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Clark County homicides increase in 2020, boosted by domestic violence

Updated January 5, 2021 - 3:18 pm

Clark County had a large drop in homicides in 2019. The decline did not continue last year.

Homicide investigations rose by 33 percent in 2020, according to a Las Vegas Review-Journal analysis.

Law enforcement agencies investigated the killings of 195 people throughout the county last year. Although 2020’s total did not surpass that of 2018, Metropolitan Police Department homicide Lt. Ray Spencer said the past year’s increase appears to be more than just a data anomaly.

“You saw that nationally,” Spencer said during a December interview. “Nationally, numbers were lower in 2019, where nationally numbers now in 2020 are higher.”

It’s impossible to say if there’s a single cause of the increase. Spencer said the department, which unlike the Review-Journal does not include fatal police shootings in its total homicide count, has seen more self-defense shootings and domestic violence homicides compared with 2019. A high number of juveniles also were accused of killing people during a time when teenagers normally would have been in school.

A few particularly disturbing killings stood out, Spencer said. In November alone, a father was accused of throwing his infant daughter from a balcony, and a mother was charged with killing her two children.

Spencer’s gut instinct is that the COVID-19 lockdown, stress and general uncertainty in 2020 must have played a role.

“I don’t know if the pandemic is the cause, but common sense just tells me that you have people that are cooped up in their house, and you have kids at home, you have people that aren’t working, it’s got to have some effect on some of our crime numbers,” Spencer said.

North Las Vegas Police Department spokesman Alex Cuevas said the pandemic has led to detectives having an easier time locating suspects.

“A lot of people are staying home, and it’s easier to find where people are staying,” Cuevas said.

The victims in the county’s 195 homicides died in shootings, stabbings and random acts of violence. Some died in 2019, but their deaths weren’t ruled homicides until last year. One investigation was for a 20-year-old man whose body was found in 2004, but he wasn’t identified until July.

The Review-Journal also included two women who later died from injuries suffered in the 2017 Route 91 Harvest festival shooting in the 2019 and 2020 homicide totals.

Clark County had 146 homicide investigations in 2019, when the region experienced the most drastic drop in such investigations in at least a decade. That total now includes a man’s death that Metro did not report until early last year.

North Las Vegas police investigated 26 killings in 2020. Cuevas also noted that 2019 was an unusually quiet year, which could have led to the increase in homicides last year.

The Henderson Police Department investigated 16 homicides, which is four more than the previous year. Four of the deaths came from one day in early November, when 38-year-old Jason Bourne fatally shot two women and took a 12-year-old boy hostage in his car, prompting officers to shoot at the vehicle. Both Bourne and 12-year-old Joseph Hawatmeh died.

Henderson police did not respond to questions for this article.

‘Whatever it takes’

About 76 percent of all Clark County homicides were investigated by Metro. The department has only eight cases where investigators have not identified a suspect, according to the Review-Journal’s analysis.

By Dec. 31, Metro had a solvability rate of 92.6 percent, which Spencer said is a “gold standard” compared with similar agencies in the U.S. Nationally, the FBI reported a 61.4 percent clearance rate for murders and non-negligent manslaughters in 2019, which is the most recent data available, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Other agencies put budget over the solve rate, or solving a crime,” Spencer said. “They’re not working around the clock to solve cases, where the leadership at this department has stressed that we’ll do whatever it takes to solve a murder.”

But no matter how good the percentages are, Spencer said the unsolved cases “keep you up at night.”

When 37-year-old Kamiah Bird was shot in the early hours of Sept. 16 on Interstate 15 near Flamingo Road, it appeared to be a possible road rage killing. But Spencer said in December that despite extensive surveillance footage, investigators have been unable to determine if Bird interacted with another car before she was shot while driving.

Detectives don’t know which car the shots came from, Spencer said.

“You have a truly innocent victim driving down the freeway, and she is shot driving home from work — which appears to be completely unprovoked,” he said, later adding that “this is a case that we need a break, we need a tip on.

‘Waiting game’

Nearly four months after Lesly Palacio’s body was found near the Valley of Fire, the 22-year-old’s family is still waiting for a break in her case, as detectives search for the two suspects.

Karely Palacio, 25, said her family barely celebrated Christmas this year. No one bought presents or set up the Christmas tree.

In a phone interview Thursday, Karely Palacio said life will be a frustrating “waiting game” until police arrest 25-year-old Erick Rangel-Ibarra and his father, 45-year-old Jose Rangel. The two men, who were friends of the Palacio family’s, are believed to be in Mexico, Spencer said in December.

Spencer said Lesly Palacio’s body probably would have been lost to the desert if not for detectives working nonstop to find it.

Investigators pored over hours of highway surveillance footage to find the location where Spencer said Rangel-Ibarra took the body. They used a stopwatch to time where he would have exited the highway and started searching from there, Spencer said.

“That is probably some of the most exceptional police work I’ve ever seen to discover her body,” the lieutenant said.

There were 65 homicides investigated in 2020 after Lesly Palacio’s body was found, according to Review-Journal records. The statistics grew and the headlines changed, but her family was left waiting for answers.

They were just one of the 195 families whose lives were forever altered.

“We want people to keep sharing her story,” Karely Palacio said. “So people don’t forget about it.”

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Sabrina Schnur contributed to this report.

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