Meth Fatalities

Methamphetamine is number-one with a bullet when it comes to violent death in Phoenix

That means authorities aren't able to test a suspect's blood for meth or any other substance in a timely manner, if at all. But in many cases, such as in the May 10 execution of Phoenix police officer David Uribe, detectives become aware that methamphetamine is a big piece of the investigative puzzle.

The evidence is overwhelming that the accused cop killers were meth freaks for whom the drug long had been a way of life.

The fact that Maricopa County's murder rate continues to be one of the nation's highest isn't exclusively because of the onslaught of meth use. Alcohol, crack cocaine and other variables also have caused citizens to become instruments of violence. But the impact of methamphetamine in the stark world of homicide cannot be denied.

"It's all about meth," Detective Femenia says. "Yeah, there's alcohol mixed in, and crack cocaine still pops up here and there. And sometimes, someone just gets pissed off at someone else and kills them. But we know what we're seeing in terms of an increase in murders where meth is involved, and it ain't pretty."

One of many cases in which meth allegedly provided the actual motive for murder happened in September 2004, when three young Phoenix residents were shot to death in their condo near Seventh Street and Bethany Home Road.

A year later, last September 13, police arrested 22-year-old Michael Craig Walton on first-degree homicide charges. Prosecutors have alleged that Walton murdered the trio after smoking meth with them, then stole the remaining stash and some money. (The murderer also shot a pit bull in the head, but the dog survived.)

Toxicological testing by the medical examiner confirms that the victims -- two men and a woman -- had used meth shortly before they were murdered.

"This is a perfect example of the violence that goes hand-in-hand with that kind of drug," Phoenix police Detective Tony Morales said shortly after the murders.

New Times' research on death by meth shows that far more murder victims have been dying with methamphetamine in their blood this year than last year. This year's victims have had meth in them more than any other substance, including the traditional standbys alcohol and cocaine.

For example, last May -- the month that Joey Borunda died -- eight of 21 murder victims in Phoenix had meth in them when they died, or almost four in 10 victims. By comparison, only two of Phoenix's 13 murder victims died after ingesting meth in May 2004.

The New Timesresearch suggests that the May 2005 statistics are no aberration.

Of the 115 murders in Phoenix in the first six months of this year, 38 people -- at least one in three victims -- had methamphetamine in them.

That was a distinct increase over the approximately one in four of the murder victims during the first six months of 2004 that had ingested meth, or 26 of 110.

During the first half of this year, 22 of the 115 murder victims died after using cocaine, 26 had been drinking alcohol and 32 had nothing in their systems. (Toxicological tests on 11 of the 115 victims remain unavailable, so overall numbers aren't precise. In some instances, victims had more than one substance in their bodies when they died.)

In other words, methamphetamine is number-one with a bullet when it comes to murder in Phoenix.

And consider this stunning fact:

All but three of the 22 people shot by Phoenix police in 2004 (14 of whom died) had meth in them at the time.

And every one of the eight people shot by the Phoenix cops in the first six months this year (six of whom died) had consumed meth shortly before they were shot.

Those few who engaged in violent clashes with city police and didn't have meth and/or alcohol in their systems had long histories of serious mental illness.

That list includes Douglas Tatar, who murdered police officers Jason Wolfe and Eric White in August 2004 at the Northern Point Apartments in north Phoenix. The 29-year-old Tatar committed suicide at the scene.

The New Times research also shows that people dying of meth-related reasons who haven'tbeen murdered has been rising at a faster pace.

Forty-nine people in Maricopa County died in the first six months of this year of methamphetamine overdoses, meth-related heart attacks and hemorrhages.

That was almost double the number of similar deaths for the same reasons from January through June 2004. It's been a dramatic upswing, even when accounting for Phoenix's 3 percent increase in population from 2004 to 2005.

"Deaths from methamphetamine use have been on a very steady rise for about five years or so," says Norm Wade, Maricopa County's chief toxicologist. "But what's really troubling is, we've been seeing a much higher incidence in the last year or so. I'm not just talking about homicides. A rule of thumb is, if you want to survive for a while and you have any kind of medical condition at all, don't do meth."

Dr. Frank LoVecchio says 95 percent of the people checking into Banner Good Samaritan Regional Hospital's emergency room complaining of shortness of breath and showing signs of agitation and excited speech are on meth.

"It's almost all methamphetamine right now, far more than crack or anything else," says LoVecchio, the medical director of Good Sam's Poison Control Center and an emergency-room doctor at the hospital. "We see meth overdoses on a regular basis, and in all ages and ethnic groups. People will come in denying at first that they've ingested anything, before they may finally own up to it."

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