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First murder reminder there’s no room for complacency

AurorPolice Chief Greg Thomas

Aurora Police Chief Greg Thomas

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Updated: March 6, 2013 6:16AM

Who didn’t feel our hearts clutch when hearing about Aurora’s first (and dare we hope, only) murder of 2013. The young victim was killed and her body burned beyond recognition — a horrific case similar to the 1998 death of Brendon Anderson, whose killer was found guilty last week of shooting him and a friend in the backs of their heads, then dousing Anderson’s car with gasoline and burning his body.

After almost 15 years, one family’s journey through darkness was finally lifted, while another’s has just begun.

At this point Aurora police aren’t sure why Juan Garnica Jr. allegedly killed 18-year-old Abigail Villalpando after hitting her several times in the head with a hammer, then burning her body and car. But those headlines are a cruel reminder it takes but one shot in the dark or blow to the head or puncture to the heart to bring us back to reality.

No matter how far this city has come in driving down the murder rate — from a high of 26 in the mid-’90s to zero last year — there’s absolutely no room for complacency.

It’s why, says Police Chief Greg Thomas, despite the jaw-dropping drop in murders, Aurora’s gang unit remains as strong as ever in terms of numbers and tactics. It’s also why, even as police officers and staff decide how to spend the $500 bonuses the city is gifting them in appreciation of that remarkable zero-murder year, the APD continues to follow closely what’s going on in other areas, scouring other departments for best practices when it comes to reducing gang activity and other crimes.

Even if a community may not be able to brag about a zero murder rate, it’s not so much about statistics, says Thomas, “as it is best ideas.”

That’s why, when shootings in the city dropped below 100, officers said, “OK, now what do we do?” he said. Even with the 61 shootings in 2012, the APD continues to look for better tactics, for as long as firearms are being discharged, there’s the potential for serious injuries and death.

Zero is not a trend, Thomas points out. Maybe when we see a string of two murders over a number of years, then we can begin to talk trend. Yet, even if a deadly problem appears to have been squashed, we don’t have to look all that far for evidence of how devastating violence can turn.

Thomas remembers a meeting not all that long ago when the state police chief made a statement about hoping Chicago doesn’t send its gangs to Aurora. “He meant it as a joke,” the chief recalls, “but there’s some truth to it ... it’s something we always worry about.”

Which is why, even as Thomas and his staff celebrate the astonishing year, “we still have work to do,” he insists.

And as the family of Abigail Villalpando surely know, the only statistic that matters is the one attached to a victim’s name.

Unfortunately, as much as a police department can study and analyze and work their tails off, there can be no such thing as a zero murder rate because you can never fully predict or control human behavior.

“You never know,” said Thomas, “what’s going on behind closed doors.”

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