A Rash Of Murders: Is Crime In Lake Charles Getting Worse?
By Kerri Cooke
Violent crime — it’s becoming more and more evident in our area every day. Homicide even crept up on Lagniappe’s back door a few weeks ago when a double murder was committed on a Friday night.
Blood spatter from one of the victims who struggled to get away before collapsing stains areas of our parking lot. We’ve known for a while that there have been drugs around due to syringes being found in our parking lot over the past few months, but we never expected a murder. It’s one of those things you know can happen, but can’t believe has happened when it does.
And if you’ve stayed abreast of local news, you’ve probably noticed how much violent crime we’ve experienced locally, especially in the Lake Charles city limits. But we always tend to think the worst of the crime resides in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. And while these cities might have more instances of violent crime, it is compensated for by their higher population.
When taking violent crime per capita into account, Lake Charles, according to FBI statistics from 2020, is the 16th worst metro area, beating out both cities to the east. Monroe clocked in at No. 2; Alexandria at No. 9; Lake Charles at No. 16; Shreveport at No. 25; and New Orleans at No. 40. That’s five cities in Louisiana that make the top 50 worst metro areas in the United States for violent crime.
The LCPD says that the Lake Charles metro area includes all of Cameron and Calcasieu Parishes. (I make the argument that Cameron Parish doesn’t count.) But, of course, Lake Charles is the most heavily populated area and the rest of Calcasieu Parish has a lower crime rate as a result.
The average violent crime in the United States is 399 instances per every 100,000 people. The Lake Charles MSA record is 789 for every 100,000 people. Louisiana as a whole takes the fifth spot when it comes to violent crimes. The statewide average is 639 violent crimes for every 100,000 people.
Other cities in Louisiana take the award for the most murders, a subcategory of violent crime. Again, five cities in Louisiana make the list for the most murders per capita. New Orleans ranks No. 4; Baton Rouge ranks No. 9; Alexandria ranks No. 15; Monroe is right behind Alexandria at No. 16; and Shreveport is right behind Monroe at No. 17.
According to an article by Biz New Orleans, “homicide is especially prevalent in LA. There were 734 murders in the state in 2020, a 35 percent year-over-year increase and more than in many states with far larger populations. Louisiana’s homicide rate of 15.8 for every 100,000 people is the highest of any state and more than double the 6.5 per 100,000 national murder rate.”
Crime has been rising not only in Lake Charles and in Louisiana, but also the nation, as society has been rocked by socioeconomic instability. In fact, 2020 was the deadliest year on record since the ‘90s, with violent crime and homicides steeply climbing. The Council on Criminal Justice estimates homicide rates rose 29 percent in 2020 and another 5 percent in 2021.
Here is a list of violent crimes committed in Lake Charles since the beginning of February and their KPLC headlines.
“LSP: Lake Charles man involved with Lake Charles officer-involved shooting dies”
Officers responded to reports of an unresponsive driver near the intersection of Common and Scott streets. What’s being described as an “altercation” happened between the driver and police. The driver proceeded to drive into a police unit and an officer fired, hitting the driver in the arm. The driver drove a mile before stopping. He was brought to the hospital and later died.
“LCPD investigating homicide on E. LaGrange”
Cory Kerlegan was found dead of a gunshot wound in the passenger seat of a Hyundai Sonata on E. Lagrange St. (I would note this happened on the other side of E. Lagrange compared to the double homicide next to Lagniappe’s office.) The suspect kidnapped his estranged wife and took police on a high speed chase. The woman eventually jumped out of the vehicle. When police finally approached the suspect’s vehicle, he was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“Shooting under investigation outside Walmart on Hwy 14”
A man from Opelousas and a Walmart employee got into an argument. The argument spilled over into the parking lot, where the employee was shot. The Opelousas man was arrested on one count of aggravated second-degree battery and one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
“LCPD investigating homicide on Kirkman Street”
Germain M. McGruder of Orange, Texas, was found dead with a gunshot wound at The M Bar on Kirkman Street, behind the health unit. The investigation is still ongoing.
“Lake Charles man accused of sexual contact with girl under 15”
The man was arrested on seven charges of sexual battery and one charge of third-degree rape.
“Man accused of robbing, raping woman at gunpoint at Lake Charles hotel”
A woman was raped and robbed at a local casino by a man she met online. He also robbed a second woman. He faces charges of first degree rape, two counts of armed robbery and two counts of armed robbery with a firearm.
“Four arrested in Sunday afternoon shooting on Fitzenreiter Road”
Four people were involved in a shooting and attempted armed robbery on Fitzenreiter Road. Two people were injured. Cameron Darris Fontenot (left) and Markeith Devon Cahee are pictured as shown on kplctv.com.
“Lake Charles man accused of carjacking after fight”
Two parties were in a parking lot when the suspect and victim got into an argument. The suspect produced a handgun, hit the victim in the face and stole his vehicle. The suspect was arrested for carjacking, second-degree battery, illegal carrying of a weapon, and possession of a firearm with an obliterated serial number.
“6-year-old fatally shot in Mill St. homicide”
Draya Michelle Guillory was hit by gunfire from a drive-by shooting while watching TV. More details further along in this article.
“Man accused of firing into a car with 3 juvenile occupants”
An argument led to a man shooting into a vehicle with five occupants. Luckily, there were no injuries.
“Lake Charles Police investigating shooting on Tulip St.”
A victim was taken to the hospital after being shot.
“Police: Victims in Friday double homicide both Houston men”
James Malik Johnson and Jacob Yarbrough, both of Houston, were shot and killed near the intersection of Common and LaGrange streets. The investigation is still ongoing.
“Heavy police presence near intersection of Reid and Pryce St.”
No further information has been released as of press time.
“Police: 2 injured in shooting near Bank, Sycamore streets”
Two men were found shot in the roadway and taken to the hospital. One arrest has been made.
Lake Charles man accused of raping a child
A local man was accused of and admitted to raping a child under age 12. He was arrested for first-degree rape.
Is This Or Is This Not Lake Charles?
As crime kept shocking the city, Mayor Nic Hunter released a statement after 6-year-old Draya Michelle Guillory was killed, saying, “This is not Lake Charles and I will not allow this to become Lake Charles.” I reached out to the Mayor’s Office for clarification on this statement in light of Lake Charles being the 16th worst metro area in the U.S. for violent crime.
Hunter responded, “Any loss of life or injury sustained due to a violent criminal offense, such as a drive-by shooting is tragic; however, the recent murder of 6-year-old Draya Guillory, who was sitting on her couch watching television, rocked this community. The residents of this community, especially our young, innocent children, deserve to feel safe, especially in their homes. Innocent lives lost, like Draya’s, cannot become a normal occurrence in Lake Charles.”
As the mayor rarely comments about criminal cases on social media, I chalked up this statement being released as due to the victim being a child.
At a press conference on April 7, regarding the murder of Draya Guillory, Hunter admitted that the crime had “hit [him] a little differently as a dad of a young girl” and that Guillory’s life was taken “ruthlessly, unfairly.”
Press Conference For Mill St. Homicide
At the press conference, Hunter admitted that not only is crime rising nationally, it is increasing in Lake Charles. “[Draya] was murdered and it was because of gun violence, so I ask and I beg and I plead with parents to sit down with your children and tell them what happens when you use guns to solve a problem,” Hunter emphasized.
Lake Charles City Councilman Rodney Geyen lamented the speed at which crime has been occurring lately, calling the instances “a rash of shootings.” He added, “You would think the penalty would be enough to change their mind to utilize guns,” but that instead gun violence is increasing. “This is the opportune time for [citizens of Lake Charles] to get involved.”
Chief Caldwell said the drive-by shooting was the result of an “ongoing argument between some people” who intentionally targeted the house where the crime was committed. 12 members of a group called the NawfSideBabies have been arrested and more warrants are expected. Many of the suspects are detained on a $2.5 million bond.
Assistant District Attorney Jacob Johnson said that we need to “raise our community standards” and encouraged people to “engage with law enforcement.” He talked about repeat offenders when he indicated that it wasn’t the first time these individuals and others committed a crime and that they remained on the street because they had not been held to account due to uncooperative witnesses or lack of witnesses. He ended with a call to action. “Stand up for your city, for your neighborhood!”
Reasons For High Violent Crime
While the LCPD says it is too early to say whether there’s an increase in crime compared to years past, the trend so far is on track to surpass last year if crimes continue to happen with this regularity.
So far this year, as of press time, Lake Charles has had 18 shootings and five homicides. There were 62 shootings in 2021 and eight homicides. If we are a quarter through the year, 18 shootings in, and nine months left to go, at the same rate we would have 72 shootings. However, this is just conjecture.
Violent crime has been soaring nationwide, especially since the pandemic began. But 2017 through 2019 saw more shootings than both 2020 and 2021 in Lake Charles. As mentioned before, Lake Charles has had a population shift since Hurricanes Laura and Delta. And as housing is harder to find due to storm damage, there has been a lot of displacement for locals. And as the LCPD says, “crime is more likely to occur in densely populated areas.”
The LCPD attributes some of the increase in crime to the pandemic. “Loss of income, loss of family members and other contributing factors have negatively affected mental health. In addition to COVID-19, our community also faced four federally declared natural disasters in less than one year. That is a lot of stress …”
The LCPD seemed a bit reticent to answer some of my tough questions on local crime and instead sent me a few non-answers and statements that painted a picture of local crime through rose-colored glasses. The mood at the April 7 press conference, however, was more somber, and Chief Caldwell stressed how hard officers have worked on the Mill St. murder. However, I still sensed a shade of pink in the fact that when I asked Caldwell if the murder was a result of gang violence, he responded that the NawfSideBabies weren’t quite organized enough to be a gang. Yet the press release detailing the arrests calls the suspects an “organization.”
It’s not like the reasons for local crime are invisible. Drugs, poverty, education disparities and high gun ownership all help to contribute to a high crime rate. And Louisiana as a whole is in a unique position when it comes to these issues, as is much of the South. Samuel Stebbins, writing for 24/7 Wall St. wrote, “Rates of violence are often higher in places with limited economic opportunity, and in Lake Charles, 20.4 percent of the population live below the poverty line, and average unemployment in 2020 was 8.9 percent. This compares to the national 12.3 percent poverty rate and 8.1 percent jobless rate that year.”
Jeff Asher, a New Orleans crime analysist remarks, “We’ve got all of the problems. We just have everything that you might think would make murder more prevalent or make murder clearance rates more difficult. We have them in spades, whereas other states might be missing only one or two ingredients.”
Dr. Peter Scharf, a criminologist at LSU who studies crime in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, predicted “2022 and 2023 for both cities are going to get ugly … The drug trade, the illegal drug trade got destabilized, and what we know about destabilized drug markets is that that can increase your murder rates.” As Lake Charles is located along I-10, the illegal drug trade is alive and well in the area.
People are also leaving their jobs as police officers in droves, so there is less manpower to patrol the streets. It’s a nationwide trend and a local one. Losses can be attributed to issues such as low pay for such a dangerous job and national mistrust of police after what some are considering a new civil rights movement. The NOPD lost a whopping 130 officers in 2021.
Many violent crimes are committed by teenagers and young adults. In a report written at LSU by Lara Nocholson, Zane Piontek, Brea Rougeau and Jada Hemsely, Lt. Lane Windham, Alexandria Police Dept., said most of the homicides there “involve young people, typically from 15 to 25 years old. Most stem from drug deals or robberies gone bad or domestic abuse.”
Another problem is the amount of guns on the streets. Gun ownership rates and violent crime rates always influence each other. New Jersey has a gun ownership rate of 14.7 percent of the population, and they have the least violent crime. New York state has a gun ownership rate of 19.9 percent, and they rank No. 8 when it comes to states with the lowest violent crime. Louisiana, however has a gun ownership rate of 53.1 percent, one of the highest. While guns are used for a variety of things here, from hunting to target practice, the amount of guns circulating in society allows criminals easier access to weapons.
Homicide Clearance Rate
Clearance rates for homicides have plummeted around the nation since the beginning of the pandemic. In 2020, the NOPD solved less than a third of their homicides and Lafayette solved only 35 percent. In 2021, Lafayette rebounded, solving almost all of their cases, but other areas in Louisiana are still struggling. In Baton Rouge, clearance rates have been between 46 and 62 percent over the last two years.
The LCPD’s clearance rate from 2017 to 2021 is 98 percent.
The LCPD encourages people to become more engaged in their community and children’s lives to limit the possibility of violent crime. If you wish to help in a more direct way the LCPD says, “We invite anyone interested in a career in law enforcement to come be a part of the solution. We have openings, not just for police officers, but also for a number of civilian positions as well.”
The LCPD encourages people to become more engaged in their community and children’s lives to limit the possibility of violent crime.
They say “the single most important thing residents can do to help fight back against violent crime is to lock up and secure their weapons. Do not leave them in a vehicle and don’t leave them out in your home or business … For many of our youth, it is seen as a rite of passage to run through a neighborhood jiggling car door handles to see if one opens. Once that door opens, they grab anything they can find and here in Southwest Louisiana, many times that is a firearm.”
Security cameras and witness statements are important to solving crimes. Often, witnesses are hesitant to speak up due to fear of retaliation from the suspect. The relationships between police and communities needs to be repaired and become stronger, especial in Black communities where people of color tend not to trust police for obvious reasons.
Many people who commit violent crimes are repeat offenders. These criminals are often arrested repeatedly and released repeatedly. Every time they are released they commit a new crime, sometimes a worse crime. The nation still has not come up with a way to effectively keep these people off the street.
Scharf believes the only way to tamp down on violent crime is for police departments to hire “more highly skilled and qualified officers … Developing very skilled officers who can understand the plight people are in right now who are looking for food, looking for clothing, or looking for housing.”
It’s going to take police department reform and citizens being aware of their environment and engaging with each other and young people to tackle local and national crime.
If you wish to help in a more direct way the LCPD says, “We invite anyone interested in a career in law enforcement to come be a part of the solution. We have openings, not just for police officers, but also for a number of civilian positions as well.”