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Fort Myers killings plunge since June

However, police chief says violence hasn't abated.

Sep. 23, 2012

Homicides around Southwest Florida

Lee County: There have been 17 homicides this year in Lee County. The most recent was the killing of 50-year-old Christopher Brothers. An alleged drug dealer, Brothers was found dead off a dirt road in Lehigh Acres last month, less than a week after he was released from jail on drug charges. There were 15 homicides in the county last year.
Cape Coral: There have been three homicides this year in Cape Coral. Included in that count is the death of 72-year-old Heike Frank, who died after spending almost 10 years in a coma. She was apparently beaten by her husband, who committed suicide before charges could be filed. As of July, violent crime in Cape Coral was the lowest it's been in more than a decade. Violent offenses dropped 21 percent in the first six months compared to that period last year.
Collier County: Collier has had five homicides this year, compared with 10 all of last year. The county, with a population of 328,134, has averaged 10 homicides a year since 2000.
There were three homicides within a week in August of this year. Concetta Bedell was found dead at her home Aug. 8. Joseph Warren Godcharles, 48, was found dead by his son in North Naples on Aug. 1. Ernie Torres, 25, was shot through the window of his parents’ home in Golden Gate on Aug. 4.
Collier County Sheriff’s Office spokeswomen Michelle Batten said the county’s reputation as a low-crime area impacts its annual homicide rate. Collier had the lowest crime rate of any metropolitan county in the state last year. Only 10 of the state’s 67 counties had a lower crime rate than Collier’s and they are all located in rural areas.
Collier reported 2,888 crimes in unincorporated Collier County and Everglades City during the first half of 2012, a 6 percent drop from the 3,072 crimes reported during the first six months of 2011.
“We have a safety campaign called, ‘Make the Call,’ ” Batten said. “It encourages people to call us if they see any type of unusual activity. And that applies to everything, not just homicides, and we’ve been doing that for years.”

- Staff writer Chris Umpierre contributed to this report.


The killings in Fort Myers seem to have slowed, but the city’s police chief said that isn’t a reason to celebrate.

After a spike of six homicides in June, homicides have dropped off to a rate of one per month.

Related link: Database of homicide victims

But the city continues to see nonfatal shootings and armed robberies, meaning the city can’t say the problem with violence has been solved, Police Chief Doug Baker said.

“In my opinion,” he said, “any time a firearm is used, displayed, shown to further a crime — that’s a potential homicide in the city. And it is very disheartening month after month after month.”

There have been 17 homicides in Fort Myers this year. Three more and the city will hit last year’s mark of 20 homicides — the highest count in at least a decade.

Last year, 17 homicides were reported by end of September.

If this year follows previous trends, the city could be coming up on its deadliest month. From 2000-2010, the city saw more homicides in October than any other month.

Lee County’s homicide count, meanwhile, has surpassed last year’s. The county has seen 17 homicides, compared with 15 for all of 2011. In Collier County, there have been five homicides this year, compared with 10 last year.

Of this year’s 17 homicides in Fort Myers, only four do not appear to be drug related, said Capt. Duke Perry of the Fort Myers Police Department. One of those four is the city’s most recent homicide — the killing of 19-year-old Damarquis Blanks, Perry said.

Blanks was found suffering gunshot wounds Sept. 12 in front of a residence near Veronica S. Shoemaker Boulevard and Michigan Avenue. He died at Lee Memorial Hospital five days later.

In addition to drugs, shootings can stem from arguments over seemingly-trivial issues. Last month, a Fort Myers man allegedly shot a 19-year-old twice in the stomach over a missing cellphone. The victim was not killed and the suspect was arrested earlier this month.

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Those types of crimes are difficult to predict and prevent, Perry said.

“It’s a crime of opportunity,” he said.

New initiatives

Baker said new police initiatives have helped. In June, when the department saw the spike in homicides, it beefed up its violent crime task force to about 30 officers. Baker said he can’t comment on exactly what gains the larger task force has made.

In March, the police department also assigned two community policing officers to the Dunbar neighborhood, the scene of many of this year’s homicides. The goal is to build trust between the police and Dunbar residents, and to get more residents to report crimes. As a result, tips have increased, Baker said.

The problem is most of those tips are anonymous, Perry said. People are reluctant to give a sworn statement — which is needed for arrest and prosecution — for fear of retaliation.

As a result, there are six open homicide cases where police have a good idea of who the suspect is but can’t make an arrest, Perry said. Of this year’s 17 homicides, only four have led to arrests.

James Muwakkil, president of the Lee County NAACP, said police are slowly gaining trust of the Dunbar community. Another thing that helped is the way families of homicide victims have recently spoken out about their grief. At memorial services at Cornerstone Ministries and anti-violence marches at Clemente Park in Dunbar, mothers are making their grief known, and people are listening and responding by giving police information, Muwakkil said.

“I think that type of input had a great effect on the psyche of the entire community,” he said. “Because before that, parents (were) not speaking of their hurt.”

Going forward, the police department will try to build trust between officers and residents by hiring new recruits who grew up in Fort Myers. That way, new officers have ties and relationships to the community they serve, Baker said. It’s an initiative that started about two years ago and has served the community well, he said. The department now has three people in the police academy who grew up in the city.

The department also will continue its three-pronged approach of prevention, enforcement and investigation, Baker said.

“We’re going to continue to do this,” he said. “We’re going to continue until our violent crime is nonexistent.”

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