Homicide rate up in 2005

LAWRENCEVILLE - Brenda Harris used to worry about her 85-year-old father's declining health and failing eyesight, but it never crossed her mind to worry about him being killed.

Like dozens of others in Gwinnett County this year, Harris and her family found themselves blinded by grief, bewildered by anger and stricken with loss in the wake of a loved one's untimely death. According to the Gwinnett County Medical Examiner's Office, there were 34 homicides in 2005, up slightly from 32 last year.

About a third of those cases are still unsolved.

Harris' family was one of the lucky ones who received some measure of closure. The man who allegedly gunned down her father, Hubert Massey, during a predawn robbery attempt on Feb. 19 was arrested within days of the incident. Joseph David Botto, 35, is facing a possible death sentence if convicted.

"To me sometimes it seems not real," Harris said. "Never, never in my life would I have ever thought about someone being murdered in my family. I don't really know how to describe it. I don't guess anybody really thinks about that happening."

"Papa" Massey, as everyone affectionately called him, left behind an extensive family, including his wife of 66 years, three daughters, four grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren. The family makes a special effort to remember him by displaying pictures of him and reminiscing about his life.

This Christmas, Harris made a memory wreath decorated with ornaments that reminded her of her father - one with tools like the those he used to keep in his workshop, another of a Texaco gas pump like the Texaco station Massey ran as a young man. The wreath was displayed in the foyer of her home, where the entire family gathered for the holiday.

There was still an empty chair and a sense of sadness, but Harris said the family tries to remember the good times.

"I don't think that's something you'll ever really get used to. You just have to go on," Harris said.

But other families can't move on because they don't know why their relative was killed, or by whom. Unsolved cases can languish and become forgotten in a county as big as Gwinnett.

There are no detectives assigned to work solely on cold cases, said Det. Darren Moloney, spokesman for the Gwinnett County Police Department. Investigators are expected to place priority on homicide cases that have the most viable leads. Cases where all leads have been exhausted often are put on a back burner, Moloney said.

Police hope that sometime, somewhere the killer will slip up.

"Human nature for the most part is for people to brag and talk," Moloney said. "Sometimes we'll get information by some guy who heard something third-hand, and we'll work that up. Sometimes that turns out to be relevant."

Moloney said the department puts the same amount of energy into every homicide case, regardless of whether they are considered high profile with a lot of public and media interest. He stressed there is no statute of limitations on filing a murder charge, and detectives always try to return to the unsolved cases as time permits.

Gwinnett County is still safer than some of its neighbors. The homicide rate here is less than half that of DeKalb County, which had 76 slayings in 2005, according to the DeKalb Police Department's public information office.

The highest number of homicides ever recorded in Gwinnett was 37 in 2003.