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Homicide-Free in Huntington Beach

Crime: No one's been killed in Surf City in 21/2 years, a trend not matched since the '60s. Emergency-room staff, paramedics, police share credit.

April 05, 2002|STANLEY ALLISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

November 27, 1999, is a day the detectives in Huntington Beach's homicide bureau consider a milestone. The beaten body of 29-year-old Bridgette Ballas, an account executive for Calvin Klein, was discovered by a passerby in a gutter on Huntington Street that day.

And the community hasn't recorded another slaying since.

The streak of peacefulness has met with a mixture of pride and puzzlement in the city of nearly 200,000 people. Huntington Beach hasn't had so few homicides since the 1960s--and no one is sure how long the streak will last.

The lull is all the more remarkable considering the city was averaging five to six homicides a year through most of the 1980s and 1990s--many of them gang-related.

Politicians place the credit with cops, saying the department's community policing and anti-gang efforts have helped drive down not just homicides but many other crimes as well.

Police officers, meanwhile, praise paramedics and emergency-room doctors for saving victims of violent crime.

"It's not for a lack of people trying to kill each other," said Det. Steve Mack. "We've certainly had some attempted murders; people stabbed in the heart, shot in the head, shot in the face with a shotgun."Since the Ballas murder in 1999, detectives have arrived at several crime scenes they were sure would become murder investigations.

On Jan. 23, 2001, Steve Wagner was shot three times in the head with a .25-caliber pistol; his girlfriend Frankie Flex was strangled and left for dead.

On April 13, 2001, Lydia Matthews was stabbed by her husband 17 times.

On July 13, 2001, Patrick Tasselli was stabbed in the leg and an artery was severed.

On Feb. 19, 2002, Benito Rosas was shot point-blank in the face with a shotgun.

All of those victims were taken to UCI Medical Center's Level One trauma center in Orange--and survived.

"They work some miracles," said veteran police Lt. Chuck Thomas.

Doctors at the emergency room have a more scientific explanation."There are injuries that are going to be fatal," said Dr. Marianne Cinat, a trauma surgeon at UCI. "But what we have in place is a system that allows us to immediately treat life-threatening injuries so that we give a patient their best possible chance at survival."

The trauma center can mobilize a team that includes surgeons, nurses and others within minutes of getting a call from paramedics about a critically injured patient.

The team can stabilize the patient and quickly get him or her into an operating room. Paramedics also play a crucial role by quickly assessing the condition of victims and communicating with trauma doctors on what treatment will be needed when they get to the hospital, Cinat said.

"Where the bullet goes we have no control over," she said. "Once they get to the hospital, even then, we can't save them sometimes, but the decisions we make aren't just pure luck.

The decisions and the sequence of events are based on years of experience and training."

Despite the lack of slayings, the homicide bureau remains active. The detectives handle a variety of cases, including kidnappings, robberies and assaults. Last week, they investigated the kidnapping of a Huntington Beach man who was found in a Long Beach motel.

*

Trial Is Pending in 1999 Murder Case

They also made an arrest in their most recent slaying, the 1999 case of Bridgette Ballas. It came six months after her murder. The detectives allege that Ballas was raped and murdered by a neighbor as she was returning home from a night out with friends. A trial is pending. Detectives also are reexamining 20 unsolved homicides.

One high-profile shooting in the city last year was investigated by the Orange County district attorney's office. The case involved a fatally injured 18-year-old who was fired at by police who later said he was holding a toy gun. Prosecutors determined the shooting was justified. Homicide detectives David Dirkin and Mack said they are in no hurry to take on another murder case.

"I didn't go into homicide to work the homicides," Mack said. "I went into it to arrest the people who commit them."

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