Blair County crime numbers fall, but murders, drugs raise concerns

In a year during which Blair County’s crime rate dropped, the number of homicides tripled in 2012, according to unofficial data from the state police Uniform Crime Report.

The number of murders jumped from two in 2011 to six in 2012, with four of those deaths coming last month during a shooting rampage in Geeseytown.

Jeffrey Lee Michael, 44, of Hollidaysburg killed Kimberly A. Scott, 58, of Duncansville, Kenneth Lynn, 60, of Hollidaysburg and William Rhodes Jr., 38, also of Hollidaysburg, on Dec. 21.

Michael was shot to death by pursuing state troopers during a gun battle on Juniata Valley Road; his death was ruled a justifiable homicide.

It was the first time since 2008 that there have been six murders in a year in Blair County.

Overall, Blair County’s crime rate dropped 9.8 percent in 2012, the report showed.

Murders fall under Part I offenses, the most serious crimes, which fell 19 percent. The Part I drop was precipitated by a 21 percent decrease in burglaries and thefts.

Blair Township Police Chief Roger White couldn’t put a finger on the reason for the drop.

“It has something to do with officer presence. Being seen might help some,” he said.

White speculated that high gas prices and a down economy have also helped to reduce crime.

“Traffic is down. Our officers are seeing less cars than normal on their patrols,” he said. “Traffic seems to go away after 10:30, 11 at night. People aren’t out and able to commit crimes.

“The public is also helping more. We had an increase last year for suspicious vehicles and people. Residents are more aware of their surroundings and are reporting anything out of the ordinary.”

The drop in thefts helped Allegheny Township have an overall crime decrease of 19.5 percent for 2012.

“We have dedicated officers, and we’re being more visible and proactive instead of being reactive,” township Chief P. Richard Books said.

Part II crimes, including drug sales and possession, vandalism, sex offenses and driving under the influence, fell about 5.7 percent.

The number of heroin and cocaine cases investigated by Altoona police went from 107 in 2011 to 51 in 2012, in large part because of the arrests made during the “Operation Last Call” probe into alleged drug activity based out of a state prison and the Corner Bar in Altoona, Detective Sgt. Troy Johannides said.

“Cocaine is almost nonexistent,” Johannides said.

The number of drug sale offenses for narcotics other than heroin, cocaine, marijuana and synthetic drugs increased 213 percent in Altoona – partly because of a shift back to heroin.

Some heroin addicts either sell the methadone or suboxone they receive from drug treatment to continue their habits or keep the medicine and still get high, knowing they’ll take another dose of the medicine the next day, Johannides said.

“Heroin has been on the rise for the last year or two,” he said.

Eight people picked up during November and December drug sweeps in Blair County were arrested on suboxone-related charges.

Because of Operation Last Call, investigators were able to focus more on other drug cases – another reason for the 213 percent jump – Johannides said.

“We needed to take care of the heroin and cocaine cases, because there is more danger to the community with them,” he said.