Benton County homicides reach 10-year high

Benton County Coroner Bill Leach said the officer investigated seven homicides in 2018.
Benton County Coroner Bill Leach said the officer investigated seven homicides in 2018. Tri-City Herald

Police and sheriff’s deputies investigated more homicides last year than in the past 10 years.

The Benton County Coroner’s Office said seven people died by homicide in 2018, including two murder-suicides, four shootings and one strangulation.

In recent years, there were six homicides each in 2011, 2013 and 2014.

The coroner’s office reviewed 1,075 deaths, fewer than the 1,174 the previous year, most of them from natural causes.

The office checks on any death, including those in hospice care, people in the hospital for less than three days or anytime someone dies outside of a hospital, said Coroner Bill Leach.

Leach recently stepped into the role after working as a deputy coroner for about five years. While he’s still getting settled into the role, he is looking at increasing public outreach programs, especially around suicide prevention.

The number of suicides, which reached a 10-year high in 2017 of 48, declined to 32 last year.

That is still at the high end of what was more common for the past 10 years.

Fifteen of the suicides involved guns while 10 others were hangings. There also were four drug overdoses, two cases of asphyxiation and one death by cutting, he said.

Accidental deaths

Sixteen people died in vehicle crashes.

In Kennewick, Leonel Z. Birrueta, 31, was hit and killed while riding a moped after Katie L. Summers took a left turn in front of him, say investigators.

Summers is charged with vehicular homicide after she admitted to smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol that day.

The county also had 18 drug overdoses, 11 people died after a fall and two drownings.

2018 homicides

The first homicide of the year was Feb. 10 when Amy S. Brown shot her friend Amanda Hill twice with a revolver outside of Brown’s Prosser home during a birthday party, according to court records.

The rural area around Prosser was the site of the year’s second murder, and the first of two murder-suicides. Teresa Meraz-Cisneros, 39, was shot several times in a vineyard by her husband, Heriberto Martinez-Sanchez. The 46-year-old Mabton man then turned the gun on himself.

In June, Douglas Conner, 50, allegedly took his girlfriend hostage in a Benton City home and triggered a three-hour standoff. It ended when a Tri-City Regional SWAT team sniper shot and killed him.

In early October, an argument that started on social media boiled over when Hakim Omar Ward and Devan L. Thompson began arguing in Kennewick. Thompson fired toward the ground, hitting and killing Ward.

Weeks later, two men were inside of a Yelm Street home shot and killed 18-year-old Hunter Black, Kennewick police said. Police have not arrested anyone in connection to the murder.

On Halloween, Dustin A. G. Altshuler, 37, who was facing criminal charges for groping a female taxi driver, shot his wife Laura R. Cole, 35, before turning the gun on himself. Both were educators.

Finally, in December William C. Lee, 24, allegedly strangled Alisa J. Brewer, 53, in a West Richland home. He’s charged with first-degree murder and is awaiting trial.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.