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Quiet Santa Clarita adjusts to recent jump in violence

The 911 caller reported a commotion in a yellow home with gray trim in Canyon Country one evening last month. When deputies arrived, they found an elderly man in the garage. He had been beaten to death.

The man, a 74-year-old named Jack Miller, became the seventh homicide victim this year in the city of Santa Clarita and its unincorporated neighborhoods — an area that is consistently rated one of the safest in the nation and is known for attracting families looking for good schools for their children.

In previous years, the area usually saw two homicides at most. In 2011, it saw six, according to coroner and law enforcement data compiled by The Times.

The majority of the killings this year have involved romantic disputes or ones involving family members. (One case involves a drug overdose that led to a murder charge.) In Miller's case, his son has been charged with murder.

"This is such an anomaly for Santa Clarita," said Gail Morgan, the city's spokeswoman. "I have worked for the city for 25 years, and I have never seen anything like this."

An infant and a newlywed are among the dead so far this year.

In January, Ellorah Rose Warner, a 3-week-old girl, was found dead in a truck outside an apartment complex in Newhall. Her father has been charged with murder, sexual assault and torture.

In late May, Courtney Arvizu, a 25-year-old who had recently married, was found dead in her Newhall apartment. Her husband, Robert Arvizu, 48, has been questioned in the killing but has not been charged; he is being held in the Men's Central Jail on an unrelated charge.

In early May, Ledarion Allen Jr., 21, was killed and a woman wounded after her boyfriend allegedly opened fire on the two in a dispute, according to sheriff's officials. The boyfriend has been charged with murder.

On Feb. 8, Johnnie Greenback, 28, was killed and his father was wounded in a family dispute in an apartment in Santa Clarita. Jessica Greenback, 25, has been charged with the murder of her brother and attempted murder of her father.

In the last few months, Capt. Roosevelt Johnson with the Santa Clarita Valley sheriff's station noticed the surge in killings. He put together a working group to help find strategies and solutions to address the violence.

"Any death is tragic," he said. "Our goal is to try to prevent it if we can."

The department is looking to partner more with the Domestic Violence Center of Santa Clarita Valley. Representatives will go on ride-alongs with deputies and work with detectives on individual cases. In addition, a representative from the Child and Family Center, a nonprofit mental health clinic, now works regularly with patrol deputies and detectives.

Starting later this month, deputies also will partner with a county mental health clinician to respond to specific calls. The program will deploy teams to northern Los Angeles County.

Carl Goldman, who moved to Canyon Country 25 years ago, said he has seen the area change from a bedroom community to the county's third-largest city. Goldman, who owns a local radio station, said he's confident that the city's leadership, along with nonprofits in the area, will combat the domestic and family violence problem.

"It's part of the growing pains of the valley," he said.

On a recent afternoon, Deputy Brian Heischuber dealt with more typical Santa Clarita problems as he drove along tree-lined streets.

At one point, he got a call reporting a business dispute between a landlord and a tenant in a shopping plaza.

Leon Lancaster, 70, who witnessed the dispute, told Heischuber what he'd seen. Lancaster, who knew the deputy by name, moved to Santa Clarita from Sun Valley 28 years ago to escape crime.

"The deputies, I'm telling ya, they do a great job," he said. "Very seldom do you have something that lingers on."

After leaving the shopping center, Heischuber was called to a complaint of a person cutting down trees on Forest Service land in Saugus, a hilly stretch with ranches and horses.

"Most of these incidents are isolated," he said. "Everywhere you go, you're going to get some problems."

-- Nicole Santa Cruz

Photo Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Brian Heischuber patrols the Newhall area of Santa Clarita, which has seen a recent rise in violence. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

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