It’s usually just the air conditioners humming and crickets chirping filling the air, at night on the side streets of east Mesa.
But just before midnight Friday, Oct. 1, South Del Rancho exploded into violence with bullets flying.
According to Mesa Police Sgt. Chuck Trapani, a man shot his neighbors — apparently after a romance gone bad.
The double murder was unusual, for the amount of firepower — the killer fired 33 rounds from an AK 47 pistol — and the location (see story on page 3).
This was far away from what is statistically the city’s deadliest section, according to a Tribune review of homicide data in Mesa.
The double shooting marked the 25th and 26th murder victims in the city this year. Last year, 24 people were murdered in Mesa. This year, Mesa is nearing a three-decade high for the number of homicides.
But, as Councilman Mark Freeman noted, “Even though we’ve had an increase of homicides, violent crime here is really low for a city our size.”
Though its 2020 report has not been released yet, according to the FBI’s 2019 report, Mesa’s crimes per capita ranked by far the lowest among cities similar in size.
“We’re proud of that,” Mayor John Giles said.
He gave credit to Mesa Police, which has solved nearly every murder in the city in the past two years.
Preventing homicides, however, is a complex challenge.
In the last 30 years, the number of homicides in Mesa ranged from a low of eight in 1993 to a high of 30 in 2005.
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 killed 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 and this year’s has already topped that.
While people have been shot dead in all of Mesa’s five police districts, most of the homicides over the last two years have taken place in a rectangle bordered by Dobson Road to the west, University Drive to the north, Southern Avenue to the south and Lindsay Road to the east.
Joe Seibold unknowingly was in danger the night of Feb. 17, while he was parked near South Chestnut and East Third Drive, around the corner from Gilbert and Broadway.
Two minutes after Seibold sent his father a casual text, a 15-year-old boy shot Seibold twice, in the back of the head.
Seibold, a 17-year-old a junior at Desert Ridge High School, was the fourth Mesa murder victim of the year; all were killed within the Dobson-University-Southern-Lindsay zone.
On the morning of June 27, 28-year-old Michael Gonzalez and 27-year-old Stevie Jones exchanged harsh words on Main Street near Stapley Drive, also within Mesa’s most dangerous rectangle.
Police say Jones grabbed a gun, chased Gonzalez down and shot him repeatedly, leaving him bleeding and lifeless in a motel parking lot.
Right around the time Gonzalez became Mesa’s 18th homicide victim of 2021, Mesa Police announced it was addressing rising violent crime with a summer-long project.
“The goal of Operation Summer Project 2021 is to suppress violent crime in the city of Mesa and improve the quality of life and safety for our community,” according to a press release.
Three months later, the Tribune asked Trapani how “geographic policing” and the strategy of the summer project play into the localized trend of homicides.
“The Operation Summer Project takes multiple items into consideration location of incidents, details of past cases, arrests, etc.,” Trapani said. “Homicides can often be domestic violence related, crimes of passion, senseless acts of violence, drug/alcohol related and sometimes mental illness is a factor, to name examples.”
As such, he said, “It is nearly impossible to predict when and where homicides will occur.”
Trapani stressed the department “actively addresses the roots of most homicides. Mesa PD actively investigates domestic violence crimes and works hand in hand with prosecutors and victim advocates to reduce domestic violence occurrences in the city.”
He said a “special unit that solely focuses on dealing with the mentally ill and getting these individuals the mental health services they need” and the city’s Community Court, where referrals often are made to drug/alcohol treatment programs, “are just some of the ways the Mesa Police tries to reduce homicides in our community.”
Asked how many of the 46 murders over the last two years are believed to be related to narcotics, Trapani said, “At least four cases, but the actual number may be higher.”
A dozen of the murders “involved some sort of DV relationship,” Trapani said.
Asked how many of the homicides involve a suspect with a criminal record, Trapani responded, “The Mesa PD Homicide Unit does not track this data in a quantifiable manner.”
Nearly all of the murders in the last two years here have been “closed,” either by the arrest or death of a suspect.
Trapani said only five of the 46 homicides over the last two years are considered “unsolved,” giving the Mesa Police Department a 90 percent “clearance rate.”
“The homicide clearance rate in Mesa is much higher than the national average,” Trapani said.
According to FBI data, less than 63 percent of murders around the country from 2017-19 were “cleared” by the arrest or death of a suspect.
Mesa Police plan a multi-million dollar “Real Time Crime Center” that will use cameras around the city to spot crimes in progress.
Trapani said the center is not expected to be fully operational until the spring, “so we haven’t run a homicide case through this model yet.”
He said the center’s staff will view live city street cameras and other security cameras around Mesa, including those of businesses that participate in the program.
“The RTCC will have the ability to see live streaming video on those cameras (of) in-progress crimes in the area of the cameras,” Trapani said. “This will allow RTCC staff to relay live in progress information to responding units to assist in identifying and capturing criminal suspects.
“This real time information can aid officers in locating suspects of crimes – including homicides - in a more expeditious manner.”