The first homicide fit the predictable pattern -- a 24-year-old man gunned down during a drug deal. The second intrigued the McKees Rocks police chief not because it occurred but because the suspect was a 17-year-old girl who claimed self defense.
The third put the borough of 6,000 at its highest homicide rate in recent memory. The fourth and fifth -- the last of 2012 -- came on the same day.
"I'm hoping it was a fluke," said McKees Rocks police Chief Robert Cifrulak. "It's baffling. There's no trend consistent with all of them."
According to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office, there were 96 homicides across the county in 2012 -- 54 handled by county police and 42 handled by Pittsburgh police, which has its own homicide unit.
Allegheny County police -- who generally lead homicide investigations that occur within the county but outside the city of Pittsburgh limits -- handled their highest case load in at least the past five years. While investigators -- and scholars -- warn that it's too early to tell whether the spike is part of a trend, the FBI also noted in its most recent data collection for 2010-11 that while crime rates overall were decreasing, suburban communities across the nation reported jumps in their homicide rates.
"It is difficult to know whether there's something to make of it," said Eric Baumer, a criminology professor at Florida State University. Sometimes, he said those single-year increases mark the beginning of long stretch of changing crime patterns; other times, they represent anomalies that can be explained by single events, which may or may not be disclosed by law enforcement at the time.
Nationally, scholars have suggested the change in the homicide rate might reflect a movement of people from the cities to the suburbs, a change that sometimes coincides with the closing of subsidized housing projects in cities. Locally, those changes can reflect moving gangs or mirror changes in domestic violence rates.
Allegheny County suburbs with the highest homicide rates in 2012 included Wilkinsburg with 12, McKeesport with nine and McKees Rocks and Penn Hills with five each, according to statistics kept by the medical examiner's office. Most of the investigators who responded to requests for comment declined to go into specifics about what might have prompted changes in their areas, saying they did not want to jeopardize ongoing investigations.
Allegheny County Sheriff William Mullen said his department received two grants part-way through last year and has been working with police departments in McKeesport, West Mifflin, Homestead, Duquesne, McKees Rocks and Stowe, as well as with probation officers, to make sure that people with gang ties are staying in compliance with the law and their probation conditions. He said those efforts have several times led to arrests or the confiscation of weapons.
McKeesport, whose police chief could not be reached for comment, marked its first homicide of 2013 early Friday morning, when someone opened fire inside the Street Stars bar on Sixth Avenue about 1 a.m. and struck Jayemond Bailey, 34, multiple times. There were about 20 people inside the bar at the time of the shooting but no witnesses came forward and the motive is unclear, county homicide Lt. Andrew Schurman said in a news release.
Court records show that Mr. Bailey, who once had friends in the Crawford Village housing authority complex but lived in the Harrison Village complex, spent three to seven years in prison on drug charges and was charged again earlier this year with possessing cocaine, a charge that was later withdrawn although a public drunkenness charge from that case stuck. Police have said there is a long-standing feud between some members of the two complexes.
John Firman, research center director for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said his group usually suggests that departments analyze homicide trends by breaking the deaths into four categories -- confrontational, robbery-related, domestic violence and gang- and gun-related.
The killings in McKees Rocks didn't fall so easily into those categories in 2012. Two of the five homicides involved drugs -- those of 19-year-old Scott King and 19-year-old Javon Riley.
In two, the suspected shooters argued self-defense. Destiny Brown, 17, was charged with fatally shooting former high school football star Marshawn Ptomey in the head in May after she was pushed to the ground during a fight. Her attorney has argued that a "gang" of 12-25 men was also on the street and Mr. Ptomey had a history of making sexually inappropriate comments.
In the other, a man told police that he shot Kalief Gates, 21, in the head and chest after Mr. Gates broke into his home.
Chief Cifrulak said the other case baffled him because the victim, 24-year-old Quinn White, had a mostly clean record and a reputation for trying to make people laugh. He said police have not made an arrest in that case but are confident a suspect is not on the loose.
He said he felt there were few proactive actions police could take to try to reduce homicide rates, but he would keep an eye on the trends nevertheless.
"This is more than a 100 percent increase in homicide cases. It was disconcerting," he said, adding that he was "cautiously optimistic" that this year would not mark the beginning of a larger trend for the borough.
Liz Navratil: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil.