Top stories of 2021: Hartford has deadliest year since 2003

With 35 homicides as of late December, this year has been an exceptionally deadly one for Hartford. Homicides increased 40% from 2020, when the year ended with 25.

While other crimes have declined, the capital city had more killings than in any year since 2003, when 16 people died in a nursing home arson. Four of this year’s homicide victims were children — one only 3 years old.

While cities across the state and nation also are seeing more bloodshed, Hartford’s homicide rate exceeds that of the biggest city in the state, Bridgeport, which had 21 homicides as of Dec. 17, and New Haven, which had 25 homicide victims as of Dec. 19.

“This was our most difficult and heartbreaking year in recent memory when it comes to homicides, and the fact that our experience was shared by cities across the country is little comfort,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said.

“The effects of violence like this are devastating to families , to neighborhoods, and to our whole community, and my heart is with everyone who has lost a loved one or a friend, or simply been exposed to this trauma,” Bronin said.

The Hartford Courant selected Hartford homicides as one of the top 10 stories for 2021. Courant editors selected the top stories of the year based on reader interest and significance.

Baby ‘Jun Jun’ fatally shot while sitting in car

Most jarring were the deaths of four children — three teenagers and a 3-year-old who was sitting in a parked car.

The death of Randell Tarez “Jun Jun” Jones sent shockwaves through the state. Like many 3-year-olds, he was an active little boy who was “always ready to go,” said his mother, Solmary Cruz.

Even if you’re a stranger, “he’s running up to you, giving a hug,” Cruz said recently.

“Jun Jun” was killed in a drive-by shooting April 10 while sitting with his two sisters, ages 4 and 5, in a parked car at Nelson and Garden streets in the city’s North End. Police said the shooter was aiming for the man in the front passenger seat.

Two hours after the deadly shooting, another young person died. Ja’Mari Preston, 16, was gunned down behind a home on Magnolia Street less than a mile away. Police at Garden and Nelson could hear the gunfire, which littered the ground with 75 shell casings from different guns. Police acknowledged the shootings were likely connected, although they haven’t confirmed that the second was in retaliation for the first.

Jaziah Smith, 19, and Tyquam Malone, 16, were arrested in April and charged with murder.

Asked how her young daughters are coping, Cruz said, “They’re doing alright. They’re holding up.”

“It’s been a rough patch,” she said. “But every day it gets better.”

Deadly shooting of Sylvia Cordova in her kitchen

A 56-year-old grandmother also was taken by gunfire in 2021.

Sylvia “Pebbles” Cordova was cooking dinner in her first-floor Sisson Avenue apartment June 9 when someone on a motorized scooter fired an assault weapon from the street, allegedly aiming for people who had robbed him of his Yamaha dirt bike at gunpoint, police said. Bullets pierced the walls of Cordova’s home. One struck her in the head, killing her. It was one of two deadly shootings that day.

Cordova r was known for serving visitors her Puerto Rican cooking.

“She took care of people,” a former neighbor said. “She was just a wonderful person all the way around.”

Omar Reyes, 21, was arrested in June in Puerto Rico and charged with murder in Cordova’s death. He was extradited to Hartford in July and arraigned on charges of murder, conspiracy to commit murder and possession of an assault weapon and high-capacity magazine.

Peacebuilder Brian Oliver gunned down

Cordova and Randell were well outside the age range of the typical city homicide victim in Hartford this year. Most were in their 20s and 30s.

Some of the teens and young adults who died were on the radar of city community groups that reach out to at-risk youth, and a few even worked themselves to stop gun violence.

One of the latter was Brian Oliver, 21. Oliver was gunned down early on the morning of July 19 outside an Irving Street home after a fight at a North End party a few blocks away, court papers show.

He was one of the young people working to stop the violence as a Peacebuilder with the Compass Youth Collaborative, said Warren Hardy, 48, a youth activist and counselor who works with the organization.

Hardy was crushed when he heard the news.

“I’m still feeling it. I wanted to throw in the towel, but I’m not going to do it,” he said. “Brian was like, to me, the bright spot in my life. He reminded me so much of myself. He was very smart.”

Hardy once told him he needed Oliver. After that, Oliver would call him and say,” ‘Hey, I’m just checking in on you,’“ Hardy said.

“He was like a brother to me.”

Police charged Joshua White, 21, with murder, conspiracy to commit murder and a series of weapons offenses. He appeared in a Hartford courtroom in October in front of a dozen members of Oliver’s family.

Makhi Buckly, grandson of violence prevention advocate, fatally shot

Another death that shocked the community was that of Makhi Buckly. Buckly was a freshman at American International College in Springfield, where he played football. He was the only grandson of Carl Hardrick, a lifelong street violence prevention worker at Hartford’s Wilson-Gray YMCA known as “Brother Carl.”

The 19-year-old was fatally shot in broad daylight on Memorial Day in the city’s Southwest neighborhood.

The next day, his grandfather told the Courant his grandson was a competitive athlete who loved his family. Hardrick helped raise Buckly and got the teen involved in YMCA Camp Woodstock in northeastern Connecticut.

Buckly also was known to Hartford Communities That Care, an organization that works to create drug and violence-free environments for young people, families and responds to crises like the shooting that took his life. Andrew Woods, HCTC’s executive director, said Buckly did a presentation on changing violent behaviors in an HCTC summer leadership program, where he was highly respected.

Jaquan Graham, 19, is accused of killing Buckly in an apparent gun trade gone wrong over the backyard fence of Graham’s Southwest neighborhood home, where he was under house arrest for a separate case at the time of the shooting.

Homicide rate ‘frustrating’

Hartford Chief of Police Jason Thody said the surge in homicides has been frustrating.

“This has been a challenging and frustrating year for us when it comes to the number of homicides. While we recognize that this is a broader trend, we have worked tirelessly, both internally and with our community, judicial and law enforcement partners, to both prevent violent crimes from happening and to hold those that have committed them accountable,” he said.

Police made arrests in most of the highlighted homicide cases. As of Dec. 17, they solved 61.76% of the 34 they investigated. City police don’t count the Jan. 6 deadly shooting of a man in Hartford by members of a federal task force, which was determined to be justified, as a homicide because they weren’t the investigators. The clearance rate is slightly higher than the national average for 2019, the latest year available.

Thody said the department’s homicide clearance rate last year was even better, 76% of the 25 cases.

Police took a stunningly large number of guns off the streets in 2021 — 543 — 213 of which were collected at gun buyback events. The other 330 were seized or recovered, a 31% increase over the number of guns seized last year, Thody said.

The chief also listed other steps police took to counter the increase in homicides, particularly those by gunfire. He said police in March started a Shooting Response Team to investigate nonfatal shootings and recently added two detectives to the team. In addition, the department added two detectives to the Crime Scene Division and began a program with the state forensic lab that speeds up DNA analysis, giving a preliminary result in two hours.

Thody said there seems to be different reasons for the increase in deadly violence, which makes the problem harder to attack.

“One thing that has made the increase more difficult to manage is that we have not found any one single driver of this violence, but rather a multitude of causes including narcotics, auto theft, group affiliation and, most notably, the rapid escalation of very personal disputes,” the chief said.

“As such, our team has reacted to this increase with a very diverse approach, including bolstering our narcotics and illegal firearm enforcement, creating a regional auto-theft task force, and creating new units like the Crime Reduction Teams and the Nonfatal Shooting Response Team,” Thody said. “While we have seen some significant improvements in crime categories like aggravated assault, robbery and nonfatal shootings that are generally indicative of homicide trends, we will continue to work with our partners to find ways to reduce violent crime in our community.”

The mayor said the police alone can’t prevent homicides. The courts and community have to be on board.

“I’m deeply grateful for the tremendous work our police department has done, not only in solving homicide cases to help bring both closure and justice, but in dramatically increasing the number of arrests in nonfatal shootings and taking a tremendous number of illegal guns off the street,” Bronin said. “I do believe that the court system and the probation system need to do more to hold perpetrators of gun violence accountable, particularly when it comes to repeat gun offenders who our police have arrested again and again.

“Needless to say, the scourge of gun violence can’t be solved by law enforcement alone, and we’ve worked hard to expand partnerships with community organizations and others doing the hugely important work of violence intervention, de-escalation, mental health support, trauma treatment, and support to justice-involved youth and adults,” he said. “We’ve committed unprecedented resources to that mission, and I’m grateful to all who do that work.”

Christine Dempsey may be reached at