A Rising Tide of Homicides
Three dead in the city, ten countywide. What's behind 2021's grim milestones?
From the August, 2021 issue
The July killing of John Myrick IV at the State Street Village Apartments was the third homicide in the city this year. There was only one in 2020 and three in all of 2019.
When police arrived the evening of July 9, they found one woman and three men, including Myrick's younger brother, standing outside. They told the cops that Myrick, a thirty-three-year-old Detroit resident, had stopped by the apartment the three men shared. They described him as very high on drugs and emotionally distressed.
The older Myrick had been in and out of prison on gun and shooting charges and wasn't legally permitted to own a gun--but they said that he had an AK-47. By their account, he held the four prisoner and threatened to kill them; when he attacked two of them, someone shot him dead. The police statement didn't indicate whether he was killed with his own gun or another one--but all of the survivors were released after questioning.
That was the most recent of this year's three homicides--all on or near S. State.
David Johnson, twenty-two, is accused of killing Calvin Littleton, thirty-one, in a parking lot on April 9. According to their friend Marico Prince, the three were on a road trip from Mississippi to visit a friend in Detroit and had stopped at the Comfort Inn on S. State for the night. Prince said that Littleton picked a fight with Johnson the next morning, and, as the three were about to leave in their van, he punched Johnson in the face. The next thing Prince knew, Littleton had a bullet-sized hole in his forehead. "I never seen anything like that," he told police.
The other murder grew out of a confrontation April 4 at the Sonesta ES Suites on Victors Way. Madron Aldonijah Austin, forty-seven, allegedly showed up in a room there after midnight--uninvited and with drugs. Austin apparently knew one of the three women there and wanted to trade drugs for
sex. When they refused, he pulled out a pocketknife. According to Austin's attorney, Nyesha Mercedes Robinson (also known as Angel Mercedes Pritchard), twenty-seven, of Ypsilanti, hit him over the head with a lamp. All three women were stabbed, Robinson six times. One thrust punctured her lung, and she died a week later of blood loss and brain death due to lack of oxygen.
Those weren't the only shootings near S. State that month. Around 3 p.m. on April 16, two unidentified men shot and wounded a third man in the Von Maur store in Briarwood mall. The man was treated for his injury at U-M Hospital but never gave up the names of his shooters, who remain at large.
Then there was the murder right next to Ann Arbor. On June 16, Deyrl Timothy Banks Jr., thirty-five, was shot multiple times outside the Ichiban Restaurant on Washtenaw Ave. in Pittsfield Township. Police believe Banks was killed after a road rage incident with two other drivers, one in a red SUV and the other in a silver or gold sedan. The Romulus resident managed to drive himself to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, where he later died of his wounds. His shooters, too, remain at large.
And those are only four of the murders in the county this year. Two more were in the city of Ypsilanti and four were under the jurisdiction of the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office--three in Ypsi Township and one in Superior Township. That brings the total number of county homicides to ten so far this year, topping the nine in 2020 and equaling the ten in 2019. And it's only August.
The County is not alone in facing a rising tide of homicides. Based on preliminary FBI data, the United States had 25 percent more murders in 2020 than in 2019, the largest single-year increase in the homicide rate since 'tracking began in 1960. According to the Washington Post, the current United States murder rate of 6.2 per 100,000 residents is the highest since the violent 1990s. Over the Fourth of July weekend, 104 people were shot in Chicago, nineteen of them fatally.
The law enforcement officers charged with investigating the local violence point to the same two root causes: post-'pandemic jitters and a massive increase in gun ownership.
"People were sort of locked in confined spaces for over a year," says Washtenaw County sheriff Jerry Clayton, "and I think somehow there's some behavioral change." Ann Arbor police chief Mike Cox notes that "in prisons it's been deemed a cruel and unusual punishment to isolate people in a cell by themselves for a long period of time. And we've asked people to do that."
"We were locked down for so long--that increased the incidents of domestic violence," says Pittsfield Township police chief Matt Harshberger. "And now they're stir-crazy, and they're getting out, and they're acting out.
"I can't brand them and stamp them all pandemic-related," Harshberger adds of the county killings. "Some of it's connected [to] employment, some of it's connected to family, and some of this is simply random."
But the Pittsfield chief does see another common denominator: People are "drinking more," he says. "Alcohol sales went way up during the pandemic, [plus there's] the substance abuse issue. It's hard to adjust that much in so short a period of time. People don't generally do it that well."
But the violence would not turn deadly so often without what Harshberger ruefully calls "more guns, more guns." As CNN notes, "nearly 23 million guns were purchased in 2020, a 65% increase compared with 2019, when 13.9 million guns were sold."
"There's been more gun sales now than ever before in the history of this country," says Cox. "With more guns accessible, it's more likely that things get out of hand."
"I think the biggest [reason is the] overwhelming presence of guns in our society," agrees Clayton. "We've had the highest rate of gun buys in the history of the country"--with an estimated 400 million in private hands, there are more guns in the U.S. than people.
Gun-control efforts typically focus on screening out potentially dangerous people at the point of purchase. But there are other ways to get a firearm.
"We're taking illegal guns off the street, and then we traced the guns back," says Clayton. "They were guns that were stolen, mostly out of unlocked automobiles [or] were reported stolen as a result of a home invasion."
The sheriff and chiefs are limited in what they can say about local homicides without potentially damaging the legal cases. But Clayton can report that only one of the four homicides on his turf didn't involve a handgun: an OWI--operating while intoxicated, or drunk driving--which resulted in a death. The accused in that case is from Canton, but the alleged shooters were all from Washtenaw County.
A disproportionate number of black Americans are involved in the criminal justice system--both as victims and 'offenders--and that's true locally as well. The Ypsilanti police haven't said much about the shootings there, but according to YPD administrative services manager Wendy Estey, both victims were African American males; the Pittsfield victim was, too.
Clayton says two of his four victims also were male African Americans; the others were a male Hispanic, and a white female. The suspects in those cases are African American, including four males and one female, all of whom were known by the victims.
In addition to the fatal shootings, Clayton says his office is investigating eight nonfatal shootings with nine victims so far this year, most of them in the central or eastern part of the county."
Chief Cox is extremely reluctant to talk about Ann Arbor's homicides. All he'll say about the Sonesta Suites stabbings is that the case is "in the criminal justice system; our portion of it is over.
"The story is the story when it's concluded and justice is given out. Any talk before then, it's really not justice. And it probably will come back to bite you."
But Cox tries to reassure folks about the still unresolved Von Maur shooting. "Sometimes these violent things happen in random places. I think it is important that it wasn't random in the sense that they were looking for a random person walking down the street."
"The parties knew each other," Cox continues. "Based on my thirty-two years in law enforcement, that's the kind of behavior which tends to not repeat itself. It tends not to jeopardize the general public."
The fact that the victim wouldn't name his shooters suggests he feared retaliation if he cooperated with police. Was the shooting gang-related?
Again, Cox won't comment: "It is an ongoing case."
However, Sheriff Clayton offers some insight. "Are people that are affiliated in groups that are part of it? Yeah. Are they gangs the way we think about, describing it like this formal group with a hierarchy and an architecture that is almost like a criminal organization? No.
"There's that 'no snitch' mentality" in some communities, the sheriff continues. "We've attributed those types of things to gangs as opposed to understanding that in certain communities, you have to be grouped with someone to survive. So it's informal, it's loose--they back each other."
But Clayton doesn't find the fact that the Briarwood shooting was targeted rather than random very reassuring. "Bullets don't know" who they're intended for, he says, "and it happened in a public place."
Deyrl Timothy Banks was surely targeted in the Ichiban parking lot, says Pittsfield police chief Harshberger. As far as he's aware, Harshberger says, Banks was unarmed and only the folks from the red SUV and the silver or gold sedan did any shooting. Harshberger emails that the investigation is making progress, with "charges most likely in the next month."
"I am very concerned," says Clayton about the rise in homicides. "We're trying to partner with the community [for] education, targeted enforcement.
"And we also have to send a message to the community: gun-related crimes and violent crimes will not be tolerated in this county, that we're going to pursue the people that are the perpetrators.
"We're going to arrest them, and then they're going to be prosecuted to the highest level."
[Originally published in August, 2021.]
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