As if coronavirus wasn’t enough to make 2020 a rough year for Yakima County, there were also an unprecedented number of homicides.

The county’s 35 homicides in 2020 set a 40-year record, according to crime statistics from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Of those 35, nine were in Yakima proper, the same number as the year before.

So far, 18 of the cases have resulted in arrests, charges dropped due to self-defense claims or homicide-suicide, as in the case of Emily Escamilla, whose husband and accused killer, Daniel Escamilla, was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound hours after his wife’s body was discovered in their Selah home in January 2020.

But finding an explanation for the surge in cases, compared to 27 the year before, is a bit challenging, law enforcement officials say.

“I don’t have a clue,” said Sgt. Judd Towell, who leads the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office’s detective division. “That’s always the big question. In so many cases, you know the who, what, where, when and how, but you never know why.”

The YSO is investigating 13 cases, the largest of any agency in the Valley. Towell said there were a couple of cases where YSO started the investigation, but the case was taken over by federal authorities because either the suspects or victims were Native American citizens and the crimes occurred on the Yakama Nation’s sprawling Lower Valley reservation.

Among those were the April 9 stabbing deaths of Maria Martinez and her niece, Shante Barney, at their Brownstown home. The suspect, Edward C. Robinson, is now being tried in federal court for killing his mother and sister-in-law.

Federal officials are also investigating the deaths of two Grateful Dead fans who disappeared in June 2019 on their way to a Dead & Company concert at The Gorge Amphitheatre. The remains of Josiah HIlderbrand and Jon Cleary were found alongside U.S. Highway 97 south of Toppenish in July.

While the federal intervention has taken some of the strain off the sheriff’s office, Towell said his department is still working with a significant caseload.

“We have six guys serving a population the size of Yakima,” Towell said, noting that Yakima’s police department has several units of detectives by comparison. He said the Attorney General’s Office determined that the YSO’s detectives had one of the largest homicide caseloads on a per capita basis of county agency in the state.

While Yakima’s nine cases were about the sixth lowest in 40 years, Yakima police Capt. Jay Seely said that is still too many for the city. Like Towell, Seely said it is difficult to find a pattern that explains the cycles of killings.

“It’s hard to predict when two people are going to meet up and have that level of homicide,” Seely said.

In 2018, the city set a record with 19 homicides. In 1983, Yakima had zero.

Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic said the Valley’s crime in general, and homicides, are largely driven by drugs, domestic violence or gang activity, or a combination of those factors.

While the pandemic may be a factor in some domestic violence cases, Brusic said the coronavirus is putting an added strain on the judicial system. Pandemic precautions have made it difficult for defense attorneys to meet with clients and prosecutors to interview witnesses, thus delaying trials.

Even so, Brusic said his prosecutors are handling a couple homicide cases each, which he said puts stress on them and the office’s resources.

Brusic declined to file charges in three of last year’s homicide cases because of potential self-defense issues. The most recent was the shooting of Marcos Ivan Mendoza-Guillen, who was killed in what police described as a gang-related shooting outside a Yakima convenience store.

Brusic’s office declined to file charges against the three suspects, noting that there was not enough evidence to refute their arguments of self-defense.

“We have to, by statute, look at all potential defenses as well,” Brusic said, “and we just can’t ignore self-defense. We have to prove the absence of self-defense in court beyond a reasonable doubt.”

By filing charges, Brusic said his office is expressing its confidence that it has a case that can be proven to the highest legal standard.

Yakima police currently have three cases that remain unsolved from 2020, including the killing of Linda Berukoff, whose battered body was found near railroad tracks in the 800 block of North Front Street in January. In that case, Seely said his detectives are running into dead ends as leads dry up.

Another frustration for detectives, Seely and Towell said, are people who do not talk to police out of fear of retaliation.

Seely said the community needs to work together to deal with violent crime.

“There’s only 140 of us. We can’t be everywhere at once,” Seely said. He said people need to say that violent crime is unacceptable and hold those who commit it accountable.

There are ways people can provide information while protecting themselves, he said. For instance, people can provide videos from security cameras on their property, which does not require them having to testify in court against a suspect while supplying the police with solid evidence.

Another option is Yakima County Crime Stoppers, which allows people to provide anonymous information about crimes. Phone: 800-248-9980.

Reach Donald W. Meyers at dmeyers@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: donaldwmeyers, or https://www.facebook.com/donaldwmeyersjournalist.