A hot dog vendor walking out of a downtown ballpark, where gunfire pierced the night after the home team won a game. A woman whose quarrel with a trusted friend took a heartbreaking turn. A young man caught up in drugs passing through a shabby motel. A new mother shot by a stranger, leaving a small town puzzling over a random act of extreme violence.
Each one of these scenes was fatal, and each became a tragic data point in a surge in homicides that has swept across the country, touching not only the largest cities in America but suburbs, small towns and even remote rural places that rarely see a murder.
On a national scale, the murder rate is still far below its height in the 1990s, and in some places the spike seen in 2020, when murders rose by almost 30 percent, has already begun to slow. Homicides also constitute a tiny percent of overall major crime, which last year continued to drop as theft and burglaries fell.
But in many large cities — including Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia — the number of homicides this year is on track to surpass last year, leaving the public unnerved and injecting the politics of crime into local elections around the country, as various state and mayoral candidates promise they can restore a greater sense of safety. And although some places, including New York City and Dallas, have seen slight improvement this year, many others have not. Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Nashville and Los Angeles have all seen year-to-date increases.
This wave has also touched smaller cities and rural towns where police departments don’t have homicide units and outside detectives are often needed to investigate. Haskell, Okla., Yeehaw Junction, Fla., and Miner, Mo., were among rural communities that saw deadly shootings this summer.
To better understand the surge, The New York Times focused on a single month of homicides in the United States, examining incidents throughout August, typically a month when gun violence is high. The Times analyzed data from the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks shootings using local news accounts and official reports, and reported on the ground in places struggling with a wave of killings.
In dozens of interviews, criminologists, city and state officials and people close to murder victims could not name a single, direct cause of the spike in homicides, and said that it could take years of data collection before the phenomenon is fully understood.
Still, this last year and a half, there was one persistent, unmistakable factor: The continued destabilizing effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Even if it is impossible to definitively establish a link between the pandemic and the increase in homicides, its disruption to American lives, routines, schools, workplaces and relationships has been undeniable.
“I think the pandemic is just revealing a greater set of issues,” Paul Pazen, the police chief in Denver, said. “There’s not a simple answer to any of this.”
We found increased drug use and gun buying, downtowns with a sense of pandemic emptiness, opening an opportunity for violence, and, most frequently, escalating personal disputes that turned fatal. Widespread unemployment and financial struggle brought about by the pandemic contributed to a sense of desperation.
But the study of crime data is filled with uncertainty; decades after the 1990s murder spike, experts are still debating its causes and the steady fall that followed for years.
The Motel 6 where Joshua J. Garcia died sits isolated along Interstate 25, surrounded by empty desert lots scattered with cactuses and low scrub. But at night, the two-story building comes alive with expensive cars flowing through the parking lot, people bouncing between rooms and the flames from meth pipes illuminating the darkness.
On the eve of his murder, Mr. Garcia, who loved to collect Air Jordans by the hundreds and flaunted stacks of cash on social media, had posted pictures from the motel. He was shown staring at the camera through sunglasses, the room strewn with drug paraphernalia. “You could tell he was miserable, something was wrong,” said Deanna Garcia Hyatt, 35, Mr. Garcia’s sister. Hours later he was dead.
Detectives are still piecing together what happened in Room 221 to Mr. Garcia, who was killed with a single bullet in the chest. No arrests have been made.
Albuquerque, like many American cities, has been plagued by a surge in murders, hitting 99 by early November, surpassing the previous record of 80 from 2019. Albuquerque motels have proven particularly perilous, with at least 16 victims fatally shot or knifed, including three in this same Motel 6. The number of residents swelled during the pandemic as locals found cheap rooms more affordable than scarce housing.
“We are not getting tourists killed at hotels, we are getting local residents killed,” Chief Harold Medina, of the Albuquerque Police Department, said. The homicides often appear to be drug related.
A spike in drug use plagued New Mexico, like the rest of the United States, as Covid-19 spread. There were a record 766 overdoses in 2020, a 54 percent jump from 2016, according to a report by the state legislature’s Finance Committee. Nationwide, more than 93,000 overdose deaths were reported in 2020, a record number and a 30 percent increase from 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Albuquerque Police Department has long been under federal monitoring amid accusations of using excessive force, and like other departments has experienced a recent exodus. In 2021, 98 officers on a force of 945 have left, compared to 48 in 2017, said Gilbert Gallegos Jr., the police spokesman. The clearance rate for solving murders in that time has dropped by about half to 40 percent, the police said.
Mr. Garcia’s family has no idea why he drove to the motel from Alamogordo, a military town 200 miles south, where he lived with his father. He told others, however, that he was meeting some friends from juvenile jail — he served more than 2.5 years for assault and drunken-driving convictions.
He didn’t always struggle. Early success at football and basketball left him with a sense of being “invincible,” said his mother, Tami Stone, a grade schoolteacher for 26 years.
Mr. Garcia earned money doing yard work and sometimes sold rare sneaker models. The pandemic hit just as he got out of jail.
“There were no jobs and he was stuck at home again,” said Zach, 26, his older brother. He fell into old habits of drug use.
Still, his family nourished hope. He had gotten his GED and said that he wanted to emulate them in strengthening his Christian faith.
Around 4:30 a.m., on Aug. 3, an anonymous caller told police that shots had been fired at the Motel 6. A few hours later, Carlos Almaraz emerged from the adjacent room and was startled to see a dead man slumped in the doorway, his legs jutting outside. Mr. Almaraz, 31, a slight, homeless man who said he drifted from motel to motel, did not approach Mr. Garcia’s corpse to avoid getting involved. “It was crazy, but it was something you see around here,” he said.
The family buried Mr. Garcia beneath a towering pine tree to always know where he was when they drove past the cemetery.
“I just feel like our society has gotten evil,” his mother said. “It has gotten to the point that people just don’t care. It is very sad that someone would shoot Josh just for the hell of it. I don’t care if was a drug deal gone wrong or my son owed money, there is no reason to shoot and murder my son.”
PLEASANT HILL, ORE.
A rural town that goes years without a homicide.
Caelen and Staton Bosisto bought their dream house last year on a wooded hilltop outside town. They kept their concrete-cutting business growing despite the pandemic. They welcomed their first child, a son, Tanner, this June. It was a good life where they felt safe. It was a life that ended on one morning when Mr. Bosisto woke up to a loud noise, a sharp pain and an unimaginable loss.
“I came to and I was spitting blood everywhere,” Mr. Bosisto recalled. “I could not hear, could not see,” he said. “And I look out of my bedroom toward the nursery, which is not far away from me, and my wife is on the ground with Tanner.”
Caelen Bosisto had been fatally shot. Staton Bosisto was bleeding from a gunshot to his temple. Their 8-week-old son, whom Mr. Bosisto said he found still cradled against his wife’s chest, was alive.
The Bosisto home lies along a two-lane highway outside Pleasant Hill, Ore., a small unincorporated town with a couple strip malls and a Dairy Queen.
The effects of the pandemic on rural America have been profound. A study of several rural counties in the West found a rise in joblessness, heavy reliance on unemployment insurance and broad-based fears about local economic health.
Many small towns go years without a homicide. A sheriff’s spokesman said he could find a record of one other homicide in Pleasant Hill over the last nine years, a 2019 killing that was determined to be self-defense. The Bosistos had sought out their home in part for the perceived safety of living in the country.
There has been no real explanation for Ms. Bosisto’s death. A 30-year-old woman with a newborn son went to bed in her own home on a summer night. The next morning, she was dead, her husband was injured and Andrew Geronimi, a stranger from Michigan who had been accused of crimes in two states since the start of the pandemic, was arrested in the bushes outside their home.
“What’s unique about this particular homicide is that we don’t believe that there is any previous connection between the suspect and the victims,” said Sgt. Tom Speldrich of the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated the case.
In January, police officers in Michigan responded to a domestic violence report and arrested Mr. Geronimi, who was holding knives and had told officers to shoot him. He later bonded out of jail but missed a court date. There was a warrant out for Mr. Geronimi’s arrest in Michigan at the time Ms. Bosisto was killed.
It was not clear why or when Mr. Geronimi traveled to Oregon. His lawyers declined to be interviewed or make their client available for an interview. But police records show he was arrested on Aug. 5, a few days before Ms. Bosisto’s death, on theft and trespassing charges in McKenzie Bridge, Ore., a rural area about an hour outside Eugene. He was booked into jail under a false identity, Sergeant Speldrich said, but fingerprints revealed his true name. Michigan officials declined to have him extradited because, they said, the arrest warrant was written to be executed only within Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Several days later, about 45 minutes after first being called to gunshots at the Bosisto home, Sergeant Speldrich said investigators found Mr. Geronimi hiding in the brush with a handgun. He was taken to jail and charged with murder. He has pleaded not guilty.
Mr. Bosisto plans to stay in Pleasant Hill, but the illusion of rural safety has been forever shattered. He is worried about the growing homeless population in Oregon — Mr. Geronimi is listed in sheriff’s reports as having no address — including the many who travel by foot along the highway between Eugene and Pleasant Hill. And he is deeply angry that the man accused of killing his wife had been let out of jail three days earlier even though he was a fugitive in another state.
Mr. Bosisto, now out of the hospital and recovering at home, lives amid constant reminders of what he has lost. Photos of Caelen are everywhere. His bullet wound makes chewing painful. He had his left eyeball surgically removed. A dry-erase calendar in his wife’s office is filled with August plans she never got to finish.
His son gives him reason to go on, he said, but Mr. Bosisto knows the day is coming when he will have to tell him what happened to his mother. Caelen, who dreamed her whole life of being a mom, won’t get to see Tanner’s first steps or send him off on his first day of school. Tanner recently started giggling, but she wasn’t there to hear it.
Where murders swell in a down-on-its-luck city.
On Aug. 14, DeAisha Fisher had big plans for a warm summer night with her friends. They were headed out to cruise around the city, stop downtown and then end up at a popular club in Flint for drinking and dancing. She brought a gun tucked into her purse.
To people who knew her, Ms. Fisher had been acting strangely all summer. She had been prone to outbursts, lashing out at friends and spurning their offers to help.
But her company that night were people in her circle of trust. Yanisha Edwards and her sister TiQuoiya Edwards were practically family to Ms. Fisher: confidantes whose late brother Jimmy, was the father of Ms. Fisher’s child.
By night’s end, the authorities said, Ms. Fisher had shot Yanisha Edwards dead at close range on a Flint street at 3:45 a.m. She has been charged with first-degree murder and has not yet entered a plea.
Ms. Edwards’s homicide was one of at least 50 this year in Flint, a stunningly high number for a city of only 80,000 people. The number of homicides in Flint has risen close to 20 percent over the same period in 2020.
It is a crisis that has sunk the struggling city even deeper into distress.
Mayor Sheldon Neeley of Flint, who was elected in 2019, has tried to tamp down the rising violence. In July, he declared a state of emergency, has pushed to hire more police officers and ordered city parks to close early this summer in an attempt to thwart large gatherings that were leading to shootings.
A Genesee County prosecutor said that he is seeing perpetrators of crimes who are second-generation gang members. But many of the murders plaguing the city have little to do with organized gang activity, said Mr. Neeley, a Flint native.
“A lot of these are retaliatory in nature,” he said.
The uptick in violence has been especially painful in some cities like Flint that have long struggled with crime. East St. Louis, Ill., imposed a curfew for a time this summer after a series of violent incidents, including a shooting with seven victims. City commissioners in Kalamazoo, Mich., declared gun violence a public health crisis and allocated coronavirus relief funds to address the issue.
The family of Ms. Edwards said that while she knew violence, they never anticipated that she could have become a victim herself.
When she was a teenager, Ms. Edwards had seemed destined for a world beyond the confines of Flint. She was a track star in high school who won a scholarship to Saginaw Valley State University, a girl who had no trouble attracting friends and admirers.
In 2020, she told her family and friends that it was time for her to leave her hometown, a place with problems that seemed to weigh down every block. There was the water crisis that had left thousands of Flint residents poisoned from their own taps. The blighted, crumbling homes that were a constant reminder of the city’s poverty and steep population loss. And gun violence that had claimed the lives of two of her brothers, several uncles and a cousin.
She moved to Tennessee but returned to Flint for frequent visits with her fiancé and children, and on the night when she was killed, she wanted only to have a carefree night out. Brittany Moore, a close friend who was at the wheel that night, said in an interview that the group was on their way home when Ms. Edwards and Ms. Fisher quarreled about who would be dropped off first — and Ms. Fisher shot Ms. Edwards to death.
Weeks after Ms. Edwards’s killing, Quineisha McDowell and TiQuoiya Edwards, her sisters, were still in a state of grief as they sat in their grandmother’s living room. Two other siblings had also been killed years before in Flint in a similar manner, shot to death by someone they knew.
They struggled to explain how their sister could have been killed by someone she trusted and loved.
“She was living like the life that she wanted to live,” TiQuoiya Edwards said.
Ms. McDowell said that since her sister’s death, her own health has been faltering. But even after losing a half-dozen relatives to gun violence, she didn’t think that her family stood out for its suffering.
“This is just Flint,” she said.
A vibrant downtown scene, shattered.
The game was a rout for the home team. The Rockies scored 14 runs to the Miami Marlins’ two, and as fans were filling the bars and nightclubs around Coors Field Gregory Hopkins was cleaning up his concession stand in the upper deck and counting his tips from another night selling hot dogs and beer. When shots rang out, Crystal Martinez-Ortiz, also an employee, came running. The first thing she saw identified the bloodied man on the ground as her friend, Mr. Hopkins: his black-and-gray Air Jordans. Blood was everywhere, gushing from Mr. Hopkins’s chest.
“He was slipping by the time I got to him,” she said. “I kept checking his pulse. ‘Greg, I got you bro. Just stay with me boy.’”
Mr. Hopkins died in her arms, his murder another statistic in a growing tally of homicides in Denver.
The surge in homicides last year has been felt across the country, but in Denver, it has been particularly bad. Last year the city saw a 50 percent rise in homicides, the most since 1981.
This year the pace of murder has roughly matched last year’s surge.
On the streets of Denver, the most ordinary of circumstances — in the case of Mr. Hopkins’s shooting death, a dispute over a woman, according to the police, who arrested two cousins and charged them with murder — have resulted in extraordinary bursts of violence.
Amid the disruptions of the pandemic, Denver has confronted a wave of violence in the Lower Downtown neighborhood, a hot spot for night life where Coors Field is, and in Civic Center Park, another area of the city’s center that has seen a surge in homelessness and open-air drug use. With many office workers still working remotely, business owners complain the area has become lawless.
It is far from the only downtown to suffer. In St. Paul, Minn., 15 people were shot, one of them fatally, outside a downtown bar last month. In Chicago, 48 shooting incidents have been reported so far this year in the police district that includes the downtown Loop district, up 66 percent from 2020 and up 243 percent from 2019.
“This is the community hub for Denver,” said Cagney Hedahl, who operates the “Still Smokin Food Truck,” which serves barbecue to customers in the park. “When I walk around the park I literally see people with needles in their arms.”
City officials recently took the highly unusual step of closing down the park and two adjacent properties in an effort to restore order.
“The park and surrounding areas have become a hot spot for violence, crime, drug sales and substance misuse, jeopardizing the public’s ability to safely enjoy one of Denver’s treasured outdoor spaces,” city officials wrote in a news release.
A few weeks after the killing, Nae Burks, Mr. Hopkins’s girlfriend who is pregnant with their son, sat in the darkened apartment the couple was planning to move into and considered her altered circumstances. She made tacos for Mr. Hopkins on the night he was killed, and left them for him to eat after the game. When he didn’t come home, she assumed he was crashing at a friend’s place. Days later, with no information, a friend called and said she had read a story about a shooting at Coors Field. She called Mr. Hopkins’s brother, who told her the news.
“And that’s when I lost it,” she said.
Mr. Hopkins was 41 but looked much younger.
“I just felt completely comfortable with him and we could talk about anything,” Ms. Burks, 26, said. “He did have a rough past with being in and out of jail,” she added. “Mostly drug stuff. He was just telling me, ‘I’m tired of that lifestyle, I want to turn it around and I need new friends.’”
She said Mr. Hopkins spoke about his regrets at not being around as much as he would have liked for children from a previous relationship and was determined to be a better father to the son on the way, whom they agreed to name Cameron.
“I don’t understand,” Ms. Burks said, pointing out that one of the men the police charged with shooting Mr. Hopkins was just 21 years old. “People just have little respect for life anymore. It’s young people. Young people. Not only are they taking a life, but they are throwing their life away.”
After Mr. Hopkins’s death, Ms. Burks traveled to Philadelphia, where Mr. Hopkins was born and where his parents live. She had bought him a new outfit of black jeans and a white button-down, something he might have worn on one of their dates but never got a chance to. Instead, those were the clothes he wore at his funeral.
Susan Campbell Beachy contributed research. Lead photographs by Cydni Elledge, Adria Malcolm, Mason Trinca and Stephen Speranza for The New York Times.