Soon after Columbus rang in 2021 and hoped for a better year, the first bodies showed up at the Franklin County morgue. There were homicides, drug overdoses, suicides, and the coroner’s staff worked to log in the deaths.
4:37 a.m., 6:11, 6:54, 6:55, 7:32, 9:39, 11:04, 11:20, 11:46, 11:51, 12:39 p.m., 5:22, 11:32.
The coroner calls continued all night. Seven minutes into the morning of Jan. 2, they learned about the unthinkable: Two young sisters, ages 6 and 9, were shot and killed by their own father.
12:07 a.m., 12:15, 12:43, 3:13, 4:43.
Shortly after 9 a.m., Franklin County Coroner Dr. Anahi Ortiz tweeted a desperate plea.
“7 people dead overnight by overdoses, 2 young children overnight by homicide, 2 people dead overnight by suicide,” she wrote. “It has been a dark first day of 2021. When will our city and county recognize people need help now, not in 6 months, not in a year.”
Then, two more calls. 7:32 p.m., 7:57 p.m. And even more deaths logged Jan. 3.
“They just kept coming in,” Ortiz said.
12:27 a.m., 3:23, 5:26, 7:57, 10:39, 11:10, 11:14, 1:00 p.m., 2:18, 2:34, 2:42, 2:50, 5:11, 7:45, 9:02, 11:26.
By the time the first three days of the year had passed, the coroner’s office had received 36 bodies of people who had died unnatural deaths. That is nearly double the number during the same time period in 2020, and four times that of 2019.
They were as young as 6 and as old as 94. There were at least five homicide victims and three who died in fatal accidents.
And the pace hasn’t really slowed.
Worrying spike in fatalities: homicides, car crashes, drug overdoses
From New Year’s Day until March 15, the coroner’s office received another 549 bodies, an average of nearly eight per day. The death toll is on pace to exceed last year’s already high total of 2,331 decedents handled by the coroner.
The sheer volume of death means that families have to wait about four months to find out the official cause of death for their loved one. Ortiz said her office is still working on cases from November and December of last year.
“There are too many people dying,” Ortiz said. “There has been a line of funeral home vans almost going down the street waiting for the deceased.”
As the world focused on the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a worrying spike in other deaths, including homicides, fatal drug overdoses and fatal crashes.
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Suicide rates declined for the first time in 20 years in 2019, but the number remained too high and experts worry about the effects of the pandemic on mental health.
The intersection of all unnatural deaths is the coroner’s office, and Ortiz took notice. Her office has been overwhelmed by a rise in deaths for more than a year, but the first three days of this year was something Ortiz hadn’t seen before.
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The problems are plaguing communities far beyond central Ohio.
National experts say the pandemic has exacerbated problems with violence, drug abuse and mental health.
“This was the case of the first pandemic in 100 years bleeding into other pandemics that we have had going for quite some time,” said James Price, a professor emeritus of public health at the University of Toledo. “A devastating, rampant disease has brought increased isolation, depression and caused a massive disruption of American lives. The result is an even greater rise in violence, drug use, the fatal accidents and mental health problems. And we were woefully unprepared for these things to collide.”
Homicide rates up 40% in Franklin County
After Vanecia Kirkland told her boyfriend of 13 years they shouldn’t be together, he said he was going to kill her.
“I’m going to go get my (expletive) gun, and I am going to shoot you in the head,” he said.
Kirkland believed him.
She ran from their Far West Side apartment on New Year’s night, never dreaming that Aaron Williams would hurt their little girls.
When she returned to the apartment a bit later, police and yellow caution tape she had only seen on television were everywhere.
The police told her to go to the hospital, where after an anxious wait, a doctor told her that Alyse, 6, and Ava, 9, were dead. Their father had shot them before shooting and killing himself.
“I remember rolling around on the floor screaming and crying and then spending weeks staring at the wall replaying how I could have changed things that night,” Kirkland said. “But the reality is, I would be dead too.”
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Homicide rates are up more than 40% in Franklin County, according to the latest available statistics from the coroner’s office. From January through September of 2019, there were 94 homicide deaths in Franklin County. In 2020, that same stretch of time included 132 homicides deaths. In Columbus, there were 174 homicides last year, a record total.
More than 19,000 Americans were killed in shootings and firearm-related incidents in 2020, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an online site that collects gun violence data. That’s the highest rate in more than 20 years.
Much of the city has grown numb to the constant shootings, but the one that took Kirkland’s little girls seemed to hurt more than most.
She is now living in Colorado and plans to travel to places like Japan that she and her daughters had talked about seeing someday. She doesn’t know if she can ever come back to Columbus.
Kirkland said Aaron Williams suffered from mental health issues that worsened during the pandemic. He always told her he didn’t have a problem, no matter how much she encouraged him to get help. Two days before the murder-suicide, he finally said he needed to go talk to a counselor.
“If someone is crying out for help, do whatever you can to help them,” Kirkland said. “You don’t want to feel this kind of pain. Believe me.”
Rachelle Knight suffered through similar pain that began just two days later.
Her 19-year-old son, Dontreal Calhoun, was shot on the evening of Jan. 3 and left to die next to a trash can in a dark alley.
He was the city’s fifth homicide of the year.
No arrests have been made in his case, but police are still investigating.
Knight said her heart breaks for Kirkland and the rest of the families who have to live with the thought of their loved ones being gunned down.
“You wake up every day and hear about all these shootings, and then one hits in my home,” Knight said. “And this isn’t just about my son. This is about our whole community. There are too many bodies, too many kids not even making it to their 21st birthday. I don’t know what is wrong with the world, but there isn’t enough respect for life.”
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Columbus to announce new violence intervention initiatives
Ortiz started tweeting her frustration about the rising death toll late last year.
12/18/20: “We have had 9 homicides this week alone. Where are the city leaders? Why is the solution to always hire a consulting firm? While the leadership of this city continues to drag their feet people continue to die.”
1/6/21: “Violence continues with no response from our any of our leaders.”
2/7/21: “And the violence continues. Virtual town halls, speeches by the mayor, none of these address how to deal with the problem right now! Violence erupts in Columbus overnight with 7 separate shootings.”
Ortiz wouldn’t say whether her public comments were aimed directly at Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther. She said the intent of her tweets was to call attention to the rising death rates and hopefully provoke more action from city leaders.
Ortiz believes Columbus should be doing more to address violence and mental health problems. She believes the city should have an Office of Violence Prevention like some other cities, which have created programs to specifically target each problem plaguing their communities.
“I was more like trying to start a fire,” Ortiz said. “Our agency doesn’t have the power to change anything. But we have the knowledge of what is going on. It was meant to spur some action and make people take a look at what they are doing.”
In an interview with The Dispatch, Ginther said he agrees with the national experts who say the pandemic has inflamed the problems surrounding violence, drug abuse and mental health. And he said his administration is working on several fronts to combat the growing problems here in Columbus.
Ginther has been meeting for weeks with various community groups. They include high school students, faith leaders, neighborhood commissions, youth services providers and block watch leaders, to get their input on what is needed to feel safe in their neighborhoods.
Ginther said new intervention initiatives are in the works. The city also will adjust its comprehensive neighborhood safety strategy that was enacted in 2017 and helped reduce violence in the city in 2018 and 2019, Ginther said.
The city also is working with criminologist David Kennedy, who is helping officials evaluate each of the violence prevention and intervention programs to find out what is working and what isn’t.
But Ginther said his biggest push to combat violence and other social ills is to address the root causes of poverty and improving life for the city’s disadvantaged youth.
The city has invested millions of dollars in programs aimed at improving the mental health, physical health and academic enrichment of children who need it most. Ginther said city officials are seeing promising results from a program started last year that provided interventions with at-risk youth, and another program that provides bedside intervention for people who have been shot, stabbed or assaulted.
“Poor families and poor children in particular have to bear the brunt of all of the things that have been impacted due to COVID,” Ginther said. “We are not going to fix that with one program or one summer. What we need to understand as a community is we need to invest in these young people for years to come so they are able to recover from the impacts of COVID.”
She was a joyful, brown-haired, hazel-eyed nurse, beloved by her little girl, the people she cared for and her many friends.
But then life started to snowball in the wrong direction for Jessie Lee McCormick.
A bad relationship led her to drug use and depression.
She worked in a nursing home during the pandemic and would call her mom at night crying when someone she had grown close to would contract COVID-19 or die of the disease.
Last summer, McCormick was taken to the hospital, where she told doctors she tried to kill herself. But McCormick’s mother, Christina Miller, believes that was a lie to hide her drug addiction to pain killers.
“It’s so hard to see someone you love fade away,” Miller said. “The addiction just takes over everything, and you feel helpless to help someone you love.”
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Miller was always afraid to say too much to her daughter about her addiction, because she feared McCormick would keep her from seeing her granddaughter.
McCormick’s depression worsened around Thanksgiving, when her grandfather died.
She and her mother were always close, but in the final weeks of last year, they barely spoke.
On New Year’s Day, McCormick was found dead in her apartment. She was 28 years old.
The official cause of death hasn’t been determined by the coroner’s office, but Miller said she knows that drugs took her daughter.
More and more people are experiencing grief like Miller’s.
Fatal overdose deaths have increased 45% in Franklin County, according to the latest statistics from the coroner’s office. From January through September 2019, there were 423 overdose deaths. During the same period in 2020, there were 614.
There were more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in the 12 months ending in May 2020. That was the highest-ever number of overdose deaths recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a 12-month period. In Ohio, 4,028 people died of drug overdoses in 2019, a 7% increase from 2018, according to the Ohio Department of Health. Numbers are not yet in for 2020.
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Miller is most angry at drug dealers, for not caring whether people die. She also is frustrated with a mental health system that isn’t doing enough to help families combat addiction.
“I lost my daughter and my 6-year-old granddaughter, because she doesn’t live around here anymore,” Miller said. “I try to look at the pictures when she was happy and healthy. I want to remember her as the strong, smart mother who would go out of her way to help anyone she could.”
Families wait for months to find out cause of loved one’s death
What has seemed like an endless stream of bodies for more than a year has taken a toll on Ortiz and her staff of 46 people at the coroner’s office.
The added work has caused burnout and mental health issues among her staff, who are responsible for investigating, examining and processing the deceased whose bodies arrive at their office.
They also moved to a new location last year — a logistical nightmare for a coroner’s office — while having to adjust their office to COVID-19 protocols. Ortiz said she started planning the move (the new office is on Frank Road on the Southwest Side) since she became coroner in 2014, because the old location near Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center was too small for the volume and complexity of the cases they receive.
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For about a year now, families have had to wait at least three to four months to find out the cause of a loved one’s death. Before 2020, that wait time was closer to eight weeks. Ortiz said some of the families are understanding of her office’s extra workload and some are not, but she shares their frustration.
Ortiz says her office could use more personnel in every unit, including more doctors, investigators and people who help process the deceased before they are taken to funeral homes.
But what Ortiz wants most is for local leaders to do more to prevent so many deaths. She said hasn’t heard from those in power since making her public comments, and she isn’t surprised.
“This office can be a lightning rod,” Ortiz said. “But when you know what’s going on, you can say ‘Hey, this needs to change or that needs to change or we need to do more.’”
Ginther said he would be willing to meet with Ortiz or anyone else who has ideas on how to attack the increased problems with violence, drug abuse and mental health.
But, he said, he isn’t going to get into a public back-and-forth.
“I respect her opinion, but the people we work for hire us to solve problems, not lob criticisms,” Ginther said. “I’m the mayor of the 14th-largest city in America. I receive criticism every day for things I choose to do and things I don’t choose to do, and that is part of the job.”
Through his recent talks with people in neighborhoods throughout the city, Ginther said he understands the concern to help make people feel more safe where they live, attend school, go to church and play together.
“There is a sense of urgency for action, and we understand that,” Ginther said. “We collectively as a community have to come together amidst everything going on right now to put neighborhood safety as our top priority.”
Number of fatal crashes on the rise in Columbus
Jonas Sims was walking down a street on the East Side a little after 6 a.m. on New Year’s Day, when he was struck by a car whose driver pulled away without stopping, leaving Sims lying in the dark.
Help arrived quickly, but the 37-year-old father of three died at the scene.
A few hours later, police officers knocked on the door of his mother, Marla Sims, and told her that she had lost her son.
“Someone hit my son and left him there in the middle of the street to die in the cold,” Marla Sims said. “Who does that? How can people be that cruel?”
So far, Columbus police have no leads or information on who was responsible for killing Sims.
The total number of crash reports collected by the Columbus Police Accident Investigation Unit were down more than 28% in 2020 compared with 2019, which is mainly attributed to the pandemic keeping people off the road.
But fatal crashes, like the one that took Sims, rose.
There were 77 fatal accidents in Columbus in 2020, a 15% increase from 2019. There also were a dozen hit-skip fatal accidents in 2020, a 25% increase from 2019, according to data from Columbus Police Department.
There were 28,190 people killed on the nation’s roadways in the first nine months of 2020, despite fewer people driving during the pandemic. That’s a 4.6% increase from the same period in 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And preliminary data from the Ohio State Highway Patrol shows 2020 was the deadliest year on the state’s roads in more than a decade. More than 1,200 people died in vehicle crashes in 2020, which is 100 more deaths than in the previous year.
Marla Sims doesn’t hate whoever crashed into her son and fled the scene. She doesn’t believe the driver targeted her son on purpose. But she wants closure for herself and her three grandchildren.
She wants answers that might never come.
“I forgive them. I’m sure it was an accident,” she said. “Now please just come forward and tell me what happened. Send me a note or something and say you are sorry. I just want to know how my son died. The world has gone crazy.”
Dispatch Reporter Bethany Bruner contributed to this story.