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A police officer comes out of the second floor of the tenth Street garage where a homicide took place at San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif. on Tuesday, May 10, 2011. (Jim Gensheimer/Mercury News)

An apparent murder-suicide that left two men and a woman dead in a San Jose State parking garage were the first killings on campus since 1994, but for the city of San Jose, the Tuesday night homicides marked the 19th and 20th so far this year -- a number equal to all the city's homicides committed in 2010.

San Jose has long been considered one of the safest cities in America, coming in fourth for the past three years among cities with populations over 500,000, according to FBI statistics.

But with 20 homicides in the first five months of the year, including three multiple homicides, it raises the question of whether the city is growing more dangerous. It's an assertion that bristles San Jose police.

"How do you factor in these cases that are isolated incidences?" Sgt. Jason Dwyer, spokesman for the San Jose Police Department, asked Wednesday. "If someone goes over the deep end, is that an accurate assessment of how safe the city is? Of course, one homicide is too many and we're not minimizing it. But you really need to talk about the motives behind them and see what effect they have on the overall safety of the city."

It's not good to have high numbers, he said, "but a serial killer will impact a city a lot more than a person who snaps and murders someone he is romantically involved with."

The homicide rates in the Bay Area's second- and third-largest cities also are up, although not as dramatically as in San Jose. San Francisco has 21 homicides as of May 7, compared with 17 at the same time in 2010. Oakland has 35 homicides as of May 8, up from 31 last year. There were 10 homicides in San Jose at this time last year.

The motive for Tuesday evening's killings at San Jose State is still being investigated, and university officials said little Wednesday. But one witness at the crime scene on the fifth floor of the university's 10th Street garage said a young man and woman were found shot to death in a black Mercedes, parked in the 5B section of the garage. The shooting suspect, who died at the hospital, was found next to the car. A small handgun was recovered near him.

Although campus officials knew the names of all three people Wednesday, they declined to release them. They plan to wait until 10 a.m. Thursday, hoping by then to have reached relatives of the third person. "The human thing to do" is to wait, university spokeswoman Pat Lopes Harris said Wednesday.

She said only that the victims were connected to the university. It seems likely they are students, however, since Harris called this week's killings "unprecedented" and campus police Chief Peter Decena said the 1994 killing on campus was different because it "was not a student."

In December 1994, a 44-year-old employee of concert promoter Bill Graham Presents was stabbed to death by a fan during a heavy metal concert at the campus Event Center. Three months later, an 18-year-old man was shot twice in a campus parking garage after another Event Center concert, but he survived.

Tuesday's shooting in the garage was reported at 8:36 p.m. as students were coming and going from evening classes. Several witnesses were in the garage at the time, Decena said, and they have been interviewed by police. Campus police are leading the investigation, although they are getting help from San Jose Police Department homicide investigators as well as crime scene veterans.

The killing was not gang related, and none of those involved had criminal records, Harris said.

"We're still looking into how the three knew each other," she said.

One student who lives across the street from the garage said he heard at least 10 shots fired in rapid succession. Kevin Seay, 21, was home when he heard six popping sounds. He asked a roommate whether he heard anything, and then he heard six to eight more shots. About 45 minutes later, Seay heard what he believes was a single gunshot.

"It was pretty intense because we didn't know what was going on" Seay said. After the first two rounds of popping noises, Seay said, dozens of people were on the sidewalks wondering what had happened. He said police arrived quickly and ordered numerous people on various levels of the garage to stay put.

A university public address system was activated within about 30 minutes of the shooting, telling people in classrooms and school offices that there was no threat to the campus community, Harris said. An email alert followed more than an hour after that with a similar message from university police, saying the "suspect is in custody." It was sent to those who had registered for the alert system, she said, including faculty and about half the student body. Still, some students complained on Facebook and Twitter that they were kept in the dark for too long.

The 10th Street garage was open Wednesday morning, which is where Charles Tumbaga, a 32-year-old electrical engineering student, parked about 9 a.m. While calling the shooting "unfortunate," he said SJSU is "relatively safe."

"I can't imagine what the motive would be for someone to come and kill people here," he said.

Cheryl Johnston, 52, who has been a student on and off since the 1990s, called the incident "terrible."

"It's so disturbing. We've never had anything like this here before. I have no idea why young people with so much ahead of them would be so final about things."

The campus homicides came four days after two men were gunned down and a teenager was wounded at a house party a block away from Mount Pleasant High School in San Jose. Across town in January, three people were killed during a firefight at the Mexicali Club on Oakland Road when gunmen tried to kidnap the owner over an alleged debt.

San Jose's homicide total so far for 2011 also includes the deaths of two men who were wounded last year but succumbed to their injuries this year.

Anyone with information about the shooting may call San Jose State police investigators at 408-924-2168.

Mercury News staff writer Lisa Fernandez contributed to this report. Contact Mark Gomez at 408-920-5862.