When Gary Poore saw his friend get punched, he didn’t think he would lose his drinking buddy forever.

By police jurisdiction, the number of homicides for 2011 and 2012 in the tri-county area: Berkeley County 2011 2012Sheriff’s Office 5 10Goose Creek PD 0 2Moncks Corner PD 3 1Hanahan PD 0 1Law agencies total 8 14*Other agencies in Berkeley County had no homicides during both years. Charleston County 2011 2012North Charleston PD 5 13**Charleston PD 11 12Sheriff’s Office 10 8Mount Pleasant PD 2 2Law agencies total 28 35*Other agencies in Charleston County had no homicides during both years.**One of 13 was in Dorchester portion of city Dorchester County 2011 2012Sheriff’s Office 2 3Summerville 0 3**Law agencies total: 0 6*Other agencies in Dorchester County had no homicides during both years.** One of three was in Berkeley portion of city— 2011 statistics based on FBI reports. 2012 is based on data that agencies provided to The Post and Courier. FBI has not yet released its 2012 data. By the numbers

The man who was helping to break up a fight at Loco Joe’s bar outside Summerville was unconscious as soon as the fist struck his face. He fell backward, and his head hit the concrete floor.

The 51-year-old grandfather and Navy veteran never opened his eyes again. He died eight days later.

But James Francis Beatty won’t go into the record books as a murder victim. The Post and Courier recently compiled a list of all homicide cases that Lowcountry law agencies handled last year — one that shows spikes in the number of slayings in Berkeley County, North Charleston and Summerville.

But Beatty is not on it. His death instead falls into a statistical gray area for detectives at the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office. The county coroner declared it a homicide, but sheriff’s investigators don’t consider it one of their three murders of 2012. They couldn’t prove, sheriff’s officials explained, that the assailant intended to inflict a mortal injury.

Michael David Sigler, a bar regular who at times worked in construction with Beatty, instead is charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. The felony carries up to 20 years in prison — a stiffer penalty than an involuntary manslaughter charge would bring, prosecutors argued.

But investigators’ treatment of the case has perplexed Poore, who learned that Beatty’s accused killer has two prior convictions for the same offense and at least three others for misdemeanor assault. Three years ago, Sigler roughed up a former girlfriend during a home invasion in West Ashley and punched the female police officer who responded.

He is out on bail awaiting trial.

“A good man is dead, and a man who has done this before is walking the streets,” Poore, 42, said. “There’s something wrong with that picture.”

Crime spikes

Not including Beatty’s death in its total, Dorchester County had far fewer slayings last year than all counties in the tri-county area, according to the tallies that law agencies submitted to The Post and Courier.

With the exceptions of Berkeley County, North Charleston and Summerville, homicide tolls were static.

The Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office handled 10 slayings last year, doubling its number from 2011.

Among them were the fatal shootings of 18-year-old Dana Woods and 22-year-old June Guerry, whose bodies were found in the Francis Marion National Forest.

Sheriff’s officials declined to comment on the increase.

After a lull in its homicide rate in 2011, when it had five slayings, the North Charleston Police Department led all area agencies by recording 13 killings last year.

The rise marks a return to a statistical average for a city that has been dogged by drug violence.

Police Chief Jon Zumalt said he is concerned about the spike, though overall crime in the city is about half of what it was a decade ago. Zumalt, who recently announced his retirement, hopes the city can sustain its progress in fighting crime.

The majority of last year’s homicides could be traced to drugs, and Zumalt said several occurred in private buildings where they likely could not have been prevented. Officers continued to have a strong presence in troubled neighborhoods to clamp down on street violence, he said.

Police also suspect that the bump is linked to offenders returning to the city after completing prison sentences.

“These are shooters, robbers, drug dealers. And over time, they seem to be contributing to (the violence),” Zumalt said. “I don’t have all the statistics to validate that, but I am concerned.”

In Charleston, Chief Greg Mullen mirrored Zumalt’s thoughts about keeping the community’s bad apples behind bars, as well as denying bail to offenders with violent histories. The city had one more homicide last year than it did in 2011, when it recorded 11.

He mentioned the recent sentencing of East Side Posse leader Michael “Mikey” Hayes to 27 years in a federal prison. Hayes’ gang had been responsible for much of the violence in the downtown’s East Side, Mullen said.

He also pointed to legislation that would result in a felony charge for someone convicted a third time for unlawfully carrying a firearm. No matter how frequently someone gets caught, he said, it’s now just a misdemeanor.

Ordinary disputes that turn deadly just because someone involved is carrying a gun could be prevented if the law dissuaded more people from packing weapons, the chief said.

“It’s kind of ridiculous that if you get caught stealing a pack of cigarettes three times, it becomes a felony,” Mullen said, “but if you get caught with a gun three times, it stays a misdemeanor.”

A ‘good guy’

Beatty’s death at Loco Joe’s, which has since changed owners and names, stood out in 2012 because of what it did not involve: a gun.

Of the 55 homicides reported by tri-county agencies, 49 included a firearm.

At the watering hole on Miles Jamison Road, patrons can shoot pool or down a can of Budweiser, Beatty’s favorite. Walk into the bar on any day, and someone could tell a story about “Jimbo” or about the way his life ended on Jan. 10, 2012.

It was a Tuesday, and as usual, Beatty and Poore were nursing beverages after work. Beatty was a skilled carpenter; Poore, a bartender at the joint.

The duo sat in the bar where Beatty liked to cheer on the Pittsburgh Steelers, his hometown football team. They chatted about Beatty’s newborn granddaughter, whom he met during the holidays.

“He liked to have a few and get up and dance with the ladies,” bartender Cessy Laney said of the divorced man. “He was just a fun, all-around good guy.”

Trouble brewed when two women started fighting. Poore separated the two and sent one outside.

When the angry woman returned, Beatty jumped up to help. He confronted the woman and flicked a lit cigarette at her. It whizzed past her head.

Poore again ushered the woman out. But that’s when Sigler walked up to Beatty and punched his face, Poore and other witnesses said.

Beatty dropped to the floor near a bowling arcade game. He did not move.

“Right then,” Poore said, “I knew my buddy was gone.”

Not ‘murders’

Sigler drove away. Deputies later stopped his sport-utility vehicle, and witnesses identified him as the man who punched Beatty.

He was jailed for high and aggravated assault and battery, and the charge remained unchanged after Beatty died.

The felon who has spent time at Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville posted a $75,000 bail and was released.

Sigler’s criminal record dates to 1991 and shows at least five convictions for assault, as well as others for marijuana possession and grand larceny. With a half-dozen arrests for driving under suspension, he also was convicted of leading Mount Pleasant police officers on a high-speed chase in 2002.

In February 2010, Sigler was drunk and arguing with an ex-girlfriend when he kicked in the front door of her West Ashley home, according to arrest affidavits. He grabbed the woman’s hair, threw her to the floor and pushed her into the wall, the documents stated. He pinned her to the floor and bit her hip before leaving with her car keys and some frozen meat.

A city police officer who was responding to a 911 call confronted Sigler as he ran. The officer fired a Taser, but it didn’t bring him down.

The policewoman tried to grapple with Sigler, but he punched her face.

He was on probation for that crime when witnesses said he hit Beatty.

While Coroner Chis Nisbet labeled the case a homicide, prosecutors and investigators didn’t consider it a murder.

Other cases with similar homicide rulings include the mauling of Ridgeville infant Aiden McGrew in April. His father, 29-year-old Quintin McGrew, is charged with unlawful conduct toward a child.

And a hit-and-run that killed 23-year-old Jorge Luis Martinez in December outside a North Charleston-area bar also was deemed a homicide: The hit-and-run occurred amid an argument in the parking lot. Alvaro Zuniga-Rivas, 22, faces a charge of leaving the scene of an accident involving death.

“All homicides are not murders,” sheriff’s Deputy Chief Sam Richardson said. “The charge we choose is based on the elements of a crime.”

Attempts to contact Sigler’s public defender, Michelle Suggs, were not successful.

Solicitor David Pascoe declined to comment on Beatty’s case because it is not resolved. But, Pascoe said, he has handled past crimes that bear a similarity.

He prosecuted someone accused of punching another man, who fell and struck his head on a sidewalk in Orangeburg County. The defendant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, Pascoe said, because that was the only charge applicable at the time. It’s punishable by up to five years in prison.

But in 2010, a law change made high and aggravated assault and battery a felony that isn’t eligible for parole.

If convicted, Sigler faces two decades behind bars. His charge does not carry a minimum sentence.

“It does sound crazy that you can kill someone with a fist,” Pascoe said. “But we have the laws now to deal with it.”

Glenn Smith contributed to this report.