There was a small ray of hope last week in an otherwise grim year for violent crime in Augusta.
In December, not one local person was stabbed, shot, choked or otherwise killed by a fellow citizen -- the first quiet month all year.
Local police officers don't know why the killing stopped for 31 days; neither do public officials. All they can say for sure is that for one relatively calm month, everyone got lucky.
With 38 people dead, 2010 ranked as one of the worst years for homicides in Augusta for more than a decade, according to records kept by The Chronicle. Month by month, the homicides kept coming. They peaked in July, when Eric Phillips and David Lee Johnson were both killed on the same day, July 21, in separate incidents about seven miles apart. In all, eight people were killed in July.
"I don't have answers for it," Richmond County Coroner Grover Tuten said when asked about the increase in homicides.
Although investigators are still searching for the reason in some cases, most are clear.
- In 2010, most people were killed during an armed robbery or some type of argument -- be it with their kin, a friend or a rival gang member.
- Most were shot with a handgun.
- The majority of the victims, and those arrested for the crimes, were black males.
- The suspects ranged in age from 15 to 54 years old, but most of them were in their late teens and 20s.
But there are aberrations.
Dr. Henry Wright Bailey, an 84-year-old retired general surgeon, suffocated his wife with a plastic bag in what police called a "mercy killing" to end her suffering from dementia. There also was the violent shaking death of 3-month-old Corduray Keith Scott Jr. by his 21-year-old father -- the first homicide of the year.
Homicides are typically crimes of passion, which makes them difficult to predict, Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength said.
There are indicators, though.
In November, Xavier Anderson, 16, was shot in the head outside a Wheeler Road apartment complex. Residents said that gunshots were common in the area and that gang violence had been escalating in recent weeks.
Xavier survived the shooting, but could an increased patrol presence in that area have prevented the violence? What about more crime prevention programs, such as gun buybacks?
Strength said patrols are among the main tools law enforcement relies on to target a troubled area; he finds gun buyback programs less promising.
"The more officers on the street, that's absolutely going to have an effect," he said. "But that's not going to happen in this economy."
The sheriff's department is facing a budget cut of $750,000 in 2011. Its proposed budget is roughly $56 million, which includes operations at both the Walton Way jail and Charles B. Webster Detention Center on Phinizy Road. Strength said the decrease will not affect the number of deputies on the street. He plans to create savings by reducing the number of nonviolent, nonrepeat offenders in the jails; purchasing fewer new uniforms; and conserving gasoline in patrol cars.
"We've been very fortunate we have not had to take officers off the street, but we do not foresee additional money for additional personnel," he said.
Certain programs can make a difference, but they take time, Mayor Deke Copenhaver said.
On Dec. 21, the inaugural class of the Augusta Judicial Circuit's drug court graduated after two years of weekly treatment, court supervision, nightly curfews and random drug tests. It was an important step in turning people from criminals into productive members of the community, Copenhaver said, but it took a lot of work and time from organizers such as Superior Court Judge James G. Blanchard and the District Attorney's Office.
"That's one of the proactive things we are doing, but you're not going to stop this type stuff overnight," he said.
The high homicide number has created another problem: more unsolved cases.
The sheer volume of homicide cases limits the time sheriff's investigators can spend on each case, and a lack of evidence and community support can tie their hands.
There are now eight unsolved cases with a total of 10 victims.
Some, including the April 30 shooting death of 17-year-old Jasmin Hollins inside a home on 11th Street, are closer to being cracked than others.
Sheriff's Capt. Scott Peebles said the day before Hollins' death was the birthday of Renardo Newton, who was killed in a 2003 shooting after a fight. Investigators suspect the Hollins shooting was retaliation for Newton's death, with the gunmen firing at people in the area of 11th Street because it was the neighborhood where they suspected his shooter had lived.
"They just happen to be who these individuals were taking it out on that particular day," Peebles said. "Frankly, we expect to make multiple arrests in that case."
Other cases are running cold, such as the shooting deaths of Jeramie Hammonds, 20, and Kayla Marie Wells, 19, whose bullet-ridden bodies were found on a wooded trail near Glenn Hills Drive on July 5.
Maj. Ken Autry said the small amount of evidence collected at the scene of some of the killings has hindered their progress.
"We've had a number where there just wasn't a whole lot there," said Autry, who oversees the sheriff's department criminal investigations division.
He blamed some of the unsolved cases on a lack of help from the community. Often, people living in the neighborhoods where violence happens have been the key to solving old cases. That wasn't the case this year, Autry said.
As for 2011, Autry said he is not hopeful things will change.
"We all use Jan. 1 as a benchmark; we start over," Autry said. "But whatever is going on to cause all this is not going to just go away on Jan. 1."
Staff Writer Kyle Martin contributed to this story.
View 2010 Murders in Augusta in a larger map