If nobody else were to be killed in Yakima County this year, 2019 would rank eighth for the number of people killed in the past 30 years.
Records from courts, the sheriff’s office and police departments show that 19 people have died in homicides this year. That’s the same number who were killed up to Aug. 1 in the years 2018 and 2017, the first- and second-worst years for homicides since 1990.
A Yakima County sheriff’s detective said it is hard to tell how the rest of the year will play out.
“You just can’t predict it,” said Sgt. Judd Towell, who oversees the sheriff’s office’s bureau of six detectives. “We had three (homicides) in one week, the first time in my 35 years I’ve seen that occur.”
Yakima County’s homicide count has moved in fits and starts this year. There were no homicides until March 7, when Fernando Jose Lopez-Galvez, 20, was fatally shot outside a home at 191 McLean Road near Sunnyside. Lopez-Galvez’s death also became the first of six homicides that would fall within the sheriff’s jurisdiction this year.
Jesse Leonel Lopez-Avalos was charged with killing Lopez-Galvez.
Jose Duran Tellez, 25, became the county’s second homicide, and the first in Yakima. Authorities say he was shot to death at 604 E. Race St., the same home where Julian Reynoso-Valdez, 22, was killed during a house party in December 2018. Yakima is at five homicides for the year.
Killings occurred in March, April, May and June, with three homicides occurring in one week in April.
The deadliest homicide case in Yakima County history happened June 8, when Catherine Eneas, 49, Michelle Starnes, 51, Thomas Hernandez, 36, and John Cagle, 60, were killed at a home on Medicine Valley Road near White Swan. Dennis Overacker, 61, who pulled up in a pickup with two other people and a baby, also was killed. Three people have been charged in connection with the case.
Since then, two more homicide cases have been opened. The remains of Rosenda Strong, who was reported missing last year, were found in an abandoned freezer near U.S. Highway 97, and Davis Reyes Jr. was stabbed to death at the Valley Mall on July 6.
While this year’s number is high, Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic believes an operation involving the U.S. Marshal Service and local law enforcement has kept it from being worse.
“One of the reasons I think it has been on the wane for the past six, eight weeks is Operation Invictus,” Brusic said.
Operation Invictus Civitas — “undefeated city” in Latin — is a joint task force comprised of U.S. deputy marshals, Yakima County sheriff’s deputies, the Yakima Police Department’s gang unit, the Pacific Northwest Violent Offenders Task force and other local agencies. The task force, launched in early June, targets fugitives, gang members and other violent criminals, according to the marshal’s service.
It is expected to run through September.
As of Friday, the task force had made 139 arrests, with 72 of them being documented gang members, and seized 15 firearms, 13 of which were reportedly taken from gang members.
And Brusic said Invictus’ targeting gang members and other violent criminals may be preventing homicides.
“I wholeheartedly believe that is the case, especially during the summer months,” Brusic said. He believes that warmer temperatures and people being out later at night can lead to a higher homicide rate.
In 2018, 10 of the 32 homicides occurred between May and September, while nine out of 2017’s 28 homicides occurred in the summer months.
White Swan homicides
Some of the earliest arrests credited to Invictus were those of James Dean Cloud and Donovan Quinn Carter Cloud, whom federal prosecutors consider suspects in the deaths of five people fatally shot June 8 near White Swan.
The Clouds have been charged with carjacking and brandishing a firearm in connection with the theft of a car from a nearby home after the shootings.
No homicide charges have been filed.
A third person, Morris Jackson, was charged with illegally possessing a firearm after authorities say he threw away a rifle when he and the Clouds left the scene of the shooting.
Natasha Mae Jackson, who was with Morris Jackson and the Clouds at the Medicine Valley Road home, also was arrested but no charges have been filed against her, nor does she appear to be in custody in either the Yakama Nation jail or the Yakima County jail, where the other suspects are being held.
George Jacobs, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, declined to comment on the status of either the investigation or Natasha Jackson.
The case, along with the killing of Strong, are being handled by the FBI because they occurred within the boundaries of the Yakama Nation and some of the victims and suspects are citizens of federally recognized tribes.
If the sheriff’s office had taken those cases, Towell said it would have doubled his agencies’ homicide caseload so far this year.
Authorities believe drugs were a factor in the slayings, but say most of the victims weren’t involved.
Five of the 19 cases have been declared gang-related by authorities, including the killing of the youngest victims, Lillyonna Rose Beaty, 15, and Carlos Steven Munguia Barajas, 14.
Lillyonna was shot in the 600 block of West Pierce Street in Yakima on March 17, and died March 28 at Harborview Medical Center. Benicio Xavier Lopez, a 17-year-old Norteño gang member, has been charged with murder in that case.
Carlos was shot April 8 at Lions Park in Wapato. A warrant has been issued for Christopher Raul Trejo, 19, who has been charged with murder. That case is being investigated by the sheriff’s office at the request of Wapato police.
While prosecutors have charged three gang members with killing Joe Albert Fuller near Granger on April 12, Towell said that case was considered drug-related.
Other cases, some still open
Of the 19 cases, no arrests have been made in six, and prosecutors declined to file charges in one case on the grounds there was not enough evidence to disprove that Benjamin D. Rodriguez killed his father in self-defense.
Suspects in three others were released while investigators sought more evidence.
In the killing of Jennifer Crystal Patterson in Tieton, prosecutors decided to release a suspect 30 minutes before he was to appear in court for a preliminary hearing. In the killings of Daniel Campos in Toppenish and Davis Reyes in Union Gap, suspects were released after prosecutors asked for more evidence.
Brusic defended those decisions.
“We want to have the requisite information to move past probable cause. I take that position very carefully,” Brusic said. He said there is a natural “friction” between police and prosecutors when assembling a case, but Brusic said he makes sure investigators understand the need for building a strong case from the beginning.
Towell, with the sheriff’s office, said detectives arrested the suspect in Patterson’s killing based on the suspect’s actions and his potential for fleeing. Detectives are continuing to work the case and gather additional evidence, Towell said.
Likewise, three boys detained in connection with Davis’ death at the Valley Mall were released while Union Gap police seek additional evidence. Chief Gregg Cobb said authorities still consider the boys suspects.
Brusic said there is little fear the suspects are going to flee before they are arrested again, either due to a lack of means to travel or ties that keep them from leaving the area.