LAWRENCEVILLE - Hyun Bloodworth decided to uproot from Peachtree City last year and head toward the suburban mushroom-cloud that is north metro Atlanta, preferably close to her family in Suwanee.
One look at the quaint sidewalks and picturesque storefronts of downtown Norcross and she was sold.
Bloodworth settled a couple miles from the village area, where the "Mexicans" who plod along highways and clutter parking lots are making her uneasy, she said. She's heard rumors of nearby burglaries but nothing so serious as murder.
But few crimes at this point would surprise her, she said.
"I'm a little worried," said Bloodworth, a jewelry distributor turned stay-at-home mom. "The whole thing with immigration ... and people are getting desperate because they're out of jobs."
If Gwinnett's homicide tally through the first quarter of 2008 is any indication, Bloodworth's concern could be justified.
Through March 31, homicide rates in the county are nearly on par with those of 2007 - a historically bloody year in which murder struck practically all pockets of Gwinnett. Officials had recorded one less homicide this year than last, as of March 31.
All told, Gwinnett incurred 50 homicides in 2007, continuing a drastic 47 percent upswing in homicide totals since 2005, according to the Medical Examiner's Office.
In 2006, the next highest year, officials recorded 41 homicides. In the last three years, only May 2005 was free of people killing each other in Gwinnett, said Chief Forensic Examiner Ted Bailey.
Even the city of Suwanee, long considered a sanctuary from urban crime, recorded a murder in 2007. It was the city's first since 1965.
"They run in cycles - you may not have any for three or four weeks," said Phil Wiley, chief assistant district attorney, whose office constantly enlists one attorney and two investigators to respond to homicides. "When you do have multiple homicides, it's part of the job. So we deal with it."
Of the county's 50 homicides last year, 41 are being handled by the Gwinnett County Police Department.
Of those, 22 remain unsolved.
Several of the unsolved killings "have active leads and are being pursued," said Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Robert Rude.
Officials generally attribute the spike in homicides to the county's exponential growth. But through decades of residential boom, the homicide rate remained relatively constant, until a sharp uptick happened "about 2000 when (homicides) began to increase rapidly each year," said Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter.
The turn-of-the-century pivot in homicides isn't wholly a local phenomenon.
Dr. Volkan Topalli, an associate professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University, said after years of stagnation, homicide counts nationwide are trending upward, especially in the South.
"And they will continue to be that way for some time," he said.
Does weather contribute?
Though Topalli points to an abundance of reasons why people kill - social, economic and behavioral factors - the weather is a traditional culprit. Dubbed "the heat hypothesis," trends show violent crimes, such as homicide, increase as the weather gets warmer, he said.
Put simply, people spend more time outdoors interacting when the weather is warm. Their chances to commit or fall victim to a crime are thus increased.
"In the winter, no one leaves their home because it's freezing," he said. "Just as you're less likely to fall in love in the wintertime, you're less likely to be a victim of a crime."
Topalli's theory usually holds true in Gwinnett, said Wiley, the Chief Assistant District Attorney. But just as summer months are prone to flaring tempers, winter holidays bring their own murderous stimuli, he said.
"During the holiday season, you always have some problems," Wiley said. "People get depressed when they can't buy gifts, or they start drinking too much."
Of 125 homicides in Gwinnett over the last three years, 54 killings (or 43 percent) have occurred in the hot-weather core of May to September. As for the single bloodiest month - both February and August have tallied 15 homicides in that time span.
Shock factor remains
John Heinen, an inspector with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, has worked hundreds of homicide cases. He's still taken with the "senselessness" of every slaying.
"Most of your homicides are not thoroughly planned out," he said. "It's a quick solution to the problem that presents itself."
So why, out of the hundreds of options available in a situation - the "A to Z," as Heinen calls it - do people choose to kill?
"It's a thought process," he said. "When you're in a heated dispute or whatever the situation is, you don't think as calculated as you would, say, choosing what color car to buy. It distorts your thought process.
"It's poor decisions at the last minute that lead to a lot of deaths."
Georgia State's Topalli says homicides are the "rarest" of violent crimes, and make up only a small portion of annual crime statistics.
Unlike, say, bank robbery, murder is a sporadic and sometimes spontaneous crime, making it difficult to quell, said Porter.
"Other than aggressive prosecution, there's very little that can be done to curb the homicide rate from the perspective of my office," said the District Attorney.
In order to dent Gwinnett's upward homicide trend, Porter said officials would have to enact comprehensive programs targeting domestic violence and gang membership. In addition, he'd call for increased drug enforcement, focusing on both distribution networks and street-level drugs.
"This would involve at least tripling the size of the current drug task force," said Porter. "Even then, I'm not at all sure that we'd be able to reach the people who commit these crimes."
Despite the ominous statistics, Gwinnett's reputation among its neighbors isn't entirely bruised.
A trifecta of young mothers - from Snellville, Decatur and Forsyth County - frequently meet at Norcross' Thrasher Park to watch their children scurry across playground equipment. They first met each other in church.
They now congregate on weekday mornings in Norcross, attracted by the downtown area's tranquility. Their kids get a kick out of watching the Norfolk Southern trains rumble by.
Record homicide rates are the furthest thing from their minds.
"It's a huge county, so it's hard to think there'd be one characteristic to define it," said Cathryn Williams, of Forsyth County, speaking about Gwinnett.
"I've always heard positive things" about Gwinnett, said Vivi Weaver, of Decatur, "that it's clean and the schools are good."
Murder vs. homicide: What's the difference?
By Josh Green
Contrary to popular logic, the words "murder" and "homicide" are not interchangeable.
Murder and homicide both describe the act of killing another human being, but circumstances surrounding the charges vary.
Homicide refers to any killing of another person. This includes accidental shootings, justified killings in self-defense, or a killing while committing a misdemeanor, otherwise known as involuntary manslaughter, for example.
Murder is different. A murder is the unlawful killing of another person "with malice aforethought or in the commission of a felony," as Danny Porter, Gwinnett District Attorney, puts it.
That means a homicide is always a killing, but may not always be a murder.
Sources: Random House Unabridged Dictionary; Gwinnett County District Attorney's Office.
New statistics shed light on violent homicides
By Alex P. Joyner
Violent death data released this past week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives context to the nation's homicidal tendencies.
Based on 2005 data taken from 16 states - including Georgia - the report states:
· Most often, homicides were triggered by an argument over something other than money or property, or in conjunction with another crime.
· Nineteen percent of all homicides were triggered by "IPV," or intimate partner violence.
· Fifty-two percent of all female homicides were precipitated by IPV, compared with 9 percent of male homicides.
· Other than suicide, the majority of violent deaths were homicide.
· People's homes were the most common location of violent death for all manners of death (homicide, suicide, violent deaths of undetermined intent and unintentional firearm deaths).
Collected by the CDC's National Violent Death Reporting System, violent death data is gleaned from death certificates, medical examiner reports, and law enforcement reports. Its purpose, officials say, is to educate the public on preventative methods.