A common factor in Mesa as it heads for a record year of homicides: Arguments ending in gunshots.
On the morning of June 27, 28-year-old Michael Gonzalez and 27-year-old Stevie Jones had a verbal altercation on Main Street near Stapley Drive, a few blocks from downtown.
Jones went back to room No. 107 of the Frontier Motel and told his girlfriend about the argument. When he saw Gonzalez apparently trying to get into the room through a window, Jones allegedly fired at him.
Police say Jones then jumped through the window, chased Gonzalez down and shot him repeatedly, leaving him bleeding and lifeless in the parking lot.
By the time police arrested Jones, Gonzalez had become the 18th murder victim so far this year in Mesa.
Last year, 24 people were murdered in Mesa – eight in the first six months of the year.
Through the first half of 2021, Gonzalez and the other 17 people killed in the city represented a 125 percent increase in homicides over the number that occurred in the first six months of last year.
As many people have been murdered in Mesa through half of 2021 as in all of 1991.
In the last 30 years, the low number of murders in Mesa was eight, in 1993; in 2005, 30 people were killed, the most in the city in that 30-year period.
Murders had been on the decline, falling to 11 in 2019 before last year’s spike; the 24 killed last year was the highest number since 26 were slain in 2006.
From 2010 to 2019, the average number of murders in the city was 17. Last year’s
sharp rise was 41 percent above the average.
The rise here reflects a national trend.
According to a recent article in the Guardian, “After decades of a primarily downward trend in the overall number of people killed, crime experts say they expect 2020 will mark the biggest single-year national jump in homicides since national crime statistics began to be released in the 1960s.”
With their department on high alert over the rising violence, Mesa police this week launched “Operation Summer Project 2021.”
Mesa Police Chief Ken Cost is charging his force to go one step further than just responding to crimes.
“We’re focusing on crime suppression,” said one of Cost’s lieutenants, Dom Sterllin.
“We’re going to do a little bit of everything,” Sterlin stressed of this cross-division effort. “Our goal is to really go after those repeat offenders, the higher level of criminals.”
For many of those charged with Mesa’s murders, handcuffs have been common accessories.
Jones, for example, was convicted of a felony robbery charge in California in 2015 and was on probation.
In another case, 41-year-old Aaron Wright was charged with killing one and injuring another when a March 2 drinking party went awry.
Wright, who was also hospitalized after a shootout at a Rio Salado Parkway apartment across the street from Westwood High School, had previous convictions for possessing burglary tools and misconduct involving weapons.
And Kenyada Bass, arrested for the shooting death in February near Alma School and Broadway roads, was previously locked up for larceny and robbery. Bass allegedly killed one and wounded another in a dispute over fake Air pods.
Asked if there is a common theme in the city’s 18 murders to date, Sterlin said, “It’s hard to say it’s one specific topic. There are domestic violence causes, drugs are certainly a factor.
“That’s why we’re doing this all-encompassing, all hands on deck, to cast a wide net.”
City still safe
It’s not time for law-abiding residents to panic, Sterlin said.
Indeed, as a recent Tribune story showed, Mesa is one of the safest of America’s mid-size cities.
“I know Mesa’s still a safe place to live,” said Sterlin, who has been with the Mesa PD for 15 years. “Those homicide numbers were alarming. However, with the Mesa Police Department, our uptick overall is only 1 percent for Part 1 crimes.”
The Part 1 category includes murder, manslaughter, sex offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft and arson.
The sharp rise in murders is hardly an only-in-Mesa problem.
“That’s nationwide,” Sterlin said. “We’re trying to get ahead of this.”
Enter Operation Summer Project.
“This project aims to reduce violent crime through enforcement, education and critical analysis of victimology, repeat offenders and environmental factors that contribute to the commission of violent crime,” a press release noted.
Det. Brandi George stressed it’s not just murders that are going up. Aggravated assaults are also on the rise.
In May 2020, 78 aggravated assaults were reported; this May, that number jumped 32 percent to 103. Though
the numbers were lower, there were double-digit increases in aggravated assaults in February and March, compared to last year.
“The goal of OSP 2021 is to suppress violent crime in the city of Mesa and improve the quality of life and safety for our community,” George said. “To maintain transparency in our community, we will share summary reports with results during the operational period.”
This project will last two to three months, and include officers working in patrol, traffic, gangs and narcotics units.
“Officers will be focused on finding violent criminal probationers, top violent crime offenders and known subjects with warrants in high-density violent crime areas,” George said, adding:
“By conducting concentrated police work and through a strong community partnership, we will reduce violent crime and promote the safety and well-being of all residents in the City of Mesa.”
Operation Summer Project is not a sneak attack, but a publicized promise to track down repeat offenders before they harm again.
“If you’re committing violent crime, our chief says, ‘We’re going to come out where you are and we’re going to arrest you,’” Sterlin said.
But since the police launched the program, murders have continued.
The night of Tuesday, July 6, police received a “possible shooting” call and responded to 2055 E. Broadway Road, just east of South Gilbert Road.
Officers found three victims with gunshot wounds inside an apartment.
One of the victims was 16 years old and the other was 18 years old.
While an investigation is in its preliminary phases, the killings bring the number of homicides this year to 20.