Somber Trend

An Increase In Local Homicides Puts Spotlight On Female Victims

By Gina Gallucci-White | Posted on 11.17.20 – Feature, Lifestyles

During a typical year, area police agencies handle a very small number of homicides, typically involving male victims. But 2020—the year of different and disturbing—has brought more murders and more female victims.

As of early October, the Frederick Police Department was investigating four homicides committed this year, and three of the victims were women. “That jumps out to me,” says Lt. Kirk Henneberry, commander of the department’s Criminal Investigations Division. “It is not something that we haven’t noticed here. I believe four for 2020 is a high number for Frederick City.”

The last time the city had such a high number of homicides was in 2015 when five people were murdered and just one of the victims was female. Reviewing 13 years of homicide data from the department, 2020 has the highest number of women murdered.

“Twenty-twenty is definitely an interesting year to try to pick apart and explain,” Henneberry says. “Right now, I can’t put my thumb on why we have three out of four victims in 2020 as women. Homicides can be so random why they occur. We see the typical drug homicide, a shooting, male-on-male type of homicide and we can link that back to it as drug-trade related.”

The cases causing the spike in murders this year could be classified as related to domestic violence, but they are not typical cases where the department has prior reports of calls for service. “In these cases, we don’t have that,” Henneberry says. “These are cases where we look back and say, ‘Is there anything we could have done to prevent these?’ and we are not seeing any prior involvements at these houses. While they do fall into the domestic category because the offender and victim [in two of the cases] were commonly in the same residence together, we don’t see those telltale or hallmark incidents of previous abuse. … We can’t put all three of these cases into the same category. They are really not related at all.” 

The city cases include:

April 19—Samantha Miner, 45  

Samantha Miner’s 19-year-old son, David Miner IV, has been charged with her murder. In the moments before the crime, he was allegedly high on LSD and playing with the family dog. According to charging documents, the teen grabbed a knife from the kitchen with the intent to kill the dog. Samantha Miner took the weapon from him and put it back in the kitchen, but David Miner went into the kitchen and retrieved the knife. Samantha Miner tried to grab it from his hand but was fatally stabbed in the neck once. David Miner was charged with murder with his trial set for late March. 

“I don’t think anybody could have predicted that [homicide],” Henneberry says. “It is hard to even label it. It is domestic-related but it doesn’t appear that there was any conflict leading up to it other than the offender’s altered state of mind.”

July 29—Kelly Meadows Serra, 37

While on patrol in the first block of Waverley Drive, a Frederick Police Department officer found her body near a wooded area of Rock Creek.  

“It appears Ms. Serra’s life was unfortunately affected by drug abuse,” Henneberry says. “She was in a high-risk factor being in the homeless population [involving] drug use. Unfortunately, she fell victim to a person we are still looking for. The offender we believe was probably in that homeless world, drug abuse world, as well. … We believe that incident was an isolated incident that occurred probably in a day or two time frame leading up to her death. We don’t have any reason pinpointing why she was murdered other than she was in a high-risk category.” 

Henneberry declined to give a description for a suspect but noted the department has several suspects they are looking at currently. “The investigation is probably going to involve DNA matches with a profile of a suspect,” he says. “That takes times with labs and things like that.”

Sept. 13—unnamed victim, 81

First responders were called to the 400 block of North Bentz Street for an elderly woman who had fallen down the stairs. The residence was the home of the victim’s husband and caregiver Gloria Vazquez-Mebo, 35. Police declined to name the victim at the request of her family. 

“According to the suspect [Vazquez-Mebo] in that case, she said that she heard the victim fall down the stairs,” Henneberry says. “We did find the victim close to the bottom of the stairs. Her explanation is sort of bizarre in that she admitted that she kind of finished her off [with a rolling pin], for lack of a better term. We did get some indication from the suspect in that case that the 81-year-old [victim], in the suspect’s own words, was ‘hard to work for.’ There was conflict between the two. You and I wouldn’t think bludgeoning somebody would be a reasonable end to conflict, but that is sort of how the offender described that relationship. That it was contentious.”

Vazquez-Mebo was charged with first- and second-degree murder. No trial date has been set yet. 

IN THE COUNTY

The Frederick County Sheriff’s Office has seen an increase in domestic violence calls for service. Beginning in March, calls grew by 8 percent from 2019 numbers. April saw a 15 percent increase, May went up by 12 percent. The largest increases were seen in June and July with a 39 percent and 45 percent increase, respectively. August saw a 16 percent increase. 

The last time the agency handled an intimate partner homicide case was in 2015. That year, there was one case. This year, so far, there have been four murders, three with female victims. “It is the highest number of murders [of female victims] we’ve had in one year since I’ve been here” in investigations since 2009, says Lt. Andy Crone. 

The county cases include:

Jan. 11—Kaitlin Roberts, 31

Lemuel Roberts was charged with first-degree murder days after the body of ex-wife Kaitlin Roberts, of Winchester, Va., was discovered in the road at English Muffin Court and English Muffin Way in Frederick. According to neighbors, the two had been fighting in the months before Kaitlin Roberts’ death. Though the couple divorced in 2018, they lived together to co-parent their children. No trial date has been set yet. 

March 26—Katie Lehan, 34

Thomas Lehan initially filed a missing-persons report to the sheriff’s office, telling detectives his wife, Katie, had awoken from a nap and decided to take a walk around Reno Monument Road but she never returned. Days later, Katie Lehan’s father called deputies saying Thomas Lehan had confessed to him that he had strangled his wife. According to charging documents, Thomas Lehan admitted to the crime to detectives and led them to her body off Lambs Mill Road. A trial is set to begin Nov. 30. 

June 27—Ty’kerria Dawson, 17 

A day before her 18th birthday, Ty’kerria Dawson of Hagerstown was fatally shot next to Pike Branch Creek in the Farmbrook community off Ballenger Creek Pike. Two Frederick teenagers, Richard Cartnail III, 16, and Caliyah Lobaugh, 14, were charged as adults in her murder. A Jan. 19 jury trial is set for Cartnail. No date has been set yet for Lobaugh’s case. 

On the Carroll County side of Mount Airy, the community was left reeling after a mother of three and a high school senior were both gunned down in a double murder-suicide. 

Heather Zujkowski was separated from Joseph Zujkowski. According to court records, a protective order against the former U.S. Army Ranger who suffered from PTSD after several tours of duty, expired in January. Heather Zujkowski was outside her Bennett Branch Road home when she was shot with a rifle by Joseph Zujkowski. Her children, then aged 4, 6 and 11, were inside the home at the time of the shooting.  

Carroll County Sheriff’s Office officials say Joseph Zujkowski also shot and killed a neighbor, Noah Homayouni, who was outside at the time of the incident. The 18-year-old was a senior at South Carroll High School and a lacrosse player. After the shooting, Joseph Zujkowski drove back to his home near Gaithersburg and fatally shot himself after a brief standoff with police. 

HEARTLY HOUSE

Inga James, president and executive director of Heartly House, which provides services for domestic-abuse victims, has been closely tracking the number of female homicides. “During the pandemic, we at Heartly House have seen much, much more severe, serious abuse with weapons and strangulation and broken bones,” she says. “[The incidents are] just much, much worse than it was pre-COVID. We know that what is happening is the family is stressed, the economic stress, the isolation. All of that play into a stress that cannot be overcome by an abuser without lashing out and victimizing the people most close to him, primarily his partner.” 

James is not surprised to see a high number of female homicides this year. “Everybody is feeling the desperation,” she says. “Everybody is feeling the same way about all of these restrictions on our lives and the emotional toll it takes. I am not surprised that people are lashing out in ways that they may never ever have done before. I don’t want to excuse any kind of violence or abuse, but what I am saying is there are an awful lot of people in this world who don’t really know how to handle their anger and when the conditions become such that everybody is feeling desperate then their worse sides come out.” 

Heartly House’s programming saw between a 20 to 25 percent increase in need since March. Calls also have increased over the same period by 15 to 20 percent. “The calls didn’t go up as much as the request for services, so what that tells me is that almost everybody that was calling accepted services and that is just not really how it [usually] is,” James says. 

Typically, domestic violence survivors call Heartly House several times over weeks, months and even years before they accept services. “This time we are hearing from people that are ready to take services, to get protective orders, to get counseling, to come to our shelter,” James says. “We were putting people in hotels because the shelter was maxed out [due to COVID-19 restrictions]. It has had a serious impact. The emotional toll of the pandemic has really triggered victims. The isolation, the feeling of not having control over their own lives. Now, they are in a situation where they have control over relatively little compared to what they used to and that is a trigger. A lot of former clients are coming back.”

With people feeling isolated, not being permitted to see family and friends or go to work, school or stores, James notes the pandemic conditions are ripe for abuse. “It is very easy to have power over somebody when you control their movements and when we are quarantined, movements are already controlled for the abuser. They don’t have to do anything. It just makes it so much easier to use those physically abusive patterns and the psychologically abusive patterns in a much more traumatizing way because they are stuck in the house together. Then there are so many families that are having severe economic stress and that is a big predictor of domestic violence.”  

Only 4 percent of homicide victims have ever sought domestic violence services before their death, according to James. “We can decrease the lethality rate by 50 percent, 75 percent just by getting them in the door,” she says. “… I think it is really important for people to know that homicide like this is so painful for family and the community, but it is important that they know oftentimes emotional abuse is much more highly correlated with homicide than physical abuse. If you thought you should have been able to see bruises or some sort of signs, you were looking in the wrong direction if you want to prevent homicides. You have to look at the emotional abuse.”