ST. PAUL — Damone Presley Sr. is still haunted by the question of “Why?”

Why would someone shoot his 30-year-old daughter and her three friends in St. Paul, and leave them in a Wisconsin cornfield?

Two men are charged in the September quadruple homicide and a court document says the alleged shooter told his father “he snapped,” which is no explanation to Presley.

“It was a devilish deed for no reason,” he said recently. “I’m looking for some answer as to what was going on in this person’s thinking.”

Nitosha Flug-Presley was among 35 homicide victims in St. Paul this year, the most on record in the city. Police have cleared 30 of the cases, but even when the motives are known, they often seem senseless.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

And another question persists: Why has the homicide rate increased in St. Paul in recent years?

RELATED: Charges: Shooter told dad he ‘snapped,’ killed 4, drove around with bodies for hours

'Using guns to solve disputes'

There were 34 homicides in St. Paul last year, which matched the record set in 1992. Homicides started climbing in 2019 with 30 cases. In the 20 years prior, St. Paul averaged 16 homicides a year.

“There’s certainly more guns in the hands of people who shouldn’t be carrying guns and they’re using those guns to solve disputes,” said St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell. “We have more shots-fired than we’ve ever observed in our city and more people injured by gunfire than we’ve ever had in our city.”

Most of the suspects have “a clear pattern of previous criminal activity,” Axtell said. He said the criminal justice system needs to be accountable every step of the way — from the first 911 call through sentencing.

“It’s a team effort and and if we all have our core value of protecting victims, we will be much more likely to prevent future crimes by holding people accountable for committing violent crimes,” he said.

Crime down overall

While crime overall was down 6% in St. Paul through mid-December compared with the same period last year, reports of shots-fired without injuries were up 5%, to 2,356. There were 196 people wounded in shootings as of Tuesday and 28 fatally shot; throughout last year, shootings injured 192 and killed 28 in St. Paul.

There had been 93 homicides in Minneapolis as of Wednesday, Dec. 22, according to police records. The record was 97 in 1995.

Minnesota marked the most homicides last year — 183, up two from the previous high in 1995, according to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Nationally, homicides in 2020 increased nearly 30% over the previous year, the largest one-year jump since the FBI began keeping records.

During the first three quarters of this year, homicide rates declined from highs seen in the summer of 2020 but were still above the levels of the prior three years, according to a Council on Criminal Justice report, which notes that nationally they “remain well below the historical peaks seen in the early 1990s.”

The effects from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, availability of firearms on the streets, police-community relations since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, and police staffing are potential factors, said Richard Rosenfeld, author of the national reports and professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Other crime categories in St. Paul have been a mixed bag this year. Domestic assault reports were up 15% and rape reports increased 10% through mid-December, compared with the same time last year. Robbery reports were down 29% and aggravated assault reports fell almost 8%. Most reports of property crime decreased — residential burglaries by 23% and auto theft by 11%, according to police records.

Minor disputes turn deadly

Jarrid Neadeau-Lyons, left, Lavonte Baymon-Love and Mike Ryan were killed in separate homicides in St. Paul in 2021.
Contributed via St. Paul Pioneer Press
Jarrid Neadeau-Lyons, left, Lavonte Baymon-Love and Mike Ryan were killed in separate homicides in St. Paul in 2021. Contributed via St. Paul Pioneer Press

When motives could be determined in this year’s St. Paul homicides, based on allegations in court documents: 10 people died in domestic or family violence situations; two were marijuana deals that turned into shootings; four involved robberies or attempted robberies; and seven were disputes — at least one was reportedly long-standing. But most were fleeting interactions.

That appeared to be the case for Mike Ryan, 48, head coach of the Bloomington Jefferson Jaguars girls hockey team, who had a verbal confrontation with a man who then allegedly punched him, causing him to fall down a flight of stairs in April; Lavonte Baymon-Love, 18, who was driving when a man in another vehicle allegedly shot him; and Jarrid Neadeau-Lyons, 22, who was defending his girlfriend from a man during a brief encounter at a gas station when the man allegedly shot him.

RELATED: High school hockey coach dies after dispute over social distancing turned violent at St. Paul bar

“Lots of homicides, no matter when you look, stem from incidents that … seem to be relatively minor — disputes and signs of disrespect, so that’s not really a big qualitative change,” Rosenfeld said. “But there is a great deal of evidence that … people are more on edge.”

Mark Campbell, interim director of the Healing Streets Project, thinks the pandemic has people feeling trapped and on edge. One man who was shot later told a Healing Streets mediator that he used to see the person who did it “all the time and they never had an issue or problem until that day, when it just escalated and felt like it came out of nowhere,” according to Campbell.

Family violence homicides

Three of the people killed this year were children — Melody Vang, 2, whose mother is charged with murder; and siblings Ja’Corbie Wallace, 11, and La’Porsha Wallace, 14, whose mother’s ex-boyfriend fatally shot them and their mother, D’Zondria Wallace, 30.

RELATED: Charges: Suspect in St. Paul triple homicide told police he killed mother, two children

Across the state, there were approximately 30 domestic violence-related homicides this year, which is similar to last year’s number, said Becky Smith, Violence Free Minnesota interim executive director. There were an average of 23 domestic violence-related homicides a year between 2015 and 2019, based on Violence Free Minnesota statistics.

The pandemic has brought continued isolation, including the ability to see health care providers in person, which can be places where people report domestic violence, Smith said.

Some local nonprofit organizations have reported a 40% increase in demand for domestic violence services and, at the same time, the organizations “are being confronted with pretty extreme staffing barriers, funding shortfalls,” Smith said. “We’re very concerned about the needs that exist in our communities — we can’t look away from the impact of COVID on people who are navigating violence.”

As government agencies decide how to use American Rescue Plan funding, Smith urges them to prioritize domestic and sexual violence service providers.

D’Zondria Wallace, 30, and her 11-year-old son Ja’Corbie. (Courtesy photo)
D’Zondria Wallace, 30, and her 11-year-old son Ja’Corbie. (Courtesy photo)

High solve rate in St. Paul homicides

Minnesota law enforcement’s clearance rate for homicides last year was 65%, according to the BCA. In St. Paul, investigators consider nearly 86% of the cases solved this year.

Axtell said he made the “strategic decision” to more adequately staff the homicide unit in 2019, when the number of cases began to rise. He added two more investigators in the fall of 2019 and an additional three in the winter of 2020. There are now 17 investigators in the unit, which also investigates non-fatal shootings, serious assaults and robberies.

“When we invest in criminal investigations, cases are solved at much higher rates,” said Axtell, who noted that transferring investigators into the homicide unit came “at a cost to other investigative units.”

And the number of homicides is a strain on the department as a whole — around 30 patrol officers respond to homicide scenes to render aid, secure the scene, look for evidence and witnesses and search for suspects, along with staff from the forensic services and video management units who collect evidence and surveillance videos.

“The last two years have been devastating for our city,” Axtell said. “People talk about the number of homicides, but we don’t look at it that way. We know that behind every number is a person, a life cut short and a family left with a void that can never be filled. Our job is to help them begin to heal and find the person responsible for their loss.”

Remembering Marquisha

Marquisha Wiley
Contributed by family / via St. Paul Pioneer Press
Marquisha Wiley Contributed by family / via St. Paul Pioneer Press

There were double, triple and quadruple homicides in St. Paul this year. The shooting with the most victims in the city’s history happened in October. It allegedly stemmed from domestic violence, though the woman killed was an innocent bystander. There were also 15 people wounded.

Marquisha Wiley, who was known as KiKi, loved being a veterinary technician and getting together with her friends after a long week of work. That’s what they were doing on a Saturday night.

She “was truly beautiful inside and out,” according to Beth Wiley, Marquisha’s mom, who wrote down her memories because it’s too difficult for her to talk about her daughter without crying. “She led her life with her heart on her sleeve and her sweet shy smile on her face. She always wanted to make sure everyone close to her was OK and happy.”

RELATED:

Marquisha was sitting at a table, which turned out to be “right in the middle of crossfire,” Wiley said. Two of her close friends were also shot. Marquisha’s 24-year-old brother desperately tried to help her, as did her boyfriend, her best friend and a close friend.

The family that Marquisha so valued has been forever changed.

“We lost a huge part of our family,” Wiley wrote. “We are all still extremely broken, lost and heavy hearted as we try to accept this extreme pain. KiKi was an innocent victim of senseless unnecessary gun violence that never needed to happen. Our hearts go out to all of the victims that night and their families who are also hurting as they try to help their loved ones make sense of all of this. How do we keep our loved ones safe when anyone can have a gun and shoot it anywhere?”

Getting to root causes

The Council on Criminal Justice report suggests cities “should redouble efforts to deploy hot-spot strategies that focus on those areas where the violence is concentrated. The anti-violence initiatives of street outreach workers … who engage directly with those at the highest risk for violence must also be strengthened and sustained.”

That’s the focus of the Healing Streets Project, which is primarily funded by St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health.

“There’s the phrase that ‘Hurt people hurt people,’ so even the people who are committing these acts of violence, which are hurtful, are in a space where they need help and support as well,” Campbell said. They also work with victims and their families.

Healing Streets hired four community mediators this year, and their work includes going to shooting scenes after the police arrive. They talk to community members in the area, saying, “We know this is a horrible incident. How can we support you now?” Campbell said.

After one shooting, a staff member “had lots of conversations and communication” and was “able to put out fires, where one family was going to go after another family” in retaliation, Campbell said. They were able to get people involved in the project’s grief groups.

Issues of conflict

The Ramsey County Board last week approved hiring 40 staffers to support violence-prevention initiatives using about $4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding next year. The plan includes adding 20 social workers for co-responses with law enforcement, eight 911 call takers, and four more community mediators for Healing Streets.

Next year’s St. Paul budget includes about $3.1 million for community-first public safety initiatives, including a new Office of Neighborhood Safety to coordinate the efforts. The St. Paul Fire Department is slated to launch a rapid-response team to embed social workers and mental health counselors to accompany them on some calls. The budget also includes a contingency fund for a second police academy, with the goal of keeping up with hiring to avoid big dips from officer departures.

Presley, who has long been involved in neighborhood organizing, said he felt moved to start working as a violence-prevention case manager after his daughter was killed.

Flug-Presley and the man charged with her murder, Antoine Suggs, had a “thing” and he would fly in from Arizona to see her, a relative told authorities. Also killed were Flug-Presley’s friend, Jasmine Christine Sturm; Sturm’s brother, Matthew Isiah Pettus; and Sturm’s boyfriend, Loyace Foreman III. Their bodies were found in a vehicle left in a Dunn County, Wisconsin, cornfield.

Presley has felt the pain of his daughter’s loss, and how her siblings and her children, ages 4 and 11, are trying to cope.

“It’s about working to get young people away from these guns and self-reflecting on how we can address these issues of conflicts involving a pistol, when there should be communication or conflict resolution,” he said.