With a few days still left in January, Merced County has already seen five homicides but law enforcement officials say the county remains a safe place.
The deadly month may appear to be setting a pace that would mark Merced County’s most violent year on record, but law enforcement officials said violent deaths can’t be predicted that way. Non-gang-related violence is notoriously difficult to forecast and prevent.
Violence committed by a friend, loved one or acquaintance often happens in the heat of passion.
“Those are times that it’s such an isolated incident,” Sheriff Vern Warnke said. “A lot of times these happen in somebody’s home. We can’t go patrol in somebody’s home.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
There were 20 homicides in 2017 and 15 in 2018. The nine total homicides in 2016 was the lowest mark in Merced County in about 20 years and the first time since 2001 that homicides failed to reach double digits.
Law enforcement officials described 2016’s homicide total as significant progress after homicides countywide reached 30 or more each year for the three years prior, the deadliest period on record for violent deaths in Merced County’s history.
Of Merced County’s five homicides this month, law enforcement officials have described two as being possibly gang-related. The crimes this month in the unincorporated parts of the county involved targeted victims, and aren’t a reflection of how safe it is to be out in Merced County, Warnke said.
“The ones we had were very specific targets. It’s not random,” he said.
The first killing of the year came about 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day when 55-year-old Gardner Leroy Keys was shot to death at a homeless encampment near East Mission Avenue and Highway 99, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
A separate shooting accounted for the second slaying. Investigators said 23-year-old Elias Vivancho Jr. of Dos Palos was killed during a party in the 21000 block of Reynolds Avenue in Dos Palos about 2 a.m. on Jan. 19.
A man found at 12:43 p.m. on Jan. 23 in a mostly dry canal in the area of Cressey Way and Mercedes Avenue was identified Tuesday as 48-year-old Salvador Castillo Gonzalez of Winton, the Coroner’s Office said.
The city of Merced saw two homicides in 24 hours on Friday, and police have made an arrest related to one of them. A 34-year-old man was killed in an apparent home invasion robbery shortly after midnight in the 400 block of Tucolay Court, according to Merced police.
The victim in the Tucolay Court shooting was identified as Lajawn Cokley of Merced on Tuesday by the Merced County Coroner’s Office. Merced police arrested 28-year-old James Martin in Oakland in connection with that case after a vehicle pursuit that ended in a crash.
The other homicide was in the 4300 block of Bixby Way near Bancroft Drive in north Merced. Police arrived at about 6:15 p.m. for a welfare check after the 50-year-old victim did not show up to work that day. He was identified as Jeff Bergeron of Merced on Tuesday by the Coroner’s Office.
Neither of the homicides in Merced appear to have been gang-related, according to Merced Police Chief Chris Goodwin. The city had two homicides in all of 2018, and in one of those cases the deceased was killed by a homeowner who was defending himself after someone tried to force his way into a home.
Goodwin said patrols and other efforts can help suppress gang violence, but crimes of passion are much more difficult to prevent.
“It could be personal. ... We don’t get the lead up to it,” he said. “I think (Merced) is safe.”
No arrests have been made in the north Merced slaying, nor have any arrests been made in the three other homicides, which are being investigated by the Sheriff’s Office.