With only a week to go, Maine is on track to see a record low number of homicides for 2000, barring an unusual surge over the next few days.
So far, the state has recorded 11 homicides, which is less than half the average of 26 since the state began keeping detailed records 30 years ago.
The previous low was 16 in 1993.
Law enforcement officials are heartened by the numbers, though they don’t necessarily have an explanation.
“It’s too early to say if there’s a trend,” said Col. Michael Sperry, who heads the Maine State Police. “Let’s see what next year’s statistics look like and see if they continue to improve. I’m cautiously optimistic.”
There were 25 homicides last year, 26 in 1998 and 19 in 1997. The worst year on record was 1989, with 40 homicides.
The homicide rate in Maine has been less than half of the national average in recent years, according to the FBI.
For the last three years, roughly six people per 100,000 have been killed every year nationwide, the FBI said. Maine’s homicide rate, however, has averaged about two people per 100,000.
As in other years, domestic violence has accounted for the majority of homicides in Maine. Of the 11 homicides so far in 2000, five involved couples and one involved a father and son.
That’s consistent with statistics from the Augusta Family Violence Project that show domestic cases have accounted for more than half of the state’s homicides between 1996 and 1999.
In 2000, the trend continued in Swanville, where Brenda Gray-Knost was shot and killed by an ex-boyfriend, John Johnston, after he broke into her home. Johnston committed suicide.
In Camden, Paul Turnbull fatally shot Kimberly Palmer before killing himself. Friends said she wanted to end the yearlong relationship.
In Township 10, Malia Lowry was accused of being jealous of her boyfriend’s relationship with another woman and murdering him. Lowry says the death of Robert Leighton was part of a suicide pact gone awry.
In Greenbush, a couple with a history of domestic violence was found dead on their lawn. Police say Robert Grindal shot his wife, Linda, in the back five times before killing himself.
The trend has captured the attention of Gov. Angus King, who proclaimed domestic violence Maine’s “Public Enemy No. 1” last year.
“You can hardly talk to someone in the state who doesn’t know someone who has had experience with domestic violence. And that’s disturbing,” said Sperry, a former state police homicide detective.
The message appears to be getting across. Laws have made it easier for women to escape abusive relationships and for police to make arrests. And people seem to be taking the issue more seriously, domestic abuse counselors say.
This winter, law enforcement agencies across Maine will get a boost when all protective orders go into an electronic file that can be accessed instantly by state and local police officers across the state, Sperry said.
Nationally, among homicides in recent years where the relationship between the victim and perpetrator was known, about a fifth of the victims were killed by strangers, the FBI said. Couples, both married and unmarried, accounted for roughly 15 percent of the cases. Family members other than spouses, meanwhile, made up roughly 12 to 13 percent.
In Maine, nearly all the victims knew their alleged killers, but there was one notable exception in 2000. Seventy-four-year-old Chester Doudey of Phoenix died after being robbed and beaten by strangers after arriving in Calais on a bus.
Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Public Safety Department, said one homicide is too many, but is still thankful for the low number this year.
“There is no common thread and no trend that we can put our hands on,” said McCausland. But, he added: “We’ll take it.”