Alfonso Sanchez had a deserved reputation as a tough-as-nails district attorney.
He was the region’s top law enforcement official when a band of Spanish-American rebels carried out a bloody raid at the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla.
Gloria Garcia, Sanchez’s longtime legal secretary after he entered private practice, saw a different side of him. She says he never met a law-abiding underdog he didn’t try to help.
A niece of Sanchez by marriage, Garcia said he routinely accepted impoverished clients in civil cases and collected unusual forms of compensation in return for his services.
“In one case, we received doughnuts every day for what seemed like a couple years. Another time, I think, the payment was a goat. He looked out for the elderly and poor people,” Garcia said.
She grieves for him. Sanchez died Monday at an assisted living center in Albuquerque, said his wife, Cecilia. He was 93.
Dementia had assaulted his short-term memory. But Sanchez could be lucid in discussing the violent courthouse siege of June 5, 1967.
Years ago, he would pull me aside at the state Capitol and recount one aspect or another of the violence in Tierra Amarilla.
Sanchez’s archfoe in the swirling ’60s was Reies Lopez Tijerina, a onetime Pentecostal preacher who found a different calling. Tijerina became known as King Tiger, leader of an organization called La Alianza Federal de Mercedes — the Federal Alliance of Land Grants.
By the reckoning of Tijerina and his followers, they were the rightful owners of millions of acres in the Southwest. They claimed ancient Spanish grants entitled them to the land, much of it in national forests.
On the day of the courthouse raid, King Tiger and his raiders hoped to make a citizens’ arrest of Sanchez. They said the district attorney was illegally prosecuting 11 members of their alliance for protests over land grants.
Sanchez, who was district attorney of Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties, was not at the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla when the raiders arrived. Tijerina and about 20 armed followers stormed the building in search of the prosecutor and their comrades, all of whom had already been released by a judge’s order.
None of this cooled tempers. Tijerina’s gang shot and wounded a jailer and a state police officer. They beat a sheriff’s deputy, then took him and UPI reporter Larry Calloway as hostages.
The National Guard and a wave of police officers scrambled to restore order. It took law officers six days to track down and arrest Tijerina.
Sanchez had no empathy for Tijerina or his cause.
“He’s the disease,” Sanchez told the Miami Herald in 1967.
The prosecutor’s views weren’t shared by all. A jury acquitted Tijerina in the shootings and violence at the courthouse, a case personally prosecuted by Sanchez.
Tijerina later served about two years in prison for assaulting a federal officer and destroying federal property. He died in 2015 at age 88.
Polito Martinez read about the courthouse raid as a seventh grader at Wilson Junior High School in Albuquerque. In adulthood, Martinez began dating Gloria Garcia, and that led to his meeting Sanchez.
“He taught me honesty and respect just by being around him. I loved him like a dad,” Martinez said.
Sanchez was born in Belen and graduated from Albuquerque High School. He served in both the Army and the Air Force, said Cecilia Sanchez, his wife of 59 years.
He ran track at the University of New Mexico, where he completed his undergraduate and law degrees. Sanchez began practicing law in 1957, landing a job as an assistant district attorney.
A Democrat, Sanchez won his first political office in 1962 as a member of the state House of Representatives. He served only three days of the 1963 legislative session before then-Gov. Jack Campbell appointed Sanchez as district attorney.
Sanchez resigned from the House, making his one of the briefer careers in legislative history.
As district attorney, one of his first big trials was the prosecution of two boys, 15 and 17, who shot and killed Lucille Bruce, a secretary at the state Capitol. A jury convicted both teenagers of murder.
Sanchez won election as district attorney in 1964 and he sought a full second term four years later, after the courthouse violence.
He lost in the Democratic primary election.
He later ran for a state district court judgeship, but lost that race, too.
In addition to running a private law practice, he started De Vargas Savings and Loan, which operated from 1971-86.
He and his wife had four children. Daughters Alicia, Arlene and Peggy survive him. A son, Tommy, died in 2013.
Sanchez’s own life was filled with ups and downs, the latest being his deteriorating memory. He could never forget the bloodshed at Tierra Amarilla, even if he tried.