2015 was Kansas City’s deadliest year for homicides since 2011

On an overcast, wind-whipped afternoon two days before Christmas, Haji Williams returned to the spot where his son was gunned down.

There, Williams planted a small, white cross adorned with a photo to memorialize where a gunman sprayed bullets into a crowd on March 13 and killed Asaan H. Williams.

“I never want this to be just another 18-year-old that everybody forgets about,” said Williams about placing the cross at 38th Street and Kensington Avenue. “I want it to be a reminder to everyone that I lost somebody special.”

The high school senior was one of 109 people killed in 2015, one of the deadliest years in recent Kansas City history.

A year after Kansas City experienced its lowest homicide total in more than four decades, a 19 percent drop from the previous year, the killings returned to their previous levels, much to the dismay of police, politicians and anti-crime advocates.

“When you look at the numbers, we always compare ourselves to other places,” Police Chief Darryl Forté said recently. “If these were the numbers we had, say, in 1992 or 1993, then they would be great numbers but not when comparing them to last year.”

Homicides in those years totaled 152 and 153 respectively.

However, the number of homicides in 2015 was the city’s highest total since 2011, when 111 people were killed. Those numbers no longer include police-involved fatal shootings, which used to be counted.

September was a particularly bad month, with 20 deaths, including the shooting deaths of a south Kansas City teenage mother, her 1-year-old son and the girl’s 18-year-old boyfriend.

The final number of homicides in September was one short of the city’s most deadly month, when 21 people were killed in August 2008.

Kansas City was not alone in seeing a rise in homicides. Cities such as St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago and Baltimore saw dramatic increases.

With 33 killings in 2015, Kansas City, Kan., experienced an increase of one homicide from 2014.

In Kansas City, it was a bad year for children, a bad year for victims of domestic violence and as a result a bad year for homicide detectives.

Authorities attribute part of the increase to domestic violence; at least 15 of the city’s total ranked as domestic-related, nearly four times as many in 2014.

Kimberly D. Hetzler, 36, who was pregnant, was among them.

Hetzler was found Jan. 20 beaten to death inside a Kansas City residence in the 1200 block of East 37th Street. Prosecutors charged her boyfriend, Morris L. Smith, with first-degree murder in her death.

Hetzler’s death remains difficult for her survivors to discuss at length.

“She lived a good life and didn’t deserve to die,” said her father, Tommy Dudley.

In 2014, much of the success in curtailing homicides was attributed to the Kansas City No Violence Alliance.

KC NoVA identifies and focuses on members of criminal groups, who historically are responsible for most of the city’s homicides.

In 2014 there was a 32 percent reduction from the previous year in the number of homicides attributed to those group members, according to Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

In 2015, based on a preliminary and ongoing analysis, Novak said, both group-related and non-group-related homicides have increased.

The 60 group-related homicides in 2015 were an increase from 46 in 2014, but still less than the 68 in 2013.

In contrast, non-group-related killings increased to 41 from 35 in 2014 and 32 from 2013.

“So while the total number of homicides in 2015 is about the same as they were in 2013, the nature of these homicides are different,” he said. “So homicides in KC are not ‘back to normal’ — the dynamics and root causes of 2015 homicides are different than three years ago.”

Seven children 16 or younger were among the victims in 2015. That was an increase from four the previous year.

Among the young victims in 2015 was 3-year-old Amorian Hale, killed when bullets were sprayed into his family’s home as he slept, and 1-year-old Joseph Fletcher, shot to death along with his teen mother and another young man.

“Those children are true innocent victims,” said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker. “Losing kids to violence is inexcusable.”

Young people between the ages of 17 and 24 were the most prevalent victims, constituting 40 percent of those killed in 2015.

Asaan Williams was among those teen victims, and Haji Williams said he had big dreams for this son.

They were to graduate on the same day last year. Williams earned a degree in social work from the University of Kansas, and Asaan was to receive a high school diploma.

Asaan, who was interested in gardening and nature, planned to join the Marines.

But that dream became a nightmare when Asaan was killed.

“When you lose a child it hurts in so many ways,” Williams said. “I don’t think we were designed to see someone we give birth to lying in a casket.”

Asaan’s murder, as well as 41 other killings, remain unsolved.

Homicide investigators cleared, or solved, 67 of last year’s killings. That gave them a 61 percent clearance rate. That compared to a 67 percent clearance rate for 2014.

Last year, many of those unsolved cases involved victims who were found inside an abandoned vehicle or sprawled on a sidewalk.

“We seem to have a lot of incidents where there is not a lot of evidence or witnesses,” said Deputy Chief Cheryl Rose, who oversees the city’s violent crimes division. “We will find a victim in a car shot and then there’s nothing, there is no video and no witnesses that we can find.”

Access to illegal firearms remains the chief concern for police and politicians. Firearms were used in 91 homicides in 2015.

“We are never going to get a complete handle on violence until we start looking at how violence is committed,” Mayor Sly James said recently. “We still have guns in the hands of people who use them for the wrong reasons and shouldn’t have them in the first place, and we still do nothing about it.”

For community activists such as Damon Daniel, executive director of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime, it’s equally important to look at the numbers that don’t change.

Once again, black males constituted the largest number of homicide victims: 63 percent in 2015.

“That number rarely changes; rather you go back a year, two years or a decade,” Daniel said. “As a community we need to create better pathways for educational success. Investing in quality early learning programs ensures Missouri children have the tools needed to succeed in school and in life.”

Glenn E. Rice: 816-234-4341, @GRicekcstar

Tony Rizzo: 816-234-4435, @trizzkc