AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s homicide rate jumped to nearly a 20-year high in 2008, driven in part by several killings involving multiple victims and an unusual increase in the number of young children killed by their parents.
But while the number of assaults and thefts also were up for the year, crime was down in all of the other categories — including burglaries and domestic violence — tracked by the Maine Department of Public Safety.
“Despite a recent rash in armed robberies and a number of suspicious deaths this year, Maine continues to be one of the safest states in the country,” public safety Commissioner Anne Jordan said in a statement.
Overall, crime increased by 0.6 percent from 2007 to 2008. A total of 34,008 crimes were committed in 2008, according to the department’s Uniform Crime Reporting Division. That gives Maine a crime rate of 25.8 offenses per 1,000 people.
The national rate is 37.5 offenses per 1,000 people, according to the department.
Aggravated and simple assaults increased by 2.5 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively, while the largest change in sheer numbers came in the category of thefts. There were 24,582 thefts in 2008, compared to 24,060 the year before.
The most alarming increase was in the homicide rate, which leaped from 21 deaths in 2007 to 31 last year. That is the highest number of homicides in Maine since 1989, when 40 people were killed. It’s also significantly higher than the 10-year average of 19.5 homicides annually.
Three of the 2008 homicides involved multiple victims.
In January, 25-year-old Richard Widdecomb killed his ex-girlfriend and another man in Marshfield. He was later sentenced to life in prison.
Roughly a month later, a 22-year-old former University of Maine student, Matthew Cushing, stabbed his mother, stepfather and teenage stepbrother to death at their home in Old Orchard Beach. He was later sentenced to three life terms.
Then in July, two men were found dead in the community of West Paris. A mutual friend of the men, Duane Waterman, was charged with the murders. Waterman has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial in June.
Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the department, pointed out that family or other acquaintances of the victims committed 65 percent of the homicides.
Typically, about half of Maine’s homicides are acts of domestic violence. Three of the deaths this year were murder-suicides. That is less than average, McCausland said.
But five of the victims were infants and toddlers, often beaten to death by a parent or guardian. Three of those deaths — one each in East Machias, Skowhegan and Harrison — occurred in March within less than a week of each other.
“The young children being murdered at the hands of typically their parents was a disturbing trend,” McCausland said.
Domestic violence in general and several other types of violent crime were down for the year, however.
Maine’s domestic violence rate dropped by 8 percent, from 5,771 incidents in 2007 to 5,311 last year. The number of reported rapes and-or sexual assaults also dropped from 393 to 373, a decline of 5.1 percent. And the number of robberies declined by nearly 5 percent year to year.
The statistics show an interesting divide between rural and urban areas.
While urban areas accounted for more than three-quarters of all crime tracked by the department, the number of crimes in rural areas actually increased by 6.4 percent last year. Urban crime, on the other hand, decreased by 0.7 percent.
The number of burglaries, larcenies-thefts, aggravated assaults and car thefts all rose in rural areas last year, with burglaries and car thefts climbing 8.1 percent and 10.4 percent, respectively.
In Bangor, which is considered an urban area, the city bucked the statewide trend and saw a decrease in simple assaults. But the number of simple thefts reported to police in Bangor increased by 8 percent, which was higher than the statewide average.
The city had one murder last year.
Sgt. Paul Edwards with the Bangor Police Department said the upward trend on thefts appears to have carried over into 2009.
“Stealing, breaking into cars, shoplifting, breaking into homes all seem to be more prevalent this year,” Edwards said.
The Maine Crime and Justice Data Book, a publication of the Maine Statistical Analysis Center at the Muskie School of Public Service, provides additional perspective on longer-term crime trends in the state.
Last year’s 34,008 “index crimes” tracked by the Department of Public Safety and the center is lower than the 10-year average of 34,479 crimes between 1998 and 2007. The number of offenses per 1,000 people has also dropped over that time.
But while domestic violence incidences dropped in 2008, the overall trend during the previous 10 years is much different. Reports of domestic violence assaults increased by 49.7 percent in Maine between 1998 and 2007, according to the center’s publication.
Domestic violence accounted for 51 percent of all assaults during that 10-year period. Additionally, drug-related arrests increased by 23 percent during that time.