Lake County Coroner Merrilee Frey

Lake County Coroner Merrilee Frey is pictured.

GARY — It is shaping up to be an average year for the deadly trade in this city's violent streets.

Lake County Coroner Merrilee Frey said her office has recorded 24 homicides in the city for the first six months of this year. All but two were gunshot victims. That compares with 23 killings in the first half of last year, Frey said. Firearms played a role in 17 of those cases.

In fact, Gary has been averaging 48 murders a year between 2007 and 2016, the most recent year available in the FBI uniform crime statistics as reported by Gary police.

U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirsch II said he has designated Gary as one of the northern Indiana cities that will be the focus of Project Safe Neighborhoods efforts by his office against the most violent criminals in the most violent areas. The other is South Bend.

He said he is hiring additional attorneys to focus on prosecuting violent regional criminals.

"Reducing violent crime in this district is a top priority of my office. We cannot tolerate gang violence and firearms offenses in Gary," Kirsch said. "We are prosecuting an increasing number of violent crimes, which includes firearms and gang-involved crime."

Lake County Sheriff Oscar Martinez, whose department commits a large portion of its law enforcement resources to assisting Gary, said causes behind this carnage are many.

"There is no simple answer to explain the number of homicides and shootings we have seen this year. They occur for different reasons, including gang violence and domestic violence," Martinez said.

"Typically, we do see the number of shootings increase and peak during the summer months. The greater number of outdoor activities, coupled with alcohol consumption and drug use contribute to these situations. Another contributing factor is the increased violence in Chicago that spills over into Northwest Indiana."

As bad as it is now, it has been worse, according to public safety officials. Gary averaged 50 homicides a year in the last half of the 1980s. That grew to 84 homicides annually during the 1990s, and declined only to 60 a year between 2000 and 2009, the FBI reports.

That adds up to more than 2,000 having fallen to violence since 1985.

Lake County coroner second-busiest in state

Frey said homicides keep her office one of the busiest of Indiana's 92 county coroners. "We are second only to Marion County (Indianapolis) in terms of cases, and crime is the cause of that," she said.

"Our office is typically at a homicide scene from two to three hours. We work closely with law enforcement, especially the (sheriff's) crime lab, to make sure everything is documented.

"An autopsy can take about two hours with attention to detail, especially when it is a gunshot wound," she said, adding they have so many homicide victims she pays her pathologists by the day, rather than by the case to get what amounts to a bulk rate for autopsies.

"Many coroners don't require a pathologist every day, so they pay about $2,000 to $2,500 per case. We pay pathologists by the day, which amounts to about $1,100 per case."

Porter County Coroner Chuck Harris said he pays his pathologists a flat fee of about $2,200 per case. LaPorte County Coroner Robert Cutler said the cost per case for his office ranges between $2,500 to $3,000. "We don't have near the number of cases," he said.

Martinez said, "The Lake County Sheriff's Department's approach is prevention first, then apprehension.

"We have opened up the previous patrol districts to allow officers to patrol the incorporated areas of Gary within a reasonable distance of the unincorporated (Calumet Township) areas. Often, just the presence of a marked Lake County police car in the area can prevent a crime before it occurs," he said.

Other tactics used to fight, deter crime

The sheriff assigns a High Crime Unit to areas that have seen increased crime to get the guns and drugs that fuel much of the killing off the streets, and has taken part in the formation of the Metro Homicide Unit, a group of detectives specializing in homicide investigations. The sheriff's crime forensic laboratory, aviation and marine units and tactical team also contribute to Gary's crime fight.

He also deploys a Lake County Drug Task Force of undercover officers and informants to disrupt illicit substance sales. June 29, the unit and state police conducted a blitz of Gary and East Chicago.

They arrested 22 on suspicion of cocaine and marijuana possession, drunken driving and other traffic violations and those wanted on a variety of criminal charges filed earlier. He said they confiscated three weapons, including two stolen guns.

Intensified county sheriff's patrols in Gary and the routine federal prosecution of firearms violations by the U.S. attorney's office resulted in two men being charged Friday in U.S. District Court.

Ryan Harden, a special agent of the U.S. Bureau Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, alleges in federal complaints that county police conducted two separate traffic stops Thursday on Gary's West Side neighborhood.

The officers involved in both arrests are members of the High Crime Unit.

County police said Isiah Chase was speeding eastbound in a black Buick near Fifth and Colfax, and police found him searching through a center console in the front seat when they removed him from the car.

They recovered a black 9 mm Taurus semi-automatic handgun in the car, records state. They said a criminal history check showed that Chase, 27, of Hammond, had been convicted in 2011 in a sting operation where he and three other men thought they were going to rob a drug dealer of a large amount of cocaine. Chase was still on supervised release for his 2011 conviction.

County police also stopped a car on Fifth and Clark Road and found a .380-caliber pistol in the pants pocket of Corey J. Frith, 32, who was convicted in 2010 in Cook County of a home invasion, according to records. Frith was recently released from Indiana parole for his prior convictions.

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.