SLO County sees far fewer homicides than its neighbors — and the numbers are falling

Despite a handful of high-profile killings in 2018, homicide in San Luis Obispo County remains a rare event, especially when compared to other nearby counties.

Last year, San Luis Obispo County recorded three homicides — all of them women — in which death wasn’t the result of a vehicle collision.

Though official crime data has yet to be released by the FBI, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office confirmed with The Tribune its preliminary figures Tuesday, nearly one week after the county saw its first reported homicide of 2019 in Oceano.

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the killing of Larry Albert Bross, a well-known community activist at the Oceano Dunes. Bross was discovered dead in his home Thursday in the 1400 block of Strand Way. A neighbor who said he found Bross’ body told The Tribune there were signs the 90-year-old was beaten and stabbed.

But sheriff’s officials have released no details about what they suspect caused Bross’ death, confirming only that they’re investigating a homicide. As of Tuesday, the results of an autopsy performed Sunday on Bross had not been released.

Not always a crime

Unlike murder — a crime proven in court — homicide is not always the result of a crime. Accidental or self-defense-related deaths of a person at the hands of another are counted as homicides in the official data.

Though the District Attorney’s Office has more aggressively sought murder convictions in recent years for vehicular homicides caused by repeated DUI offenders, the number of non-vehicular homicides remains on a downward trend, according to state data self-reported by local agencies.

For example, 2018’s three homicides — since alleged as murders in ongoing cases in San Luis Obispo Superior Court — represented an increase of one homicide over the previous year, that year represented a decrease by half of the four homicides recorded in 2016.

Looking at the last 10 years, San Luis Obispo County averaged 5.2 homicides a year from 2009 through 2013, then only three homicides per year from 2014 to 2018, according to state and local data.

A Sheriff’s Office spokesperson was not available Tuesday and it is unclear whether that data now includes the suspected homicide of 38-year-old Jared Jay Walters, a North County resident who went missing in 2016 and whose remains were found at a Santa Margarita property in May.

The Sheriff’s Office said at the time it is investigating Walters’ death as a homicide and referred to his death as a murder in a news release.

Kristen Marti San Luis Obispo Police Department

How SLO County compares

San Luis Obispo County’s homicide total, which in 2017 came to a rate of roughly 0.7 homicides per 100,000 residents, remains far lower than its neighbors.

In 2017, for example, Santa Barbara County reported eight homicides — a per capita rate of 1.7 — which was down from 18 homicides in 2015 and 13 in 2016, according to FBI data.

Elsewhere that year, Kern County reported 89 homicides (a per capita rate of 9.9); Fresno County reported 85 (8.6 per capita); Monterey County reported 43 (9.3 per capita); Ventura County reported 26 (3 per capita); and Kings County reported nine homicides (6 per capita).

Nancy Woodrum San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office

San Luis Obispo County’s three homicides of 2018 are all currently being prosecuted in San Luis Obispo Superior Court as murders.

In March, 26-year-old San Luis Obispo resident Kristen Marti was discovered with her throat slashed in Prefumo Canyon after the woman had been missing since January.

Robert William Koehler, 36, is accused of killing Marti after allegedly meeting her for paid sex in a vehicle parked in Prefumo Canyon.

He’s scheduled to stand trial in May.

Athena Ilona Valentiny Grover Beach Police Department

Carlo Fuentes Flores, 42, has pleaded not guilty to murder during the commission of rape and burglary, in the killing of Paso Robles resident Nancy Woodrum.

Woodrum, 62, had been missing since May until Fuentes Flores allegedly led investigators to her remains last month in a remote spot in eastern San Luis Obispo County.

Fuentes Flores is due back in court March 21.

In October, Athena Ilona Valentiny, a 64-year-old nurse at the California Men’s Colony, was found stabbed to death in her home in Grover Beach.

Her son, Indiana resident Levente Lazslo Lazar, 26, is accused in her murder and is due back in court March 20.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for clarity to include per capita homicide rates for SLO and neighboring counties in 2017.

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Matt Fountain is The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s courts and investigations reporter. A San Diego native, Fountain graduated from Cal Poly’s journalism department in 2009 and cut his teeth at the San Luis Obispo New Times before joining The Tribune as a crime and breaking news reporter in 2014.