Don't blame cabin fever for wave of Eastern Iowa crimes

Homicides in C.R., Tama County connected to many factors, experts contend

Plows clear Third Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids after several inches of snow fell on Feb. 17. Eastern Iowa has experienced m
Plows clear Third Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids after several inches of snow fell on Feb. 17. Eastern Iowa has experienced more than two dozen days since the beginning of January that have seen the temperatures dip below zero degrees. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A string of seven homicides, including two murder-suicides, in the past four weeks have people in the Corridor looking for reasons why.

Some have suggested a form of cabin fever, that the bitterly cold winter has locked people in close quarters and pushed some already troubled individuals to a breaking point. Others pointed to access to guns or to changes in the availability of mental-health services.

"Most people look for a single explanation or cause of crimes, especially murders," said Matt DeLisi, a professor and coordinator of Criminal Justice Studies at Iowa State University. "The reality is that dozens, maybe hundreds of individual, social and contextual factors ultimately cause behavior."

Eastern Iowa has seen a high number of examples in the past four weeks.

  • On Jan. 30 in Cedar Rapids, Robert Livingston, 47, entered the home of his mother-in-law, Linda Huber, 73,and shot Huber and his wife, Ingrid Huber Livingston, 41, before shooting himself, police said.  Two days before that shooting, he had sought help for an emotional crisis, according to police, and his wife recently had moved out of their family home with their two daughters. 
  • On Feb. 4, Clifton Sparks, 31, was found lying in the street in Cedar Rapids in the 1800 block of B Avenue NE. Police have not released many details of his death but are treating it as a homicide.
  • At the Meskwaki Settlement in Tama County, Gordon Lasley, Jr., 25, used a machete to kill his parents, Kim and Gordon Lasley Sr., on Feb. 5, he told police.
  • On Feb. 21, Dennis L. Koopman, 54, shot and killed his estranged wife, LuElla, 52, police reported. Koopman then shot himself.
  • And this past Monday also at the Meskwaki Settlement, Jonathan C. Youngbear, 20, fatally stabbed Severn D. Jefferson, 17, after a drug and alcohol binge, according to law enforcement officials.

These events may not raise eyebrows in large metropolitan areas, but here they are hard to fathom. The homicides in Cedar Rapids alone tally more than in any full year since 2006 for that city, when six people died by the hands of others.

"I don't think it's happened before in this close proximity to one another," noted Greg Buelow, Cedar Rapids Police Public Safety communications coordinator, citing murder-suicides in particular. "It is definitely an aberration that it has happened."

Is the long spell of cold weather to blame? There have been 25 days since the beginning of January that have seen the temperatures dip below zero degrees.

Not likely, said Kathleen Staley, an associate director with University Counseling Service in Iowa City.

"The whole notion of being cooped up a little more, people frustrated with the weather, I think that can contribute to some conflict," Staley said, speaking in general without knowledge of the criminal cases. "Maybe you explode a little more, but I don't think you can say it's the cause. Still, being cooped up doesn't help."

The statewide Iowa Domestic Violence Hotline received 102 calls in January, up 25 percent from 81 in January 2013, according to statistics from Children and Families of Iowa in Des Moines.

But there have been fewer domestic abuse arrests in Cedar Rapids thus far in 2014, at 71, compared to the same period in 2013, when there were 76. In Iowa City, there's the exact same number from year to year — 18.

"We do wonder if people's patience is shot with this winter," Buelow said. "It's been cold, snow, cold, snow. cold, snow. You can tell people are frustrated with the weather, but then again people elsewhere aren't going out and killing people."

In contrast to Cedar Rapids, many places around Iowa and the country, murders in fact are down or flat in 2014 compared to the same period in 2013.

For the state, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation reports it has been involved in eight death cases this year, including the two in Meskwaki, compared to 10 for the same period in 2013.

An Iowa Department of Public Safety report analyzing murders by month in Iowa from 2005-2009 showed an average of 3.6 murders in January and 4.2 in February, roughly in the middle of the pack. July was highest for that period, with 5.8.

"Cedar Rapids still has very few homicides, even though it seems like many are occurring due to last year's pace," DeLisi said. "And while large cities have seen crime declines, they still experience hundreds of murders each year."

The incidents came as mental health professionals and public officials are considering what mental-health services are needed in the area.

Dr. Alan Whitters, director of behavioral services at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids, noted in a Feb. 16 Gazette story that mental-health patients "were not well-served by the closing of the Abbe Center" for Community Care in September 2013. The Abbe Center had provided residential placement for more difficult cases.

Kirsten Faisal, director of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Des Moines, said that the recent incidents should serve as a wake-up call to pay more attention for warning signs both from potential victims and aggressors."These homicides are almost never out of the blue," Faisal said. "There are signs. In many cases they say something. It's hard to wrap our heads around it when someone you love is in danger. We poo-poo it. (But) if we take it seriously, then we can start to think about how to make them safer."

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