Overdoses and crashes claimed more lives in the Tri-Cities last year while deaths by suicide and homicide did not increase.

Benton and Franklin county coroners released their yearend figures for 2020 showing more death investigations overall from the year before.

While most of the deaths were from natural causes, both coroner offices saw a surge in accidental deaths.

Benton County’s deadly accidents jumped from 56 to 86, the most that county has seen in 12 years. That included six people who died in house fires last year.

Five of them came within a week of each other in August. First, Tara Ulmen Didier, 60, died inside her First Avenue home Aug. 19.

Then smoke overcame Marcaria Martinez, and her son and two daughters inside their Benton City mobile home Aug. 27.

1--Benton City Fatal Fire
Its a somber gathering for friends and neighbors as they console each other across the street from the site of a fatal fire in Benton City. A mother and her three kids were killed in the blaze. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Benton County also saw increases in the number of fatal car crashes going from nine to 17 and deaths from falls up from eight to 14.

Franklin County’s accidental deaths also more than doubled from 12 to 26. That was largely driven by a jump in overdose deaths — up from 4 in 2019 to 13 last year.

Fatal crashes and falls stayed the same.

Fatal overdoses

Fentanyl led Benton County’s surge in overdoses. Fatal overdoses climbed from 26 in 2019 to 38 last year.

The synthetic opioid was responsible for 20 deaths, as many as all other drugs combined. It was the first year it surpassed methamphetamine, which still was responsible for eight deaths.

Heroin and morphine were each responsible for three deaths, and six others were caused by either a mix of drugs or another type of drug.

Fentanyl killed the same number of people — eight — during the first four months of 2020 as in all of the previous year.

Suicides

COVID-19 lockdown and school closures heightened concerns about suicides in the Tri-Cities and nationwide, but deaths by suicide did not climb locally.

In Benton County, the number of deaths by suicide dropped from 38 in 2019 to 34 in 2020. Most involved firearms.

That was still far below the 12-year high of 47 in 2017.

Franklin County saw the number of suicides increase from four in 2019 to eight last year. However, there also were eight in 2018.

Deadly crash and falls

Benton County saw the number of fatal crashes double in a year.

They included a 95-year old Benton City woman who died when a car she was riding in crashed into a stalled car on Interstate 82, and a 21-year-old Pasco mother who died after falling out of the passenger side of her friend’s Toyota Camry in October.

In November, a 42-year-old Finley woman was killed when the off-road vehicle she was riding in flipped over onto her. The driver, David P. Miller, 31, is charged with hit-and-run.

The county also saw an increase in deaths from falls, including from buildings, ladders and people falling from a standing position. They went from eight in 2019 to 14 last year.

The number of falls and car crashes stayed steady at two each in Franklin County.

One fatal crash happened on Interstate 182 when Gale Easterday was killed when he drove the wrong way from the Fourth Avenue exit and crashed into a semi hauling potatoes for the Easterday Farms.

Benton County homicides

Benton County had six homicides, including one officer-involved shooting death and three slayings at Richland motels.

Six suspects are currently awaiting trial for first-degree murder and a seventh is charged with second-degree murder.

On Jan. 9, Oscar Martinez, 25, was stabbed by his brother several times in the chest on the porch of a Prosser home. The attack came after they argued about $300.

Alejandro Martinez is charge with second-degree murder.

1--Kennewick officer shooting
Investigators from the regional Special Investigations Unit worked the scene of the Feb. 9 fatal officer-involved shooting of Gordon Whitaker near Columbia Drive and North Fruitland Street in Kennewick. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

On Feb. 9, Gordon Whitaker, 45, of West Richland, was shot five to six times by Kennewick Officer Dylan Markley during a confrontation with police on Fruitland Drive.

A 9mm pistol was found about a foot from Whitaker’s left hand. The magazine was loaded but there was no cartridge in the chamber, according to an investigative report.

The shooting drew attention during the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller decided the deadly force was justified and no criminal charges were filed against the officer.

Patrick Romero, 21, of Kennewick, was shot on Bruneau Place after he chased a carload of teens and threw a rock at them, after they fired a BB gun at cars and homes in his neighborhood.

Main for Print
A makeshift memorial was placed on the sidewalk of West Bruneau Place in Kennewick where Patrick S. Romero, 21, was fatally shot. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Stuart B. Walker, 18, is charged with first-degree murder. Two other teens were charged for their part in the attack.

The first of three killings at Richland motels happened in April when Anthony Irvine, 24, of Burbank, was shot in a motel room during an apparent robbery.

Accused gunman Jonah Wayne Glass and his accomplice Joselyn Guzman are charged with first-degree murder.

In May, William L. Bepler, 38, was stabbed with a pocket knife at Richland’s Economy Inn on George Washington Way after a fight about barking Chihuahuas.

The attacker, Earnace Beasley Jr., 65, of Richland, is charged with first-degree murder.

Jonathan M. Rodriguez,27, is accused of fatally shooting Joshua R. Gibson, 39, outside a Richland hotel believe he allegedly believed Gibson touched his girlfriend inappropriately.

Rodriguez and Michael G. Cook, 43, are charged with first-degree murder.

Franklin County homicides

Franklin County had six homicides compared to seven the year before. One involved a deadly shootout between a murder suspect and Pasco police.

The first was in April when Reynaldo Rodriguez-Hernandez, 19, from Nicaragua, was shot three times and found wrapped in a tarp at an Eltopia home.

The alleged shooter, Pedro Bucio, 32, of Eltopia, is charged with first-degree murder for shooting the former friend and leaving him in the storage room of a house where Bucio’s parents lived.

0429 backyard
Several dozen crime scene markers are visible through an opening in the fence in the back yard of a house at 1901 E. Lewis St. where one man was fatally shot and two others wounded in Pasco. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald.

On April 29, Luis “Oso” Contreras, 29, of Pasco, was was killed and two others wounded in a gang-related shooting in the backyard of a Lewis Street home in Pasco.

One of the alleged gunmen, Anthony Larios, 18, and Miguel Montalvo, 21, are charged with second-degree murder and two counts of first-degree assault. A third man is charged with rendering criminal assistance.

Weeks later Miguel Montalvo and his cousin Juan Montalvo, 25, allegedly tried to kill witnesses at the same Lewis Street home.

Pasco police tracked them to a nearby home and ended up in a shootout. Miguel Montalvo was wounded and arrested, and Juan Montalvo was killed.

Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant has not announced his decision on whether the deadly force was justified.

In June, Antonio Huizar, 18, of Pasco, died after a gang-motivated drive-by shooting along Interstate 182 in Pasco. Cannon Lopez, 17, of Pasco, was charged with first-degree murder.

A fight in July between relatives in Pasco ended with the stabbing death of Praxedis Vargas Magaña, 67, of Pasco. Giovanni Magaña, 30, of Pasco, is charged with second-degree murder.

In November, a wrong-way drunk driver on Interstate 182 killed Jamin Dean Sovy, 37, of Pasco, when his car was hit head-on by the pickup truck.

The driver, Alfredo Torres, 25, of Pasco, is charged with vehicular homicide.

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Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.