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posted: 1/1/2012 5:30 AM

Lake County sees fewer murders in 2011

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Lake County officials see some positive signs in the homicide statistics for 2011, believing they indicate that programs created to reduce violence are taking root.

The 10 homicides in 2011 tie for the second-lowest recorded since 1980, according to statistics kept by the Lake County coroner's and state's attorney's office. In two years, 1982 and 1994, there were 25 murders.

"Even though there have been budget cuts to law enforcement, the proactive programs in areas such as domestic violence and street gangs have had a positive impact on the murder rate," State's Attorney Michael Waller said.

The first murder in 2011 didn't happen until June 8, some 189 days into the year, something most observers called a statistical fluke.

Rachel Stolberg, 54, of Vernon Hills was the first murder victim in 2011 in what police said was a physical altercation with her 48-year-old husband, Ronald.

Prior to 2011, the latest date a homicide took place in the county was the April 27, 1999 shooting death of Jaime Alvarez, 25, of Gurnee during a brawl in a Waukegan bar.

"Homicide is the most difficult crime to anticipate and predict when it will occur," Waller said. "It is certainly unusual that we went over five months without a murder but I do not think anyone could come up with a rational explanation for why that happened."

The final murder of the year occurred Dec. 29 when Carlos Hernandez, a 44-year-old Waukegan resident, was shot to death during what police described as a carjacking.

What is encouraging, Coroner Artis Yancey said, is the Stolberg case was one of only two homicides last year classified as a case of domestic violence.

Yancey, who said he saw "far too many tragedies" result from domestic violence during his 21 years as a Waukegan police officer, contends police and judges were the major factors in keeping domestic violence murders low.

"I think we are at the point where the majority of police have the proper training and are demonstrating through their actions a determination to keep domestic disputes from escalating," he said. "For those cases that are reaching the court system, the judges are helping to spread the word that these are serious matters and will be dealt with accordingly."

Sheriff Mark Curran believes another factor affecting the murder toll is advances in medical care for victims of violence. Even just a few years ago, more victims would have died from their wounds, he said.

Dr. William Maloney, chief of emergency medicine at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, could not point to a specific instance where doctors saved a life that might have been lost, but said there is no denying that the quality of medical care is improving.

"We have the only Level One Trauma center in Lake County, which means there is a trauma surgeon on duty here 24 hours a day." Maloney said. "We have begun to reclaim the time that a patient would have previously needed to be flown to Park Ridge or Milwaukee because we now can provide the same care right here."

Privacy regulations prohibit Maloney from discussing the details of any particular case. However, a 49-year-old Lake Villa Township woman shot in the head and chest with a .45-caliber pistol in August survived her wounds after being treated at the Libertyville hospital.

Authorities said gang crime appeared to be the motivation behind two murders in 2011.

Round Lake Park Police Chief George Filenko, who recently finished his term as president of the county Chiefs of Police Association, said that group has had an ongoing program to increase police training in the area of gang crime.

The association has held several training sessions to educate regular patrol officers on how to gather information about street gangs, rather than the traditional method of relying only on specialized gang crime units, he said.

"Information is the most valuable resource we have; you cannot put a price on it," Filenko said. "And for the past few years, we have had a concentrated effort to bring the street officers into the intelligence-gathering process and widen our ability to find out what we need to know."

The association has secured grant money to pay a crime analyst who processes the information gathered and packages the data for distribution to law enforcement agencies.

"Once we have the information, the challenge is to make sure everyone gets it," he said. "It enables us not only to better investigate what has happened, but to better anticipate what is going to happen next and move to pre-empt criminal activity and to create something of a fear factor among the gangs."

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