Two slayings with multiple victims this year have pushed Morgan County's homicide rate after nearly seven months to a level almost triple the national average for all of 2018.
After a pair of homicides reported last week, Morgan County has 19 in 2020. That puts the county's homicides per 100,000 people at 15.88 for the year, and the rate will increase if there are additional homicides in the year's final five months. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Morgan County's population at 119,600.
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report said the national average in 2018, the most recent year available, was 5.3 homicides per 100,000 people. In 2017, the rate was 6.0. Alabama’s homicide rate for 2018 was 12.2, according to FBI and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics.
Birmingham recorded 38.9 homicides per 100,000 in 2019. That rate easily led the state and was No. 8 in the nation. Mobile led the state at 20.13 homicides per 100,000 in 2017.
Local authorities said the two multiple-victim slayings — June 4 in Valhermoso Springs where seven people were shot to death and May 24 in the Danville area where three people were fatally shot — skew the statistics and paint an inaccurate picture of the county.
“The homicides are definitely not something we are proud of,” said Ray Long, chairman of the Morgan County Commission. “We can’t control the circumstances of those two. The seven killed in Valhermoso Springs jacked the numbers up. There’s nothing the Sheriff’s Office could have done to prevent those. They’ve got suspects on those two big ones in jail.”
First-term Morgan County Sheriff Ron Puckett could only shake his head when looking at the homicide numbers. “That is not who we are,” he said. “We’re better than this, but the seven in Valhermoso Springs and three more in Danville have definitely skewed the numbers. Those killings did happen."
He called the nine killings outside of the two incidents a "big number" but said that this is an "abnormal year" for the county.
"We can't be prepared for everything," Puckett said. "This type of stuff is going to happen. I don't think our citizens are unsafe as far as living in fear goes. Most of these murders are domestic related. We're still very safe. If we had more deputies to patrol it would make it safer. We still live in a very safe part of the nation. Our murder rate may be high this year. But there's no comparison to the numbers last year. You can't paint our future on 2020 stats."
He said the COVID-19 pandemic could be a contributing factor but said that is hardly the case for the overall increase in homicides here.
"COVID brings a lot of stress in all relationships. Is COVID going to make you angry enough to kill somebody? No. That added stress might just be the straw that broke the camel's back," he said.
He called the two incidents claiming 10 lives “isolated” and he has not ordered more patrols in those areas.
In the June 4 killings, John Michael Legg, 19, and Frederic “Ricky” Allen Rogers, 22, both of 2479 Vaughn Bridge Road in Hartselle, are in Morgan County Jail facing capital murder charges after being detained in Marion County, Oregon, on June 21.
Morgan County District Attorney Scott Anderson said it is too early for him to say if his office will seek the death penalty in the case.
“We need to see all of the evidence before we can decide that,” he said.
A preliminary hearing for Legg and Rogers is set for Aug. 14 at 9 a.m. in the Morgan County Courthouse.
Puckett said the investigation indicates anger may have motivated Legg and Rogers. They were upset about some members of their club, which they called Seven Deadly Sins, being “disobedient.” Also, Puckett said, Legg believed several of his handguns had been stolen.
Decatur Police spokeswoman Emily Long said thus far in 2020, the police have worked seven homicides in their jurisdiction including the three in Danville that led to the arrest of Carson Peters, who was charged with three counts of capital murder. At a preliminary hearing, Peters, 58, said he was angry at his wife filing a court order related to a contempt charge and admitted shooting his wife, Teresa Lynn Peters, 53, of Danville; her sister, Tammy Renee Smith, 50, of Danville; and James Edward Miller, 55, of Lacey’s Spring, Smith’s boyfriend.
Last week, Morgan County Coroner Jeff Chunn ruled the death of Anthony Larry Sheppard, 41, of Hartselle, a homicide. He said Sheppard died of a gunshot wound at his Dawson Street home last Friday. Nobody has been arrested in that death.
On July 22, Chunn ruled the death of David James McCluskey, 54, most recently of Somerville but formerly of Russellville, a homicide. McCluskey’s body was found on the bank of the Tennessee River at Bluff City Landing in Somerville. A preliminary autopsy report revealed McCluskey died from a single gunshot wound, Chunn said.
Bobby Daryl Hamblen has been charged with murder in McCluskey's death. He claims the victim pulled a gun during an argument.
McCluskey's death and the Valhermoso Springs killings are among 10 homicides the Morgan County Sheriff's Office has investigated in its jurisdiction since Jan. 1.
The Sheriff’s Office also worked two homicides in Somerville and the Brindlee Mountain area this year, Swafford said.
Emily Long said only two of the Decatur police homicide investigations in 2020 have occurred in the city limits.
On June 9, Brandon Rincon, 23, was allegedly stabbed to death by his father, Raul Rincon, 57, 1502 19th Ave. S.E., Apt. 5, for the city’s first homicide of the year. Raul Rincon has been charged with murder.
On July 4, Amari Elijah Deloney, 16, was fatally shot while riding in the back seat of a car in the East Acres housing complex in Southeast Decatur.
Police arrested Shannon Doors Thomas, 26, 3110 Sumac Road S.W., Decatur, and charged him with capital murder in the shooting.
Decatur police also worked single slayings in January and February in their jurisdiction.
Last year, Decatur police reported six homicides, all in the city limits. In 2018, Decatur recorded seven homicides and in 2017 the police worked 10.
“Last year, we began tracking the homicides that took place in our city limits versus our police jurisdiction,” Emily Long said.
In addition to the homicides investigated by Decatur police and the Sheriff's Office, Priceville police charged a woman in March with the shooting death of her father.
In 2019, no homicides were reported in the sheriff's jurisdiction and there were three in 2018, according to Sheriff's Office spokesman Mike Swafford.
“Since Sheriff Puckett took office (in 2018) we have worked to increase our patrol division 40%, putting more deputies on the road,” Swafford said. “Additionally, we have re-formed the Morgan County Drug Task Force and joined the FBI Violent Crime Task Force. However, the need for additional deputies and additional resources continues to grow.”