Crime in the Time of COVID: A Year in Review

In a pandemic, the crime landscape changed and some incidents stood out.

Posted Dec 30, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Photo, K. Ramsland
Source: Photo, K. Ramsland

In 2019, mass shootings dominated headlines, capping a decade of some of the most stunning mass murders in American history. It seemed to continue when Anthony Ferrill shot five coworkers and killed himself at the Molson Coors Beverage Company in Milwaukee on February 26. But in March, a pandemic lockdown lowered crime rates everywhere. Temporarily.

Frustration eventually emerged as people grew tired of isolation and restriction. This year, New York City saw a surge in gun violence. Police recorded 1,412 shooting incidents through November 2020 – a nearly 96% increase from the same period last year (721). Two years ago, Detroit had the fewest homicides in its history, at 261. This year, homicides have topped 300, while non-fatal shootings are up more than 50%. In Chicago, domestic violence rose 60%, and homicides rose to 739 compared with 475 by this point last year (Wall Street Journal; Chicago Tribune).

On April 18, stress from COVID-19 was implicated in a Canadian murder spree. Fifty-one-year-old Gabriel Wortman shot his neighbors and set fires to several houses in the rural community of Portapique, Nova Scotia. Police arrived to find 13 deceased victims scattered around the community. Wortman drove across a field to flee police and slaughtered nine more people over the next 13 hours. He pulled over cars to shoot the drivers, murdered people in the street, and rammed a cop car. Wortman then killed a female friend to steal her car. When he fueled up, an officer spotted him. A confrontation resulted in Wortman’s death. An investigation found that he’d liquidated a substantial amount from investments, his business as a denturist had been closed, and he fretted over what the government might do next.

This past week, we saw a Christmas Day suicide bombing in Nashville, an Army Special Forces sergeant kill three and wound three in a bowling alley, and several familicides and murder-suicides. Yet, for the year, there have been fewer terrorist acts and virtually no school rampages. That’s probably because schools and businesses around the country closed down or limited attendance. In many places, mass gatherings were banned. Thus, some would-be mass killers lacked the opportunity to make a big splash.

Still, this year added other concerns. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis raised important questions over police accountability for violence, but it remains to be seen what the courts will decide about criminal charges in this and other such incidents. Racial conflict and pandemic protests fueled social tensions, as did a highly polarized election year. These conditions will continue into 2021.

Several high-profile killers were sentenced this year. On June 20. Joseph DeAngelo, the Golden State Killer, pleaded guilty to all charges in exchange for life in prison. He also informally accepted responsibility for all alleged offenses. That is, he admitted to 13 murders, 13 charges of kidnapping for the purpose of robbery, and 62 other charges, including 50 rapes. During the lengthy proceeding, a parade of officials from affected California counties read the details of his crime sprees. A masked DeAngelo, in a wheelchair, showed little reaction. After assault survivors and victims’ family members denounced him, he received 11 consecutive life sentences without the chance of parole, with 15 concurrent life sentences and added time for weapons charges.

Takahiro Shiraishi was sentenced to hang in Japan for the nine murders he committed in 2017 after duping suicidal young women into his apartment to rape, rob, and kill them. Police found nine human heads and 240 bones stashed in coolers. Defense attorneys tried to argue that his crimes amounted only to assisted suicide, or “murder with consent.” It didn't fly. Shiraishi not only showed no remorse but also expressed his desire to find a wife. "I am thinking it'd be good to have someone who supports me. She'd be able to come and see me here, and bring me things. I want to meet a normal girl (and) get married. If I do, she could see me even when I go to the Tokyo Detention House.” Similarly, his murders were about his own needs: "I thought I could get money without working, while satisfying my sexual desires.”

We await the judge’s verdict on Alek Minassian, who killed 10 and injured 16 in a four-minute van attack in Toronto in 2018. He’d aimed for 100, to “set a world record” and prove he was not a failure. He came to trial via Zoom. Eight forensic psychiatrists and psychologists evaluated him. Minassian admitted he knew that his acts were wrong, but defense experts explained that his autism spectrum disorder had diminished his cognitive empathy. That is, if his victims were just objects to him, he didn’t truly understand what he was doing. One psychiatrist stated, “To be able to figure it out, you must be able to feel it.” In effect, Minassian was defended as being emotionally disabled and lacking insight, similar to a psychotic person. This defense has ignited debate, due to its far-ranging impact on past and future cases, related disorders, and therapeutic handling. Justice Anne Molloy will decide the verdict in March.

A 46-year-old female serial killer, Lao Rongzhi, went on trial in China for her part in a murder spree over 20 years ago. She’d been on the run since then, using cosmetic surgery and aliases to stay ahead of police. Once caught, she claimed to have been a victim of her boyfriend, Fa Ziying, who was executed in 1999. The court held that she had an equal part in the seven murders.

A few serial killers died from COVID-19. The most famous was Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who was also featured in an end-of-the-year Netflix documentary. Reportedly, he was terrified of contracting the virus. David Brooks, accomplice to "Candy Man" Dean Corll, died in June, reportedly from the virus. Donato Bilancia, one of Rome’s most notorious serial killers, also died from it. He’d admitted to murdering 17 people in northern Italy between October 1997 and April 1998. Most were random victims, including women in train lavatories. He’d received 13 life sentences. On December 29, Sofya Zhukova died in a Russian prison as she awaited trial for three murders. Some thought she'd cooked part of her victims into treats she gave out.

A headline grabber for true crime fans was news that an international team of civilian code breakers had cracked the “340 cipher,” a coded message sent 50 years ago by the infamous (and unidentified) Zodiac Killer. Five murders in California are attributed to him, although he claimed 37 victims. For all the effort, the message didn’t amount to much, and offered no clues to help identify him.

On December 30, Sam Little died in prison. He'd estimated he'd killed 93 people, mostly sex workers, between 1970 and 2005. Law enforcement have corroborated 60 to date, and believe he's probably right about his own estimate. He's the most prolific serial killer on record in the U.S.

There are high expectations that 2021 will surely bring relief, but we haven't yet addressed some of the key factors for social pressure. We're likely to see more stress-inspired violence, as well as aggression as a political statement. But we might also see progress in social movements that could result in beneficial changes.