31 Murders In 2023 Make It Roanoke City’s Bloodiest Year Ever

Tragically, 2023 was by far the deadliest year ever for Roanoke City, with an unprecedented 31 murders cited. Of those, reportedly 27 were murdered by gun violence while the other four were victims of stabbings.

On one hand, Roanoke’s struggle with lawlessness has been a trend. As reported here in November 2022, Roanoke City already had, on a per capita basis, the dubious distinction of being the “Number 2 Crime Capital of Virginia.” Only Fredericksburg was worse, and per capita, Richmond, Petersburg, Portsmouth and Norfolk were less dangerous than the Star City.

But on the other hand, even considering that tragic baseline, the number of Roanoke’s murders last year not only broke another record, but shot up an outrageous 72.2%, going from 18 in 2022 to 31 in 2023.

In preparation for this story, The Roanoke Star asked Mayor Sherman Lea Sr. (D) if he had the total number of murders in Roanoke for 2023 and any statement. A member of his staff responded by email: “Mayor Lea is unable to offer comments and would like to direct you to the City Manager’s office.”

Mayor Sherman Lea Sr. (D). During his administration from 2017-2023, Roanoke City has had an unprecedented 123 murders. Lea has announced he is not running for re-election.

So, The Roanoke Star asked City Manager Bob Cowell, and on December 21, 2023 he responded by email:

“The City has recorded twenty-two [sic] gun-related homicides thus far in 2023.

“Any homicide that occurs within our City is tragic.  The City through its police, partners and volunteers continue to work with the community to try and prevent acts of violence when possible and when it is not possible, work with the community in seeking justice for those involved.  Unfortunately, what we are experiencing here in Roanoke is becoming all too commonplace across the Nation.  This is a challenge that requires the entire community to come together to do all they can to prevent violence and when violence does occur, to help the police and courts ensure justice is secured.”

To present a visual reference and show longitudinal trends, The Roanoke Star asked Cowell for data from the past twenty years. On December 28, Cowell sent the following murder statistics from 2003-2022. As a reference, The Roanoke Star added the percentage change year over year and which mayor was in office when.

Granted, mayors do not directly cause violence. Also, correlation and causality are related but not identical. For example, it’s absurd to say “wet roads cause rain.” On the other hand, “elections have consequences” and as President Harry Truman claimed, “The buck stops here.” Leaders do set a tone, hire staff choices, and set policies that can have either good or bad consequences.

Year  Number of Murder Victims % Change from Previous Year Mayor* and Party Affiliation
’23 31 Up 72.2% Sherman Lea Sr. (D)
’22 18 Up 5.8% Sherman Lea Sr. (D)
’21 17 Up 13.3% Sherman Lea Sr. (D)
’20 15 Up 15.3% Sherman Lea Sr. (D)
’19 13 Up 8.3% Sherman Lea Sr. (D)
’18 12 Down 29.4% Sherman Lea Sr. (D)
’17 17 Up 41.6% Sherman Lea Sr. (D)
’16 12 Unchanged David Bowers (D)/Sherman Lea Sr. (D)
’15 12 Up 200%  David Bowers (D)
’14 4 Down 60% David Bowers (D)
’13 10 Unchanged David Bowers (D)
’12 10 Up 25% David Bowers (D)
’11 8 Down 11.1% David Bowers (I)
’10 9 Down 10% David Bowers (I)
’09 10 Down 9.0% David Bowers (I)
’08 11 Up 175% Nelson Harris (D)/David Bowers (I)
’07 4 Down 66.6% Nelson Harris (D)
’06 12 Down 25%  Nelson Harris (D)
’05 16 Up 77.7% Nelson Harris (D)
’04 9 Up 200%  Ralph Smith (R)/Nelson Harris (D)
’03 3 N/A Ralph Smith (R)

* Historically, the Mayor of Roanoke was sworn in on July 1, so two names indicate the first man was Mayor from Jan.-June and the second served from July-Dec. David Bowers was elected mayor as a Democrat in 1992, 1996, and 2012, and an an independent in 2008. Later, City Council took the controversial step to move city elections from May to November, to coincide with national elections. Thus, 2020 was the first year Roanoke had local elections in November, and Sherman Lea Sr. took office Jan. 1, 2021. Murders have been at record-breaking highs in Roanoke City since that date.

Many conclusions can be drawn from the 21 years (2003-2023) of data, but here are a few:

  • Murders went up in 11 years, down in 7, and unchanged for 2.
  • Two years saw a 200% increase in the murder rate (2004, 2015).
  • From 2003, the last full year Roanoke had a GOP mayor (Ralph Smith) to 2023, the murder rate rose from 3 to 31, a 933% increase.
  • The last year Roanoke had a murder rate in the single-digits was 2014, David Bowers’ (I) next-to-last full year in office.
  • The murder rate has increased every year since 2018 and has broken record-highs in 2022 and 2023.
  • Sherman Lea Sr.’s first full year in office, 2017, was the first year Roanoke ever had 17+ murders.
  • Not counting years where the mayor changed on July 1, or Ralph Smith, for whom records are not full, there were 32 murders during 3 years with Nelson Harris (10.6/year); 63 murders during 7 years with David Bowers (9/year); 123 murders during 7 years with Sherman Lea Sr. (17.5/year).
  • Vice Mayor Joe Cobb (D), who recently announced he is running for mayor, was first elected to City Council in 2018, and as top vote-getter, was also Vice Mayor 2018-2020. The murder rate has climbed every year Cobb has been on City Council.
  • The increasing murder rate is a per capita fact and cannot be blamed on increased population, because Roanoke City’s population has remained relatively stagnant for decades, at just under 100,000.

Thankfully, as of the date of writing (January 12), Roanoke has reported no murders for 2024.

–Scott Dreyer

Updated Jan. 13, 16, and 17, 2024:

In response to a Jan. 11 request for information, the RDP emailed The Roanoke Star on Jan. 16, submitting data claiming 26 homicides in Roanoke City in 2023, but 31 murder investigations, two involving unclear causes of death, and one involving Bedford County. The Roanoke Star has requested the RPD provide clarification.

Updated Feb. 8, 2014. As explained here, based on responses from Roanoke City Police, the confirmed number of murders in the City for 2023 is 28. There were 26 murderous incidents, two of which had two victims each, for a total of 28 killed. The deaths of two children are under investigation and have not been ruled homicides, and one murder occurred in Bedford County and is thus recorded by State Police and is not included in the City’s total. That equals 31 murder investigations. 

 

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