BROOKSVILLE — Sheriff Richard Nugent's news conference was coming to a close. He had just finished telling the audience about a weekend carjacking, which had left one person dead and another with injuries that sent her to the hospital.
There was no more information to share. And there were no more questions to answer. It was time to go.
But just as the crowd started to disperse, Nugent informed everyone that he had another update. About another homicide.
"Just as we got one wrapped up," said sheriff's Chief Deputy Michael Maurer, who was at the June 21 news conference, "our deputies were getting dispatched to another one."
The deputies were racing off to a home at 8456 Peoria St. in Spring Hill, where they eventually found the body of a 19-year-old man buried in the back yard of the house. It was the eighth homicide in the county this year, a total almost unheard of in Hernando.
The bloody outburst in the first half of 2010 dampened some of the enthusiasm within the Sheriff's Office, which had hoped a 15 percent drop in violent crimes in 2009 would hold up for another year.
For law enforcement officials and crime analysts, it's tough to know if the recent surge in homicides foreshadows a bloodier future for Hernando or if it's merely an unfortunate — and unpredictable — blip in a trend line that rarely experiences much variance.
"I hope this is just a spike and not the new norm," Maurer said. "That's our fear."
It's a reasonable concern. In the first half of 2010, there were more homicides here than in any single year since 1993. There were only three in 2009. Two in 2008. One in 2007.
In fact, the only year that surpasses this one is 1993, when Hernando finished with 13 homicides — six of them in the first half of the year. Serial killer Michael "Edwin" Kaprat III was responsible for a terrifying series of crimes, killing five elderly residents, raping two of the women and trying to burn all of their bodies and homes.
For those who were around during that time, this violent streak in early 2010 seems much different than that one.
"It's just a sign of the times," said former Sheriff Tom Mylander, who ran the agency for 16 years until retiring in 2000. "We just live in a violent society. We've got a different world out there."
That's at least partly true. Hernando has added more than 70,000 residents since 1990, with much of the growth taking place in sprawling, unincorporated Spring Hill, all of which is patrolled by the Sheriff's Office. Once upon a time, Mylander said, the western half of the county was much more rural — and much easier to manage.
According to recent estimates, Spring Hill now has more than 92,000 residents — a population larger than, say, Miami Beach.
"Today, Spring Hill is nothing more than a big city," the retired sheriff said. "And everyone that comes here from somewhere else is not necessarily a good guy."
But only two of the homicides have taken place in Spring Hill. Maurer said that from the brushy wilderness of Ridge Manor to the marshy coastline along Hernando Beach, and the more suburban areas in between, deputies have reported feeling tension across Hernando County — maybe brought on at least in part by the bad economy.
"It has the sense of a pressure cooker out on the street, where everything feels a lot more stressed," he said. "We're trying to keep ahead of it."
Personal connection in every killing
First, let's rewind a bit.
The mayhem started Jan. 10, when prominent osteopathic physician Robert Blackburn, 55, killed his 40-year-old wife, Sarah, in their sprawling mansion in Spring Hill. He savagely beat and choked his wife before shooting her once in the head. Blackburn then shot himself.
Four days later, a 55-year-old roofer, John Kalisz, went on a rampage that claimed the lives of his sister, Kathryn Donovan, 61, and her 59-year-old office manager, Deborah Tillotson. In little more than a week, there was another murder-suicide, this time an elderly couple who lived in a gated golf course community.
And then finally, a break. One hundred days with no bloodshed in Hernando.
But on the 100th day, May 3, deputies were called out to a grisly scene in a remote section of far eastern Hernando County. There they found Ivan Horne's body near the back of a vacant home, clad only in a pair of boxer shorts, white socks and a black long-sleeve shirt. Deputies say Horne's 19-year-old son and an accomplice shot him several times with a shotgun in order to get 22 pills and cash.
On May 15, deputies found the body of 80-year-old community leader and former teacher Sarah Davis in her blood-splattered home in south Brooksville. The lead suspect in her death is a 39-year-old career criminal whom Davis allegedly tried to help by allowing him to perform odd jobs around the house.
Then came the fatal stabbing and carjacking of Enrique Acevedo on June 20. The 18-year-old and his girlfriend, Skyler Nicholle Collins, also 18, had driven to Emerson Road, south of Brooksville, to pick up Collins' ex-boyfriend, who had called Collins asking for a ride for him and two of his friends.
Shortly after Acevedo and Collins picked them up, one of the passengers stabbed Acevedo twice in the back of the neck while another passenger choked Collins until she lost consciousness. The suspects were later arrested and face charges of first-degree murder.
It was during a news conference the next day that Sheriff Nugent was told of the most recent homicide, this one at a home in Spring Hill where 21-year-old Stanley Elias Eckard allegedly killed his younger brother and buried him in the back yard.
"This is an absolutely bizarre case," Nugent said at the news conference.
Focus on heading off bigger problems
The staggering body count has meant an unusually hefty workload for Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino, the county's chief homicide prosecutor.
"All I know is that the numbers are up," Magrino said. "I'll leave it to someone else to figure out the how and the why."
Thing is, criminologists say, it's nearly impossible to figure out the why. Particularly in an area that usually averages no more than a handful of homicides a year.
Kathleen Heide, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, noted that the personal nature of most of the crimes — the accused killer was known to the victim — means that there's likely no trend to the homicides at all.
Most likely, it's just a terrible fluke.
"These are statistically rare events," Heide said. "I think of these more as aberrations instead of part of a trend."
Of course, that's of little solace to Maurer and the Sheriff's Office. The numbers are the numbers, and right now, they're abnormally high for Hernando.
In an effort to keep them down, the Sheriff's Office has maintained its focus on more-manageable problems: larcenies, burglaries and prescription drug abuse. The agency has been making strides in these areas in recent years, helping Hernando record its lowest violent crime rate of the decade in 2009.
Maurer said the hope is that controlling some of the smaller crimes will keep situations from escalating into larger crimes.
"Our hope is that this shall pass," Maurer said. "You can't give up hope."
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6120.