Homicide spike strains NH resources

Associate Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin stands among old criminal case files earlier this month in the basement of the Department of Justice building in Concord.

CONCORD — A spike in slayings could make 2019 the worst year for New Hampshire homicides in nearly three decades, according to state law enforcement officials.

The reasons behind the increase — whether this is a long streak of random, senseless tragedy or the signal of an alarming shift in the most violent of crimes — remain up for debate.

But there’s no disputing the body count: 15 homicide victims through the middle of May in a state that over the past decade has averaged 18 homicides for an entire year.

The 12 different murder scenes have spread to eight of the state’s 10 counties, with only northernmost Coos and eastern Strafford counties spared the carnage.

There’s also no argument this streak is stretching to the limit the resources of those responding, investigating, analyzing and searching around the clock to find justice for the families of murder victims.

“There’s no question this taxes us at all levels of public safety, first responders, investigation, medical examination, prosecution, laboratory analysis. We’re all right out straight when you hit a period like we’ve had,” said Associate Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin.

An 18-year prosecutor with the Department of Justice, Strelzin has spent 15 of them heading its homicide unit and he agreed the length of this uptick was out of the ordinary.

Homicide spike strains NH resources

Associate Attorney General Jeff Strelzin poses for a photo at his offices in Concord on May 10.

“We often get clusters like this, but this one is unusually long. It’s not unusual at all to have a few months where the number of homicides goes up, and then you go through a period of time where there are very few, and it all levels off,” Strelzin said during an interview.

“The duration is what’s different.”

Strelzin said it would take a year or more to know whether this increase is a sign there’s a new normal in New Hampshire.

“Maybe it sounds like a copout, but I think you can’t assess a trend until after it’s already happened,” Strelzin said.

“Then you can look back and analyze with hindsight what may have contributed to the numbers. Was it just a statistical anomaly for a few months or does it represent a changing paradigm?”

Signs point to a high in 2019

Tim Pifer has been with Department of Safety for 30 years and is director of the State Police Forensic Laboratory that’s charged with processing the 75 to 100 pieces of evidence that come in from a typical homicide case.

Pifer said many signs point to 2019 being a year that will stand out.

“In the late ’80s and early ’90s, we would witness about 30 homicides, and then we have had a pretty significant period when we dipped down to the teens,” Pifer said. “At this rate, we are going to hit a pretty significant number like we had in the early 1990s.

“We track evidence that comes in from all cases, not just homicides, and we’re up 33 percent in volume over the same period last year. That could be telling.”

How big is that volume? The state places laundry carts full of preserved evidence into warehouse space at undisclosed New Hampshire locations.

“We’ve had to considerably expand our storage space; I’ll just leave it at that,” Pifer said.

The State Police Major Crime Unit has been so busy that Maj. John Marasco recently reminded line staff that the agency has a peer support network to help troopers or detectives coping with the stress of trying to solve these high-pressure cases, which can get more and more difficult with the passage of time.

“At times like these, I’m reminded how dedicated people have to be at all levels of response to try and bring answers and comfort to the families left dealing with the aftermath of these crimes,” Strelzin said.

NH used to lowest murder rate

According to the FBI and the Death Penalty Information Center, New Hampshire had the lowest murder rate in the country for 10 of the 12 years, from 2006 through 2017.

In the two outliers, New Hampshire was tied for fourth lowest in 2013 and was second lowest in 2008.

The state’s overall violent crime rate in 2017 was third lowest, at 2.0 per 1,000 people and was only higher than Maine and Vermont.

“If you look over the past few years, our population has increased but our homicide rate did not,” Pifer said.

“That’s what makes us wonder if something else is happening beyond just a statistical blip.”

Strelzin said it’s meant his five lead murder prosecutors have had to turn to associates in the office to assist them.

“We keep two prosecutors on call for a week at a time. During this kind of stretch, we have rotated folks in and out, and sometimes this requires our folks to cover for one another so that a prosecutor who may be prime on an investigation will have an associate work on an update while they may be off responding to something else,” Strelzin said.

At the state lab, Pifer said it’s all about prioritizing the work, and what goes to the top are murder cases in which there is no obvious suspect.

“We work as much as we can around the clock on those with DNA requests, ballistic matter, footprints, tire tracks, all to provide the investigative leads for police and prosecutors as soon as we possibly can,” Pifer said.

Digital technology can produce a workable result on fresh blood for DNA in a matter of hours.

At many murder scenes, however, blood or fluids have already dried and the quickest turnaround for DNA testing of that evidence is 36 hours, Pifer said.

“Scientists are used to routine and schedule, but the work of a forensic lab gets adjusted on a daily basis. You never complete the list of things you set out to do for the day, and with the spike we’ve been seeing, that’s even more the case these days,” Pifer added.