The number of homicides in Ventura County fell sharply this year, even as gang violence ticked upward.
The 23 homicides in 2002, including the Santa Paula couple who were bludgeoned to death in their bed and a rash of gang-related deaths in Oxnard, were the fewest since 1999 and eight below last year.
"It's always difficult to explain why numbers like these go up or down," said Eric Nishimoto, a spokesman for the Ventura County Sheriff's Department. "One thing that we point to, though, is the strong commitment by peace officers, support staff and the public, who all want to keep crime low."
Oxnard and Santa Paula accounted for about two-thirds of the homicides in the county, although the two cities make up about one-quarter of its population.
Oxnard logged the most homicides, with 11, and Santa Paula had its deadliest year on record with six.
Unlike 2001, when half of Oxnard's 12 homicides were officer-involved incidents, this year's slayings were primarily gang-related.
Three homicides occurred in Ventura and one each in Port Hueneme, Camarillo and El Rio. Simi Valley, which recorded six homicides in 2001, had none in 2002.
"This is the most we've had in the history of the city," Santa Paula Police Chief Bob Gonzales said. "We normally have an average of closer to 2.5, and in many years we've had none."
Santa Paula reported no killings in 2001 and three in 1999 and 2000 combined.
The majority of killings throughout the county involved one or more of the following: alcohol, drugs, gang warfare, robbery or domestic violence.
Robbery and joyriding were cited as motives in a case that Gonzales called the most heinous of his career.
On Oct. 21, Santa Paula residents John M. Ramirez, 59, and his wife, Joann Wotkyns, 55, were bludgeoned to death in their bed. Less than two weeks later, police arrested Adam Sarabia, 16, whose alleged motive was robbery and a cruise in the couple's Special Edition Chevy Monte Carlo.
Sarabia has pleaded not guilty and remains in juvenile hall, pending a Jan. 15 preliminary hearing. He will be tried as an adult and, if convicted, faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"This is the type of homicide case that you hear about and read about but never believe will happen in your own backyard," Gonzales said. "It was this city's most significant, ever."
Arrests were made in three other homicide cases. A case in Oxnard was ruled accidental, and an officer-involved incident in Ventura was ruled as justified. The remaining cases are unsolved.
While Sarabia was one of the youngest homicide suspects arrested this year, five victims were also teenagers. Most were involved in gang violence or robbery, but one case involved a young man with no obvious ties to crime.
On the evening of Nov. 2, Steven Miinster -- a 15-year-old Hueneme High School student who worked part time as a clerk in the school office -- was shot in the torso as he stood near his family's Oxnard backyard.
He died minutes later at a local hospital. There have been no arrests.
Randy Reeves, 19, of Ventura represents the county's only officer-involved fatality. Reeves, a suspected car thief, was shot by Ventura police at a local motel April 4, when he came at officers with a knife.
In addition to having the most homicides for 2002, Oxnard also reported one of the most puzzling cases.
About 4:30 a.m. March 23, a mentally disabled man was sleeping in his bed when someone threw a Molotov cocktail through a kitchen window and fired several shots into another window.
As relatives struggled to douse the fire in the kitchen, Isaac Hughes, 61, lay dying in his room from a shoulder wound.
Oxnard police still don't know why -- or whether -- Hughes, who had the mental capacity of a 7-year-old, was targeted.
"Homicides are so unpredictable," said Oxnard Police Sgt. Jim Seitz, head of the department's major crimes unit. "It's just one of those crimes you can't stop."
Like other police agencies in the county, Oxnard officials this year beefed up units that specialize in gangs and drug sales in hopes of making more arrests and stemming the tide of violence.
Another odd case involved Santa Paula resident Joseph McMullen, 29, who was shot and killed April 28 behind his mother's home, a week after surviving another shooting.
Authorities said the attacks were related, involving drugs and gang retaliation.
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Description of Homicides in 2002
Feb.18: Salvador Perez, 16, of Santa Paula was stabbed and robbed as he walked home from a Santa Paula bar. No arrest has been made.
March 23: Isaac Hughes, 61, of Oxnard was shot in his home, which also was firebombed. No arrest has been made.
March 26: Artis Jackson, 25, of Oxnard was stabbed in Oxnard during a fight over a woman. Robert Hosea, 20, has been convicted and awaits sentencing.
April 4: Randy Reeves, 19, of Ventura was shot by police at a Ventura hotel. Reeves, a suspected car thief, reportedly came at officers with a knife. Shooting is ruled justified.