Robberies that take a deadly turn are on the rise in Orange County, increasing an average of 70% each year between 1987 and 1991, according to data from the state Department of Justice.
While not the main cause of homicides in Orange County, robberies have been the fastest-growing major cause of homicides over the past five years, outpacing gang-related and drug-related slayings, the data show.
In 1987, there were four robberies in Orange County that resulted in the victim's death. In 1991, 22 people lost their lives during robberies in the county.
Statewide, robbery-related slayings have risen from 374 in 1987 to 473 in 1991, an average annual increase of 3.9%, far below the county's rate.
Statistics for 1992 won't be available until the end of the year, but a partial look at some areas shows that some places where robbery-related homicides were recorded last year--Garden Grove, Tustin and Westminster--report no such slayings so far this year. But other areas continue to report robberies that end in death.
* In June, the body of Joseph Andrew Kondrath, 23, of Anaheim was found in the trunk of his car after three men shot him in the head and stole his wallet, police said. The three men have been indicted.
* In August, lawyer Seymour S. Pizer, 61, of Rossmoor was strangled and left in a Dana Point trash receptacle by two men who were arrested after they tried to use the victim's credit card to pay their hotel bill, police said.
* In September, Fernando Cervantes Zuniga, 21, of Santa Ana was shot to death and his two friends were pistol-whipped when they did not respond quickly enough to their assailants' demands for money, police said. The would-be robbers fled after the fatal shooting without any money, officials said. No arrests have been made.
Orange County law enforcement officials say they cannot determine why robbery-related homicides are increasing, but they say more criminals are relying on weapons, making violence--and death--more likely. Police also say there is little than can be done to curb such violence.
"There is just no doubt that people are arming themselves more to do this kind of thing and the violence is on the increase," Sheriff's Lt. Dick Olson said. "Finding out how to put an end to it is the answer to the million-dollar question. I wish I knew."
In 1990, the Sheriff's Department received 377 reports of robbery, including 211 robberies involving firearms, knives or other weapons. In the remaining 166 incidents, the victim was "strong-armed," meaning physical violence or the threat of physical violence was used, Olson said.
In 1991, robbery reports to the department increased to 442. The number of incidents in which a weapon was used increased to 245 cases, he said.
Others attribute the increase in robbery-related homicides to the rise in street violence.
"I don't know what's going on in society today, there are just many more killings, more violence," Anaheim Police Lt. John Cross said.
Friends and relatives of victims killed during a robbery say the tragedy becomes even more wrenching for survivors who realize that the death of a loved one was over a few dollars or a credit card.
"That's the worst part about it because you realize how senseless it all is," said attorney Barry S. Michaelson, whose law partner, Pizer, was slain. "I just can't imagine a justification for it--killing someone for a wallet, a few dollars?
"I guess to some people a life is not worth much."
Of the 22 robbery-related slayings in 1991 in Orange County, nine took place in Santa Ana, five in Anaheim, and two in Garden Grove. Dana Point, Silverado Canyon, Fountain Valley, La Habra, Tustin and Westminster each reported one robbery-related slaying, according to state data.
Anaheim City Councilman Irv Pickler said that despite increases in certain crimes, Orange County remains a place where many people move to escape from violence in major cities.
"Crime has always been a concern to people here, but given what we have all around us, I think Orange County and Anaheim continue to be a safe place for people to live," he said. "We are holding our own."
Robbery can often leave victims bewildered and feeling vulnerable.
"It's a very difficult thing to deal with, even if there isn't violence involved," Tustin Detective Sgt. Mark Bergquist said.
Rise in Robbery-Related Murders
While robbery is not the main reason behind homicides in Orange County, since 1987 it has risen faster annually than other major causes.
Homicides Causes in 1991 General disputes (46): 30% Gang-related (30): 19% Unknown causes (25): 16% Robbery (22): 14% Drug-related (11): 7% Other causes* (21): 14% * Alcohol-influenced disputes, child abuse, rape, burglary, sniper killings, arson-related murders and other felony and non-felony homicides.
Source: California Department of Justice
Researched by DANNY SULLIVAN / Los Angeles Times