MISSOULA — On top of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may seem like there’s been lots of violence in the news lately. Here in Missoula County, that’s because there has been -- more than in years past.
2020 was a challenging year, bringing uncertainty, racial injustice, and financial insecurity and health concerns due to COVID-19 – and in Missoula County, our criminal justice system saw impacts.
“We had a huge spike in violent crime, particularly in family-related violent crime,” said Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst.
Pabst says for the past few years there’s been a decline in violent crime, but last year presented some unique challenges for her office, and our community.
“In late spring, when the COVID restrictions started coming into place, we started seeing that trend sadly reverse,” Pabst explained.
Zakai Houck was charged in May with fatally shooting and leaving Jonathan Wollack in the road in a residential neighborhood.
“We see the worst of humanity, and those tragic human stories are really, really hard too,” Pabst said. “It’s hard to spend so much time with someone, someone that’s in trauma, bloody photographs, things like that -- over the years -- and not have it affect you a little bit.”
Violent crimes -- including homicide, stalking and abuse -- are the most common type of offense in Missoula County, at 38% of overall cases. In July through September, there were 65% more aggravated assault arrests than in the year before.
Charles Covey was charged in November for the homicide death of 65-year-old Lee Nelson, who was wheelchair-bound, in a downtown parking lot.
Then in December, Christopher Newrider was charged for the shooting death of Sundance Hernandez in the Creekside Apartments parking lot.
Statistics show that endangerment crimes such as vehicular homicide and arson also increased and now make up 16% of total cases.
“That’s alarming to us because those are the cases that really involve harming members of our community,” Pabst said. “They pose the highest risk.”
Drug-related offenses make up the second-largest number of cases. Meth-related overdose deaths have increased 81% since 2015 while heroin overdose deaths increased by 360%.
Pabst says that’s why her office focuses so much on criminal justice reform and pre-trial diversion programs. She added that drugs are a driving factor behind a lot of what we’re seeing, and she hopes if they can address that then the violence will calm down.
“Unfortunately, they’re not mutually exclusive. A lot of the drug crimes relate directly to -- not just violent crimes -- but also the property crimes,” Pabst told MTN News.
“We see a lot of burglaries, residential burglaries, things like that -- that are drug-driven crimes,” Pabst continued. “If we can get to the root of the problem, hopefully, we’ll see a decrease, a continued decrease, in some of these other categories.”
Property crimes did decrease in 2020. as did crimes committed by juveniles, “what we’re seeing is not necessarily a reduction in the overall crime, but a shift in the seriousness of it,” Pabst explained.
There were also fewer reported child protective cases last year, but Pabst says that could be because students are not in school and therefore might not be reported.
Click here to read the full Missoula County Attorney's Office annual report.