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UPDATED at 9:45 a.m. with latest shooting deaths in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

ST. LOUIS • April Fields’ killer hid in the back seat of her car in January, then stabbed and strangled the 25-year-old woman after she dropped off her daughter at day care.

Nick Kapusniak, 20, died in March in a drive-by shooting during a backyard party with his fraternity brothers.

Kourtney Warren, 23, was killed Nov. 21 when an apparent drug deal erupted into a gunfight at a Phillips 66 gas station.

Those people may not have been connected in life but are linked in death as part of a somber tally of about 190 people who died violently in St. Louis and St. Louis County in 2014. Their names will be read aloud tonight at an annual New Year’s Eve vigil to remember those murdered in the area this year.

The 159 murders in St. Louis this year — through Tuesday — have made 2014 the most violent of recent years, with at least 39 more murders than last year. It’s the highest yearly tally of criminal homicides since 2008, when the city recorded 167 murders.

The homicide tally in St. Louis County has not changed dramatically over the past five years. As of Tuesday, at least 34 people had been murdered this year. According to the Missouri Highway Patrol, there were 37 people murdered in the county in 2010; 41 in 2011; 38 in 2012; and 37 again in 2013.

The reasons for the rise in St. Louis are unclear, especially at a time when homicides in several other U.S. cities this year are continuing a downward trend. Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Denver, Detroit, Milwaukee and Kansas City are among cities likely to see declines in homicides, according to published newspaper accounts and police data.

The year began on pace with 2013, but a bloody spring pushed the number of homicides in St. Louis 47 percent above the previous year by the end of April. After a slower spell, homicides were running 20 percent higher through August. From July on, every month saw more murders than the previous year.

This month had at least 20 homicides through Tuesday, one more than last December’s total.

University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Rick Rosenfeld said the increase in homicides in four north St. Louis neighborhoods alone — Wells Goodfellow, St. Louis Place, the West End and Kingsway East — accounted for most of the year’s overall rise in murders.

“The homicide increase is highly localized,” he said. “Most areas of the city saw no change over last year.”

Police Chief Sam Dotson said he believed one of the reasons for the increase here since August could be what he has called the “Ferguson effect,” the belief that criminals became more emboldened since the Aug. 9 killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. Dotson said he believed crime rose in part because police were diverted from regular patrols to special details focusing on civil unrest.

Overall crime was down about 13 percent heading into August compared with last year, but through the end of November, that decrease shrank to 6 percent. Violent crime was up 2 percent over last year through November; shootings and stabbings had risen by 9 percent. Dotson said the majority of homicides stemmed from domestic violence and arguments between killers and victims who knew each other. Many are linked to drug disputes or gang activity, and most victims had their own criminal history.

Rosenfeld said he saw those links in the data. “If you’re heavily involved in crime, you run a strong risk of being killed,” he said. “If you’re not, your risk is much, much lower.”

Most of the victims were black and male, as were most of the suspects in cases in which a suspect description is known.

This month, Dotson asked the mayor to find money to hire 160 more city officers over the next two years. That followed the death of Bosnian immigrant Zemir Begic, 32, who was beaten to death by a group of teenagers with hammers in the Bevo Mill neighborhood Nov. 30. Three days later, a woman was killed and five other people were shot in an attempted robbery at Pooh’s Corner, a bar in south St. Louis popular with retired and off-duty police.

Dotson also vowed to return to hotspot policing now that officers are spending less time focused on protests in the city.

The real homicide total actually may be higher than 158 because the city’s medical examiner has yet to rule whether at least four deaths police dubbed “suspicious” were homicides.

They include Lynn Horstmann, 40, a pregnant social worker whose decomposed body was found July 22 in her apartment in the 6300 block of Lindenwood Court. Horstmann was found facedown in her bed with a plastic trash bag cinched around her neck, police said in court records.

Another is Shawn Gray, 23, of St. Louis, whose body was found Dec. 3 in the River Des Peres near the Landsdowne Avenue overpass. Autopsy results for Horstmann and Gray have not been released.

The totals in St. Louis and St. Louis County don’t include fatal shootings found to be in self-defense, or police shootings that have been ruled justified or that are still under investigation.

Two-thirds of all murder cases in St. Louis are still unsolved. That includes the death of Kapusniak, a student at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy who was hit by gunfire from a car passing through an alley in the 2700 block of Accomac Street on March 1.

His mother, Renee Kapusniak, said she was concerned about the growing violence in St. Louis. Kapusniak said she last spoke with police a few months ago and was told there were no fresh leads. But she isn’t giving up hope.

“With all the violence going on there, we do not want another family to live through what we’re going through,” she said Tuesday by phone from her home in Waukesha, Wis. “He was a young life who unfortunately was taken from us by a random act of violence, and it has to stop.”

Joel Currier

314-340-8256

Christine Byers

314-340-8087

Joel Currier is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter here: @joelcurrier.

Christine Byers is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.