CHEYENNE — Barring a last-minute calamity, 2011 will be the most deadly year for Wyoming residents in a decade, state statistics show. But tragedies, it seemed, were all too plentiful in Wyoming this past year.
As of mid-December, 38 Wyoming residents had been killed by homicide in 2011 — by far the highest since at least 2005, when comprehensive statistics were first collected by the state Department of Health.
Taken together with other deaths around the state, law enforcement officials hope 2011 will prove to be an aberration instead of the start of a disturbing trend.
No Wyoming town was hit harder by death in 2011 than Wheatland.
After nine years of no homicides, the city of 3,500 suffered five shooting deaths this summer.
Four of those were members of the Conant family, who were gunned down inside a mobile home off Oak Street on July 7. Three of the victims were the young children of the accused gunman, 35-year-old Everett Conant III. Court proceedings against Conant restarted last month after he underwent several months of extensive mental evaluations.
A couple weeks before the Conant shootings, 22-year-old Christopher Walker was shot in an alley near a downtown bar. Jesus A. Gonzalez-Ochoa, 22, was charged with shooting Walker after getting into an argument with him over a woman.
On top of that, on July 19 Wheatland native Laurel Constantinides and her three daughters — Hanna, 8; Zoey, 5; and Lucia, 2 — were killed when the family’s van plunged off a flash-flood-damaged highway in southern Wyoming mountains. Her husband Alex, a Colorado Springs, Colo., doctor, was the only survivor.
More than 500 people filled memorial services for the Conants and Constantinides, and the shock waves of the deaths resonated throughout the state.
“Everybody just doesn’t understand why,” Wheatland resident Sue Albrecht said to a Casper Star-Tribune reporter in the days after the calamities. “I wouldn’t say it dominates every conversation, but it’s there.”
In the face of adversity, though, the town pulled together. A community barbeque was held to raise funeral funds for the Conant family. Thousands of dollars were raised on behalf of the boys’ mother, who was also shot but survived.
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“The town has responded like it always has,” First Christian Church preacher Andy Gudahl said after the shootings. “I think that’s part of the healing. Coming together and doing what you can.”
Sadly, other places in Wyoming have had to recover from tragedy as well this year.
Just after midnight on Nov. 10, 17-year-old Matthew Denton accelerated his Chevrolet Suburban up to 97 mph on Wyoming Highway 789 just south of Lander, veered across the dividing line, and smashed the SUV into a minivan carrying a couple, their son, and his girlfriend. All five died.
The 38 homicides in Wyoming in 2011 are by far the most recorded since 2005. In 2010, only 16 Wyoming residents were killed by homicide.
Kebin Haller, deputy director of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, said such an increase was “alarming” and that DCI will be investigating why the jump took place.
Haller said no one factor — such as alcohol, drugs, domestic abuse — appears to be the reason for the increase in homicides. But he said he hopes the trend isn’t a sign that the state’s small-town character is fading away.
“I do fear with the drastic increase, the Wyoming way of life could be changing,” he said.
But overall, deaths of Wyoming residents in 2011 are down compared to recent years: 3,929 residents died as of mid-December, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
Most of the reason for that drop was that only 3,516 residents died of natural death so far this year, a figure that’s the lowest since 2005.
Wyoming state epidemiologist Tracy Murphy said he wasn’t sure yet why that was.
“For deaths from natural causes, chronic disease, or infectious disease, there’s nothing that I’ve noticed over the year that stands out,” he said.