Faced with a sharp spike in the murder rate, Seattle police are scrambling to pull officers from their regular posts to address growing street violence. Seattle police say there have been nine homicides since Jan. 1. During the same period last year, there were three.

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For 32 years, Maya’s Mexican Restaurant has been a favorite in South Seattle, in part because owner Exequiel Soltero treats his customers like family.

But over the past year, rising crime in the Rainier Beach neighborhood has left the Soltero family’s restaurant increasingly empty, he said.

On Tuesday night, while Soltero was behind the stove, gunshots erupted in Maya’s parking lot, wounding two men. A customer who had just left the restaurant and a second man, who Soltero did not know, died Wednesday of their wounds.

Soltero fears the double homicide could be the final straw for the restaurant he has owned since he was 19. Booths and tables were empty Wednesday, reservations booked into next week were canceled and employees heard from angry customers demanding the restaurant hire private security.

“Families don’t want to come in. I understand their concerns, and I keep asking the police for help,” Soltero said. “I wish I could afford to pay for security, but I can’t. I’m just trying to hang on here.”

The two homicides bring the city’s total this year to nine, well ahead of 2011, when police said there were three homicides during the same period. Police said, so far this year, there have been 18 major aggravated-assaults and homicides involving firearms, with 28 individual victims.

Seattle police have said little about the slain men, ages 41 and 33.

The older man has been identified by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office as George Hendricks Jr. The younger man’s identity has not been released.

Soltero said one of the men had been drinking in the restaurant bar with his wife shortly before the shootings. He told his wife he would see her at home and was shot after he walked outside, Soltero said.

Hendricks was unemployed and had lived in Seattle since he was 12, said his wife, Billie Hendricks. He had seven children from four previous relationships, she said.

Billie Hendricks said she didn’t see who shot her husband because she was still inside the restaurant.

It’s unclear where the second victim was coming from when he was shot.

On Wednesday, police took footage from the restaurant surveillance cameras with the hope of tracking down the gunman, Soltero said.

Faced with the recent spike in homicides — all from shootings — Seattle police are scrambling to pull officers from their regular posts to address the street violence.

In addition to the two shootings Tuesday, another man was killed Monday night near Woodland Park Zoo. Another man was fatally shot outside a Sodo nightclub Feb. 12.

“The violence is happening in all parts of the city. It’s becoming a true emergency, not just for people who are the intended victims, but it’s a danger to people who are in areas where violence may erupt,” Seattle police Deputy Chief Nick Metz said Wednesday.

The double slaying Tuesday occurred just hours after Mayor Mike McGinn placed a heavy focus on violent crime during his State of the City address.

McGinn pledged to “stand firm with the people of Seattle against violent behavior, armed robberies and other forms of criminal behavior.”

Metz said business owners and residents need to band together in a unified front in the form of block watches and business groups.

“It requires a lot more than just police attention,” Metz said.

“We can’t sustain police attention in those areas. It’s going to require businesses to organize and work closely with police. We will work with them to be better organized.”

Soltero said he already belongs to a Rainier Beach merchants group.

He said that police have promised to step up patrols in the area after the shootings, but that’s only a temporary fix. Soltero said he’s looking for a permanent solution to keep his family and customers safe.

Faced with parking-lot loiterers who have threatened him and his family with guns, Soltero said he has put up better lighting outside the restaurant, blasted classical music in the parking lot and installed video surveillance. Nothing has worked, he said.

This isn’t the first time Seattle police have sounded a warning over gun violence and street crime.

In 2006, then-Mayor Greg Nickels called on the Legislature to enact tougher gun laws after a series of shootings sparked fears of a gang war in South Seattle.

Metz said it’s too early to know whether the increase in crime could be a result of gang violence.

In recent years, Seattle’s homicide rate has been relatively low.

In 2009, there were 27 homicides in the city. The next year, there were 19, a 55-year low. Last year, there were 21.

Overall, violent crime has been down in Seattle in recent years, as in other major U.S. cities.

“You look around the country and you see the same kind of trend, it ebbs and flows,” Metz said.

Metz said police will work with schools, churches, community centers and other law-enforcement agencies to get a handle on street violence.

He said they have reassigned officers in the patrol, SWAT, traffic and gang units to assist in the effort.

“This is our number one priority. We have got to stop the violence,” Metz said.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.

Seattle Times staff reporter Brian M. Rosenthal and news researcher Gene Balk contributed

to this report.