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Murder Spike

Memphis homicides rise this summer.

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Last week, Memphis police discovered the body of 17-year-old Miquel Villa lying in the middle of Ridgeway. Villa had been arguing with 22-year-old Carlo Gonzalez when the man pulled out a gun and fatally shot the teen.

Villa's death is one of 77 criminal homicides so far in 2011. That's up from 58 at this time last year. Though police can't pinpoint any one reason homicides are on the rise, this summer's record-breaking heat may be playing a role.

"There has been research showing homicides spiking in the summer," said Richard Janikowski, a criminology professor at the University of Memphis. "You have more people outside, and they're staying out later and congregating. Alcohol consumption tends to go up, and if it's particularly hot, people tend to get irritable and get into arguments."

It's not uncommon for homicides in Memphis to increase in the summer months, but this year showed a large spike from June, when there were only two homicides, to August, which boasted 10 homicides at press time. There were seven homicides in July.

Police director Toney Armstrong said citizens shouldn't be worried, however, since most homicides occur between people who know one another.

"In the cases where you have a complete stranger [killed], it is usually in the commission of another crime. Very rarely do you have a person just walk up and take someone's life," Armstrong said.

Only 16 percent of Memphis murders involve stranger-on-stranger violence, according to Janikowski. He said some of those killings occur between gang members, who may not personally know one another but have some familiarity because of their gang affiliations.

"This is not random-stranger crime. This is really contextual," Janikowski said. "If you're in a high-risk environment, your risk of being a victim of an assault goes up. Thus, your risk of becoming a homicide victim goes up."

Armstrong said most local homicides tend to be crimes of passion, many following arguments between friends or family members. The recent stabbing death of Memphis Junior Academy principal Suzette York is a notable exception. Her killer, 17-year-old Eduardo Marmolejo, told police he'd been plotting her death for months.

Youth are disproportionately involved in homicides, Janikowski said. But he hopes new initiatives aimed at curbing youth violence will help. In July, Memphis was named a recipient of $1.6 million in funds from Bloomberg Philanthropies aimed at reducing handgun crimes. Memphis has also been included in a White House initiative to end youth violence.

Whether or not these programs make a difference remains to be seen, but while the rate of homicides is still high in Memphis, Armstrong touts his department's solve rate. The city's homicide bureau has an 81 percent clearance rate on homicides compared with a national average of 66 percent.

"Our investigators and supervisors take so much pride in what they're doing," Armstrong said. "We can't bring that loved one back, but we can offer some type of closure when the people responsible have been brought to justice."

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