The year 2021 was marked with the rising toll of violence in the city and county of Santa Fe.
There were 11 homicides, including two teens; six shootings involving local law enforcement officers, four of them fatal; and the high-profile shooting death of renowned cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the Rust film production at Bonanza Creek Ranch, where Hollywood star and producer Alec Baldwin’s prop revolver discharged a live bullet.
A number of other volatile incidents sent bullets just inches away from adding to the statistics.
Last week, 19-year-old Flavio Gonzales was suspected of firing 10 rounds at a man who confronted him in a Senda del Valle parking lot, according to court records. A downtown shooting Dec. 15 sent a man to a hospital with a gunshot wound.
Many of the violent incidents have involved drugs. One young woman accused of participating in a drive-by shooting spree on the city’s south side died in October from the effects of a drug overdose she suffered in jail, Santa Fe police said.
“There have certainly been plenty of situations and instances where an aggravated battery could have easily have been at homicide,” said Paul Joye, Santa Fe’s interim police chief. He stepped into the role earlier this month following the retirement of Andrew Padilla.
“We’ve seen more gun violence — that is happening — but it’s happening everywhere,” Joye said. “It’s not just Santa Fe.”
The New Mexico Department of Health found gun-related deaths increased 55 percent statewide over the last decade.
Law enforcement officials point to a need for more community support to address the higher rates of gun violence in the upcoming year.
The suspected killer in the death of one Santa Fe County teen, Isaiah Herrera, also was a teen, a trend Sheriff Adan Mendoza said could continue without interventions.
“I think that goes back to gang activity and the drug epidemic that we’re facing,” he said. “If we don’t start taking this serious and prosecuting these crimes ... we’re going to see more of the same, which is gonna be an uptick in violence, an uptick in homicides and violent crimes.”
Along with the rise in violence came shots from the other side of the badge.
Sheriff’s office deputies were involved in four shootings of suspects, including three deaths.
“We have had, unfortunately ... a few officer-involved shootings in the last year, which was obviously not a good thing for the sheriff’s office or the community,” Mendoza said. “But we wanna continue working with the community; we want to continue responding in a safe manner.”
Mendoza said the sheriff’s office is investing in less-lethal options, such as beanbag rounds, that are expected to arrive in early 2022, along with simulation training in deescalation techniques.
The city of Santa Fe had eight homicides in 2021, a number equaled only once in the last decade, in 2019. The city also logged one fatal officer-involved shooting.
Six of the deaths occurred in the first half of the year, drawing concerns from law enforcement officials and community members.
Joye noted none of the homicides this year appeared to be related. “There was nothing necessarily that would’ve predicted those were going to occur,” he said.
January saw three deaths: Virgil Tortalita, 50; Frank Pete, 50; and Peter Gurule, 40, with another three in the months that followed.
Three of the deaths in the first six months were at the GreenTree Inn on Cerrillos Road, which participated in a program offering housing to members of the homeless community. Each of the incidents involved a client of a local nonprofit serving the homeless.
When asked if the police department made any changes in the second half of 2021 to address the homicide rate, Joye said nothing but hard work.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say the department did anything different so much as we have been able to act quickly to identify the suspects and try to get the information out and get warrants issued and get people in custody quickly before they’re able to act again,” he said.
As the city saw a rise in violent crimes, the increased workload fell on an understaffed police department.
As of Thursday, there were 34 unfilled jobs in the agency out of 169 positions, a vacancy rate of over 20 percent, Joye said.
Seven empty slots are in the criminal investigations unit, which is budgeted for 27. Investigations Capt. Aaron Ortiz said two members of the team were put on patrol duty to help with the call volume.
Joye said the agency’s high rate of solved homicides — suspects have been named in all but the death of 52-year-old Arthur Loretto, whose body was found with multiple stab wounds in a room at the GreenTree — shows the hard work of the remaining investigations staff.
“They’re on call 24 hours a day,” he said. “These folks have been working very hard this year.”
Charges filed against one homicide suspect were dropped this year due to uncooperative witnesses. Lt. David Webb said that was a hard blow, but it allowed the department to refocus the way it was handling cases.
“There was some frustration in the beginning as to why they’re not moving forward, and that’s because [investigators] take it so personal,” Webb said. “But I could see how we needed to go down the realm of the investigation to get actual evidence and articulable facts that will assist us in case we have a situation where a witness chooses not to testify or is afraid to do so.”
He noted the changes are part of the reason it took months to file a murder charge against Jay Wagers, 25, accused of fatally shooting 39-year-old Joseph Aiello early Oct. 4 in a home on Alamosa Drive.
Wagers, arrested later that day on counts accusing him of a shooting spree and attempted carjackings, was charged with first-degree murder Dec. 16.
Mendoza said resources also have been stretched at the sheriff’s office.
Though he’s not struggling with such a stark vacancy rate, the sheriff said, recruitment and retention have been difficult over the past two years.
The Rust shooting in October at the movie ranch south of Santa Fe — which immediately captured the attention of media worldwide, shocking and saddening the global film industry — also has had a significant effect on his staff, Mendoza added.
An investigation into the incident, which uncovered multiple live rounds on the set and has raised questions about safety protocols, has continued for months.
So far, no one has been named a suspect in the shooting that killed Hutchins and wounded director Joel Souza.
“I would say that was probably the biggest challenge over the last couple [of] years is managing our resources, recruitment, retention and pretty much keeping everybody healthy and at work,” Mendoza said.
Call for interventions
While violent crime and homicide rates have been declining nationwide since the 1990s, FBI data shows New Mexico’s rates are higher than national averages and have even increased since 2015.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked the state fourth in the nation in 2019 for firearm-related deaths for all ages, including children.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is proposing a $100 million investment in 2022 to hire more police officers around the state. Other possible legislation in the upcoming session would address the rising rates of violent crime, theft and lack of police retention.
Miranda Viscoli, co-president of the nonprofit New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, said the organization is planning to ask the governor for a gun violence prevention fund.
Viscoli said more community intervention, primarily aimed at youth, also is needed to address the issue — and soon.
“The first thing I would do immediately is get a violence intervention program established here in Santa Fe — today and not tomorrow,” she said. “I think that’s what really needs to happen because I sadly think that the gun violence is going to get worse in Santa Fe.
“It’s not just the homicides,” Viscoli added. “We have so many more gun violence instances, in my opinion, than I’ve seen in the past few years. ... We have to get people out of the cycle.”