A teenager bludgeoned three people to death with a 5-pound mattock in El Rancho in 2011; more than eight years later, a judge handed him a 25-year prison sentence for the grisly crimes, which had rattled the small and tight-knit Northern New Mexico community to its core.
In Santa Fe, a man who had stabbed his girlfriend to death in 2017 was sentenced recently to 12 years behind bars on a manslaughter charge in a deal with prosecutors after key evidence turned up missing.
In a pending rape case, a judge ordered the defendant’s release from jail as a sanction against state prosecutors who had violated evidence rules.
And last year, a judged tossed out a case against a man who police said had confessed to fatally shooting a former Santa Fe librarian in 2016; the judge ruled the state had violated the defendant’s right to a speedy trial.
Robert Mondrian-Powell, 59, died in fall 2018, months after his release from jail. Prosecutors apparently were unaware of this — they tried to reinstate his murder charge in the death of Elvira Segura, whose body was left to decompose for weeks in a bathroom of her Nambé home.
Although there are mitigating circumstances in each of these cases, they are among many in the First Judicial District that have become a flashpoint of emotion, raising questions and concerns from the public and victims’ families about the state of the criminal justice system in Northern New Mexico.
“You don’t get much for murder anymore,” said Julian Valdez, who owns Julian’s Bel Air Barber Shop in Pojoaque and knew the three people killed in neighboring El Rancho: Lloyd Ortiz, 55; his wife, Dixie Ortiz, 53; and their special-needs son, 21-year-old Steven Ortiz.
“You get more for abusing an animal,” Valdez said. “Human life isn’t worth as much as it used to be.”
At the Angel Strands beauty salon in Española, a woman getting her hair colored Friday morning said she lost faith in the criminal justice system in the First Judicial District, which includes Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties, a long time ago.
“I had a niece murdered in this town, violently murdered,” said the woman, who declined to give her name for fear of hurting her sister if she read the comments in the newspaper. “The boy did, I mean, violently murdered her, and he did 11 years in prison. … The point that hurt us so badly back then was that the justice system was totally wrong. There was no fairness in it.”
In a statement, District Attorney Marco Serna said that while he empathizes with grieving family members, the criminal justice process, from investigation to prosecution to sentencing, is complex.
“Each case has unique legal issues that arise at different points in this process,” he wrote.
Cherie Ortiz-Rios, who found the bloody bodies of her parents and brother in El Rancho, said the justice system is broken.
“I’m getting flooded with people apologizing to me after everything that our family has been through over these last eight years and what he got,” she said, referring to the 25-year prison sentence for Nicholas Ortiz, who was 16 at the time of the murders. “All they’re saying is, ‘I am so sorry. You fought so hard and so long, and it almost feels like it’s for nothing.’ ”
Nicholas Ortiz, who will spend less than 25 years behind bars if he receives credit for good behavior, was not related to the victims but had been a family friend and frequent guest in their home.
His first trial ended in a hung jury. He was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder following his second trial. There was no DNA or other evidence connecting Nicholas Ortiz to the crime. The state’s case against him was based primarily on the testimony of his co-defendants — cousins Ashley Roybal, who was 24 at the time, and Jose Roybal, who was then 15.
The Roybal cousins told investigators they had conspired with Ortiz to steal from the family’s home but that Ortiz had carried out the killings alone. Ashley Roybal will spend no more than 10½ years in prison for her role in the crime, and Jose Roybal received immunity in exchange for his testimony.
“Jose got off scot-free,” Ortiz-Rios said. “He even had the balls to ask for a reward.”
Joyce Gurule said she has “little faith” in the system, not only from personal experience stemming from a domestic violence case but because the man who fatally stabbed her friend, 21-year-old Selena Valencia of Santa Fe, had his charge reduced from murder to voluntary manslaughter in a plea deal with prosecutors, due to missing evidence in the case, and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
The case against Valencia’s boyfriend, Christopher Garcia, who pleaded no contest to the lesser charge, started to unravel after the Santa Fe Police Department admitted it had lost important evidence, including fingernail clippings taken from Valencia’s body. Garcia’s attorney argued the lost items raised doubts that Garcia killed Valencia.
Garcia could be out of prison sooner than 12 years if he earns what’s known as “good time” credit.
“To me, it’s just a slap in the face,” Gurule said. “I can’t even believe it. It’s basically saying, ‘Well, go ahead and murder people in New Mexico or in Santa Fe because if the police don’t mess up the evidence collection, they’re not going to do anything to you anyway.’ It’s scary to think that this person who literally brutally and intentionally stabbed somebody dozens of times is just going to walk free in what — seven, eight years? They’re going to be out in the streets living amongst us again. It blows my mind.”
An imperfect system
The concerns aren’t limited to victims’ families.
As he drank coffee Friday morning at a McDonald’s on St. Michael’s Drive, Lawrence Elmer Longacre, a former Santa Fe city councilor, said he is often incredulous at the headlines he reads in the newspaper involving the criminal justice system.
“For a guy my age, the usual is: You read it, you shake your head and you say, ‘One more case of stupidity,’ ” said Longacre, 86.
But Serna, who has been in office for nearly three years and is now is seeking the Democratic nomination for Northern New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District seat, said cases do not exist in a vacuum.
“Because of that, it is improper to compare Garcia and Ortiz and their respective results,” he wrote.
“For Chris Garcia, the lost evidence created legal issues that absolutely affected the disposition of the case,” he wrote. “As stated in past comments, securing the conviction and a prison sentence for Chris Garcia outweighed the risk of an acquittal.
“I recognize that the surviving family of Selena is disappointed,” he added, “and there are no words to describe how it affects me and my team of advocates and prosecutors to know that Selena was not afforded the justice she deserved because of human error and an imperfect system.”
The Santa Fe Police Department, which has come under fire after an audit report released last month found its evidence room in disarray, also called the criminal justice system “a very complex process” with many players — from law enforcement and prosecutors to defense attorneys, judges and members of the public who serve on juries.
“Unless someone is actively involved in the criminal justice system, jury duty often times is the only view members of the public have of how the process actually works, which provides a realistic expectation of the process rather than what has been conveyed through television shows,” the police department said in a statement. “Like any system, there is always room for improvement and the system is not without flaws.”
In addition to what some consider lenient sentences under Serna’s watch, errors made by prosecutors in his office also have resulted in fines.
“Yes, the Court has exercised its authority to sanction the prosecution as a lesser remedy to the exclusion of witnesses or the dismissal of cases for certain discovery violations. This approach to graduated sanctions for potential discovery violations is dictated by case law,” he wrote. “While I accept full responsibility for the fines, it is important for the public to have perspective: over the last two fiscal years my office prosecuted 10,125 cases and the Court has fined the DA’s office [three] times.”
The fines, though, are less of a concern for the family and friends of murder victims.
Gurule said the 12-year prison sentence for Garcia was “devastating” for Valencia’s family.
“Yeah, he’ll have this on his record for the rest of his life that he’s a murderer, but he still gets to live. He gets to breathe air every day, and he gets to go on and maybe someday have a family of his own. Selena doesn’t get that. Her parents don’t get the grandchild, and her dad doesn’t get to walk her down the aisle,” she said, crying.
Disappointment in the courts
While the Garcia case involved missing evidence, which factors into the decision by prosecutors to offer Garcia a plea deal, Serna called the Nicholas Ortiz case a “different consideration” altogether.
“Ortiz was found guilty of [three] counts of first degree murder by a jury in December 2016,” Serna wrote. “Because he was a juvenile at the time of the offense, he was categorized as a ‘serious youthful offender’ and sentenced as an adult. As a serious youthful offender, the Court has broad discretion when sentencing a serious youthful offender like Ortiz.
“For example, the court had discretion to sentence Ortiz anywhere from [zero to 93] years,” he continued. “But, the Court must also consider that a mandatory life sentence without parole for a juvenile is unconstitutional. My office considered all of this when we asked for a 75-year sentence, which considered the gravity of the crime, Ortiz’s lack of accountability, his limited capacity for rehabilitation, and the law.
“As the public is well aware, the Court sentenced Ortiz to only 25 years,” Serna wrote. “I have spoken to the family of Lloyd, Dixie and Stephen Ortiz and they are disappointed by the Court’s sentence, and I am hopeful that they will use their experience to advocate for change — and I will support their efforts for stricter laws and harsher penalties for offenders like Ortiz.”
Ortiz-Rios put the blame on the outcome of the case squarely on the shoulders of state District Judge Francis J. Mathew, a civil judge who heard the criminal trial.
“It was really not only a slap in the face for my family who suffered so brutally but for our justice system in New Mexico,” she said. “This happens over and over and over. These state police officers and the district attorneys, they spend so much of our taxpayer money. They spend so much of their own time away from their families, their children, to help us who have lost our families and children, and the judge just throws it in their face like if their time means nothing.”
Mathew said at Ortiz’s sentencing hearing that state and federal law prohibited him from issuing a maximum sentence because Ortiz was just 16 at the time of the murders.
“He has no business in there making calls on criminal cases like this — absolutely no business,” Ortiz-Rios said, referring to the judge.
Mathew did not return a message seeking comment Friday.
Chief Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer also did not return a message seeking comment, and District Judge T. Glenn Ellington declined to comment.
“With respect to any comments, I would ask, if you haven’t already done so, to listen to [court] recordings of the hearings of cases you’re interested in, as well as review the findings of fact and conclusions of law that the court imposed with its rulings and decisions,” Ellington said in a voicemail message.
Tormented every day
Magistrate Court Judge David Segura, a former Santa Fe police captain, declined to discuss specific cases but said he would comment on the judicial process to help the public better understand how the system works.
“What happens is, when there’s a particular circumstance, the community may not understand that sometimes there are issues that are outside the court’s ability to address,” Segura said. “The issue of bond and conditions of release are recent examples of what the community may not fully understand, so it makes it difficult in terms of their ability to trust the system when they believe that the system is failing, when in fact, what we’re doing is upholding the Constitution and laws that have been enacted by our legislators.”
The frustration isn’t limited to Northern New Mexico.
Last week, for example, a judge granted a motion to release a man charged in connection with the brutal 2016 slaying of 10-year-old Victoria Martens in Albuquerque. A law that allows judges to release defendants without bail if there is no evidence the defendant is dangerous or a flight risk factored into the decision.
“While the circumstances of the offense remain highly concerning, it is no longer claimed that [Fabian] Gonzales harmed the child in any way,” Gonzales’ attorney wrote in a motion seeking his client’s release, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
Though the judge’s decision is under appeal, it sparked outrage across New Mexico. A rally to protest the judge’s decision is scheduled at noon Sunday in front of the state District Court in downtown Albuquerque. The rally, which calls for the judge in the case to be impeached, has been dubbed Stand Up Against New Mexico Judges.
“When I heard Victoria’s story, it just broke me,” organizer Joshua Perez said in a live Facebook video. “I’m going to stick up for the little girl like [she’s] mine. I don’t have kids, so she became a part of something. Now I have to get involved and make sure she gets her justice. There’s nobody else fighting for her.”
But justice doesn’t always come easy, said Ortiz-Rios, whose three family members were killed in El Rancho.
She said her mother was asleep in her bed when she was killed. Her father was caught off guard in the attack.
“And then my brother,” she said. “I guess that’s the one that absolutely torments me every day to think about because my brother, he was a shaken baby who wasn’t even supposed to live. He had so many mental and physical disabilities to begin with, and the way Nicholas killed him was, I mean, just unbelievable.
“Somebody with that kind of hate and evil in them should never, ever, ever be allowed to walk the streets,” she said. “There’s no way to rehabilitate that kind of evil.”
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.