While police can't say why the number of officer-involved shootings was up so dramatically during 2018, several police agencies say the shootings are driven by the actions of the perpetrator.

"We are responding to other people's actions. As police officers, when we have to use deadly force it's always reacting to what the suspect is doing," said Salt Lake Police Sgt. Brandon Shearer. Some examples:

• In April, Lonnie Marcel Bowen, 41, was shot and killed by a Unified police officer while still holding a woman hostage in his vehicle with a weapon.

• In June, Abe Martinez, 44, was fatally shot by three SWAT after killing his elderly grandmother and while in the process of attacking her husband.

In Ogden, there were four homicides plus an additional three fatal officer-involved shootings.

West Jordan police had two officer-involved shootings that went fatal in their jurisdiction, something that hasn't happened in many years, said Sgt. J.C. Holt. While Holt can't say why officers statewide are using more deadly force, he noted that in West Jordan's two incidents, "both suspects were pretty intent on making the officers act towards them."

In one case, officers fatally shot a man who had previously attempted to force police to kill him. In the other, a suspect had ample time to drop his weapon, he said.

"He was just intent on holding that weapon and continuing to point it at officers to try and push the issue further. It seemed that he had an agenda and was just desperate and wanted to be done," he said.

According to a 2017 article by the American Journal of Psychiatry from the American Psychiatric Association, studies have estimated that between 10 percent to 36 percent of police shootings nationwide are so-called "suicide by cop."

For all fatal confrontations, including those that do not involve law enforcers, Holt believes drug addiction has become a common denominator. For example:

• In May, Zane Anthony James, 19, was shot and killed by a Cottonwood Heights police officer after just committing two armed robberies to support his drug habit and fleeing from officers.

"Substance abuse is so rampant right now in the community," Holt said, noting that pills and heroin are the current drugs of choice for addicts.

When it comes to helping people battling drug addiction and mental illness, Holt said there will never be such a thing as too much community support.

• In June, a West Jordan homeowner shot and killed a woman who had broken into his house, allegedly to support a drug habit.

That shooting was one of four self-defense killings last year in Utah that wasn't at the hands of police officers. The other three were:

• A clerk at a Bountiful pawn shop retrieved a gun from a back room then shot a gunman who was trying to rob him in May.

• A man shot and killed his uncle after the man knocked on his brother's door in Pleasant Grove wielding a hammer in each hand in July.

• An Orem homeowner heard noises in his unattached garage, retrieved his gun and shot and killed his neighbor in October after the man came out of the garage holding up a bicycle pump.

Some confrontations seemed to escalate into homicidal violence without reason.

• In June, Thomas Ray Stanfield was allegedly shot in the back and killed by a security guard as the man walked away from him.

• Jawnie Lynn Wey, 48, was killed in a drive-by shooting in July. Hey was not the intended victim. Police say the suspects in that case were upset over the theft of a French bulldog.

• In August, West Valley code enforcement officer Jill Robinson, 52, was shot and killed without warning during a routine visit to a property where the homeowner had not kept his yard up to city standards.

• Also in August, Marcelino "Marci" Johnson, 16, who was trying to defend two female friends with him, was walking in downtown Salt Lake City when he was allegedly ambushed by Enrique "Ramon" Deloza, 28, and Nicolas "Chucky" Nazario Espana, 28, and stabbed to death.

As is the case for most years, domestic violence was again a leading cause in the number of homicides in 2018. At least a third of the people were killed by someone who was either related, dating or previously acquainted to the victim, according to statistics kept by the Deseret News.

Possibly no case better exemplified the dangers of domestic violence than the murder of University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey. Despite her repeated calls to the University of Utah Department of Public Safety to report she was concerned for her safety, she was shot and killed on campus by Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37, on Oct. 22. Rowland was a convicted sex offender who was on the Utah Sex Offender Registry at the time of the shooting, had served a couple of stints in prison, and was attempting to extort McCluskey.

Other cases of domestic violence-related homicide in 2018 include:

• In May, 15-year-old Baleigh Bagshaw was attacked and killed inside her house after just getting home from school, allegedly by a man who used to live with her family and had a previous relationship with her, Shaun French, 24.

• In August, Valerie Brantzeg, 50, and her 13-year-old daughter were brutally beaten with a crowbar by Brantzeg's estranged husband who was upset over custody issues, police say. Valerie Brantzeg died as a result of her injuries.

• In November, Lisa Vilate Williams, 26, was shot to death by her boyfriend's ex-wife in front of the young children the ex-wife and boyfriend had in common, police say. Chelsea Cook, 32, a high school teacher in Lehi, is charged with aggravated murder.

Despite those higher profile cases, the number of domestic violence-related homicides in Utah was slightly down in 2018. Holt would like to think it's because officers in West Jordan and across the state have received better training the past couple of years about how to recognize domestic violence, and because most police agencies have been using the Lethality Assessment Protocol, a set of questions officers ask victims of domestic violence to determine whether a victim is at risk for greater violence, specifically homicide.

"I'd like to think the reason is we focus so much on training," he said.

Help for people in abusive relationships can be found by contacting the YWCA's Women in Jeopardy program at 801-537-8600, or the confidential statewide Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-897-LINK (5465). Resources are also available online at