Editor’s Note: Not all homicides are considered a crime. Officer-involved shootings have been traditionally included on the list of homicides counted by the Humboldt County Coroner’s Office.
By Manny Araujo
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In 2016, Humboldt County saw its highest number of homicides in at least 30 years, according to Humboldt County Coroner’s Office records.
In total, the county saw at least 22 homicides to date, while detectives continue to investigate the Dec. 9 death of 18-year-old Jennika Suazo, which the Eureka Police Department continues to call “suspicious.”
“The uptick in violent crime is very troubling,” Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills said.
The last confirmed homicide of the year, Tessa Gingerich, an Arcata high schooler, who was allegedly run down in McKinleyville by a man prosecutors assert was drunk and had a history of driving under the influence.
Most of the homicides this year involved firearms, according to multiple law enforcement records.
In 2015, the county saw 15 homicides — one less than 2014. But for more than a decade before that, the homicide rate was less than a dozen a year, according to the coroner’s office records dating back to 1986.
Black market drug cultivation, mental illness and a general disregard for society are fueling this trend towards violence, according to Humboldt County Undersheriff William Honsal.
“We have a culture here where drug addiction is prevalent and also a culture where organized crime and black market marijuana industry draws in people that don’t want to use police to settle scores,” he said.
Honsal said with the passing of Proposition 64 — the Adult Use Of Marijuana Act — many people are hopeful Humboldt County’s marijuana market will become legitimate. But, he said, he is being realistic when he feels what is left of the black market drug industry will be “alive and well” in the county.
People that surround themselves with criminals in that illegal culture will likely be the victims of crime, Honsal said, and the average person will need to keep vigilant because there are some people that will do “desperate things when it comes to fueling their addiction.”
Mills said he was also concerned with what seems to be a disregard for “the rule of law,” especially in a county with only a few hundred law enforcement officers.
According to data from the state Department of Justice, the county has the highest arrest rate in California.
Eureka Police Department officials noted there had only been one confirmed homicide within city limits this year, but noted that the violent crime rate — including armed and unarmed robberies — were on the rise in 2016.
Mills said he was hopeful Proposition 64 would give county growers that have lived on the edge of the law “the opportunity to live inside the rule of law,” and hopefully create a “culture of lawfulness that has an effect on the crime rate.”
2016 homicide cases
1. Hugh Duggins, 71, of Alderpoint was found dead in the 7000 block of Alderpoint Road in Garberville Jan. 21. According to the county coroner’s report, he died from asphyxia due to neck compression.
2. Deputies identified Arthur Ruiz III, 42, of Hoopa through DNA analysis of skeletal remains found on Redwood Grove Road in Hoopa on Jan. 28. He died from a gunshot wound to the head.
3. Rodger Yale, 30, of Hoopa was fatally stabbed near the Hoopa BP Mini Mart on State Route 96 on Feb. 13. Gearold Sotolongo was charged with Yale’s murder and is set to stand trial Feb. 27, 2017, at the Humboldt County Superior Court.
4. Deputies found unidentified skeletal remains found along the bank of the Eel River near Stafford on May 15. Cause of death and identity of the decedent are unknown. The case is being investigated as a homicide.
5. Rhianna McKenzie, 19, of Eureka was sitting in a car near the intersection of McCullens Avenue and Iowa Street about 3 a.m. June 30 when she was shot in the chest according to the EPD. Maxx Robinson is charged with her murder.
6 and 7. Faith Tsarnas, 14, and Kiya Kitchen, both 14, were struck by a car when they were skateboarding along Eel River Drive on July 12. Tsarnas was pronounced dead at the scene and Kiya succumbed to her injuries at a hospital. The girls were described by family members as cheerful and artistic. Kiya’s mother, Marcia Kitchen, is charged with the girls’ deaths.
8. Arcata-born Brials McCutcheon, 41, of Eureka died Aug. 6 at a local hospital of a gunshot wound. He is survived by his parents, brothers and sisters. He was proud to have been a fifth generation Humboldt County resident, according to his family.
10. Stephanie Gawboy, 52, of Redway was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head by a neighbor in her Redway Drive residence on Aug. 17. The Redwood Times reported, Gawboy was a known activist and a beloved mother, masseuse, artist, spiritual seeker and friend to the people of this community.
11. David Fulton, 59, of McKinleyville was fatally shot by law enforcement Aug. 18 outside of his McKinleyville apartment after firing a rifle at deputies during a standoff. He loved driving, “Star Trek,” computers, and he “was gifted with mechanical skill,” according to his family.
12. Gigi Misztal, 7 weeks, of Arcata died on Aug. 27 at Mad River Community Hospital in Arcata. Investigators reportedly found suspicious skull fractures. The infant girl’s mother, 28-year-old Arcata resident Ewa Misztal, is set to stand trial next month on charges she caused the infant’s death.
13 and 14. Michael Sims, 47, of Samoa and Lawrence O’Connor, 56, of Eureka were found dead on Sept. 4 at a residence in Hyampom at the site of two large marijuana grows. Humboldt County Sheriff’s investigators were called to the scene by the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office.
15. Alan Gradwohl, 55, of Arcata was struck by a motorist and died Sept. 4 at the intersection of 14 and H streets in Arcata. Robert Bergeson, 23, of Arcata was charged with vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence.
16. Omar Dean IV, 36, of Hoopa was found dead after deputies received reports of a fight at a home on Shoemaker Road in Hoopa on Sept. 9. The sheriff’s office continues to investigate the homicide. Known as “Baby O,” he was preceded in death by his son Running Bear Dean. He graduated from Hoopa Valley Elementary and Hoopa High School, according to his family.
17. Jordan Dennis Antonsen, 23, of Weott was stabbed during a fight with another man on the 400 block of Newton Road on the night of Oct. 7.
18. Timothy Smith, 42, of Fortuna was shot multiple times in front of a Rohnerville Road residence in Fortuna on the Sept. 26. He was a volunteer fire captain at the Fortuna Fire Department. Jon Goldberg is charged with Smith’s murder, and is set to appear in court on Jan. 19.
19. Jerry Sisson, 81, of Fortuna was shot and killed during an apparent murder-suicide, according to the Fortuna Police Department.
20. Cheryl Bussell, 50, of Hoopa, died of multiple stab wounds near Cal Pac Road on Nov. 25, according to deputies. Described as warm and loving, she is survived by her daughters and granddaughters, according to her family.
21. Tyson Claros of McKinleyville was found suffering from multiple gunshot wounds on State Route 255 in Manila, according to sheriff’s office deputies. He died at a local hospital Dec. 12. The 20-year-old worked at The Stove Doctors and studied at the College of the Redwoods, he is survived by many family members including his brother and his nephew.
22. Tessa Gingerich, 16, was struck and killed by a motorist Dec. 15 in McKinleyville, according to the sheriff’s office. She was a student at Pacific Coast High School where she did well in school and was on track to graduate early, according to her family.
Manny Araujo can be reached at 707-441-0509.