SALT LAKE CITY — In a year that saw increases in many crime categories across the state — violent crime in particular — one statistic is especially disturbing: the dramatic rise in the number of homicides.
There were 103 homicides in Utah during 2020, a single-year record for the state, according to Deseret News statistics.
Utah’s previous record was 90 homicides in a single year, set in 2016. There were 80 in 2017; 78 in 2018; and 80 in 2019.
The latest homicide occurred Thursday morning when a man was shot to death outside the Corner Stop convenience store, 203 E. Hampton Ave. (1200 South) in Salt Lake City. The record 103 homicides in 2020 could go up depending on the outcomes of several police investigations that are still active.
A gun was used in 81 of the homicides — 79% — committed during 2020. Ten people were stabbed to death; eight died by assault.
Twice during 2020, Utah saw double-digit homicide numbers in a single month, with 12 victims in August and a disturbing 16 victims in May.
As to why violent crime is up and whether it is connected to increased stress in the lives of residents during a tumultuous year, Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said it’s possible.
“This year our community has faced a pandemic, earthquake and civil unrest. Each of these events has brought uncertainty, generated fear, and for many caused disruptions in employment, housing and other basic needs. Under these conditions people can become more volatile in various situations. That volatility can result in violent interactions,” Rivera said.
Homicide is defined as the killing of one human being at the hands of another, whether it is done intentionally, on accident or in self-defense. The Deseret News does not generally include automobile deaths, which often stem from drunken drivers, in its statistics.
The youngest homicide victims came from three of the most tragic incidents of the year:
- On Jan. 17, four members of the Haynie family in Grantsville: Consuelo Alejandra Haynie, 52, Milan Haynie, 12, Alexis Haynie, 15, and Matthew Haynie, 14, were shot and killed over several hours inside their home. CJ Haynie, their 16-year-old son and brother, is charged as an adult with four counts of aggravated murder.
- In May, brothers Seth Osborn, 8, and Ezra Osborn, 10, were fatally shot in their Daybreak home by their father, who then took his own life.
- Then on Dec. 14, 2-year-old Zack Peck was sitting in his car seat when police say his mother shot and killed him while they were parked at a campground in a remote area of Uintah County. Valerie Peck, 40, is charged with aggravated murder.
Twelve of this year’s homicide victims were between the ages of 14 and 19. Eighteen were between the ages of 20 and 25.
The motives are unclear in about half of the homicides because police and prosecutors haven’t identified suspected motives or they just don’t know. At least 30 cases involved family members or roommates.
Only one specific gang killing occurred in 2020, though others may have gang connections. Anger over noise is considered a motive for one killing in which a West Valley man is accused of shooting a handyman who was working next door.
The Deseret News also counted 21 people killed by others in apparent cases of self-defense, including 17 fatal shootings at the hands of police officers. In 2018, there were 18 officer-involved shootings that resulted in the death of another person.
The fatal shooting of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, 22, on May 23 by Salt Lake police became one of the most controversial incidents of the year and a rallying point for those who called for local police to be “defunded.”
Palacios was a suspect in an armed robbery and was running away from officers when he appeared in body camera videos to stumble and reach for a gun that he dropped — three different times — and then appeared to point his gun at officers after he had already been shot and was on the ground. Police fired a total of 34 shots. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill released a lengthy decision explaining why he found the shooting to be legally justified and talked for over an hour at a press conference as he methodically went over the reasons for his decision.
Still, Palacios’ family was outraged by the determination as were several groups involved in anti-police protests throughout the summer. The decision prompted additional protests, including one at the district attorney’s office building that resulted in an estimated $200,000 in damage and criminal charges against several people.
Despite numerous protests throughout the summer calling for police reform, 12 of the state’s 17 fatal officer-involved shootings happened during the second half of the year. During a two-week period from July 25 to Aug. 11, five of the state’s six homicides were the result of officer-involved shootings.
But as police agencies have noted in the past, the actions of officers are driven by the suspects. Gill agrees, saying there is no “right” number of officer-involved shootings from year to year. Each case is determined by its own facts.
“If you want to play the numbers game, the only number that should be acceptable is zero. Otherwise, it is each case by case,” he said.
“This does not mean that we are not always being self-critical, examining the process by which we initiate the use of force and the efforts by which minimize the harm. Part of that effort is to be transparent, open and truthful about what works and what does not and make each call as we see it truthfully.”
In 16 of the 17 fatal officer-involved shootings, the suspect was armed with a gun, rifle or a realistic-looking gun, according to police. Details about one Unified police shooting on Aug. 11 have not been released nearly five months later. In two of the cases, the suspect was holding another person hostage at either gunpoint or knifepoint. In at least nine of the incidents, police reported a gun being fired or pointed directly at them.
Confrontations with armed suspects also resulted in one police officer being killed in 2020 and at least two others wounded by gunfire, as well as a police K-9 being killed.
Ogden police officer Nate Lyday, 24, was killed on May 28 while responding to a domestic violence call. As Lyday and another officer approached John Benedict Coleman’s front door, Coleman began firing through that door. Lyday was fatally wounded. Backup officers opened fire and Coleman, 53, was killed in an ensuing shootout.
Salt Lake County accounted for a little more than half of all homicides in the state in 2020 — 59 total. Twenty people were homicide victims in Salt Lake City while 17 were killed in Unified police jurisdictions such as Millcreek, Holladay, Kearns, Midvale and Magna.
“I first want to express my condolences to families who have lost a loved one to a violent crime and recognize the resilience of victims who have survived. This year we have seen an overall increase in violent crime, in UPD service area our homicide rate remains consistent. We take every violent crime seriously and strive to solve each case and bring justice to victims,” Rivera told the Deseret News.
“It is safe to say 2020 has been a year like no other in my 30-year law enforcement career, if not my lifetime,” said Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown.
“Our city and our department faced many challenges this year, but I am proud of the women and men of the Salt Lake City Police Department who have been here each day, providing safety, security and service to our community. We look forward to a new year and new opportunities to continue to serve and build trust with our community, as well as everyone who spends time in our beautiful city,” Brown said.
Twelve people were killed in Weber County during 2020, eight in Tooele County, seven in Davis County, five in Washington County, four in Iron County, and two homicides occurred in Utah County.