A man accused of killing his estranged girlfriend four days after he got out of prison has become a central figure in the New Mexico governor’s race amid Republican assertions Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is responsible for his early release.
Christopher Beltran, 27, has become a poster boy for what Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti and the Republican Governors Association have characterized as Lujan Grisham’s soft-on-crime policies that have made New Mexico a dangerous place to live.
Both Ronchetti and the RGA have cited the Beltran case in attack ads that pin his “early” release — and the subsequent killing of Dominique Gonzales of Roswell — on Lujan Grisham.
“The governor released him from prison early, said he was ready to be our neighbor,” claims an ad from Ronchetti.
“Days after his early release, he hunted his ex-girlfriend down, shot her in the face, murdered her,” states an ad from the RGA.
It’s true Beltran got out of prison 12 days early in September 2020 under an executive order the incumbent Democrat signed in April of that year. The order was part of an effort to fight the spread of COVID-19 among inmates inside the state’s correctional facilities at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
But a question remains: Did Beltran get out of prison early a second time after he was placed back behind bars for a parole violation?
The answer is a point of contention between the Republican district attorney whose office prosecuted Beltran and the state Department of Corrections, which was responsible for his release.
“Christopher Beltran was released from prison early twice,” Dianna Luce, district attorney for the 5th Judicial District in southeastern New Mexico, wrote in a statement.
But Carmelina Hart, a corrections spokeswoman, refuted Luce.
She said Beltran served his sentence, which included credit for nearly five months of good time.
“The release of Mr. Beltran in 2021 was following his serving his sentence for the original charge,” Hart said.
After the parole board “officially revoked” Beltran’s parole Jan. 6, 2021, Hart wrote Beltran “continued to serve the remainder of his sentence” for the unlawful taking of a motor vehicle.
Although Hart did not specifically explain how Beltran’s good time was calculated, she wrote “his time earned was four months and 29 days as determined by state statute and records policy originally implemented in 1999. He was released on June 22, 2021, after completing the entirety of his sentence.”
Luce, however, maintains Beltran was ineligible for good time.
“The Lujan Grisham administration clearly miscalculated when it came to awarding Beltran good time in order to release him early,” Luce, a Republican, wrote in her statement. “Under New Mexico law, offenders who violate parole through absconding and are sent back to prison are only eligible for 4 days of good time credit for every 30 days served. Moreover, offenders who make threats on prison phone calls and are held in segregation — as was the case with Beltran — are not eligible for any good time.”
Luce said “simple math makes it clear” Beltran was released from prison months early.
Hart wrote Beltran “did not receive good time served for any periods of time he was held in segregation.”
Will Reinert, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, said the release of a “hardened criminal” resulted in a “preventable murder.”
“Lujan Grisham’s attempt to shirk responsibility won’t undo the pain caused to the victim’s family,” he wrote in a statement. “But it does show New Mexicans her true colors.”
In prison phone recordings, Beltran had threatened Gonzales before his release.
“Got the biggest gun that I could have from the [expletive] gun store,” he told her in one recording that was included in the RGA’s ad. “[Expletive] dead girl walking.”
Hart wrote calls from inmates are generally recorded but not actively monitored except in special circumstances, such as when the department suspects the inmate is conducting illegal business or there is a separate ongoing criminal case involving the inmate.
Hart called it “standard practice in correctional facilities around the country.
“The Department was not made aware of any threatening phone calls. If the Department does become aware of such calls, law enforcement is immediately notified,” she wrote.
Ronchetti, who has continually hammered Lujan Grisham on crime, brought up Beltran during a highly charged televised gubernatorial debate Wednesday.
“His story is shocking,” Ronchetti said. “He was released early from prison and then he was on the phone from prison before being released talking to his girlfriend, saying he was coming to get her. … He made good on that promise. He showed up to her door four days [after he was released from prison] and shot her.”
“What’s shocking,” Lujan Grisham retorted, “is my opponent’s description of facts that are fact-less. The case that he talks about, Mr. Beltran, in fact, should have been in jail longer, but a Republican [district attorney] and judge failed to prosecute him for felony gun charges, and having a gun is exactly what led to this tragedy and politicizing a tragedy of this nature is really unacceptable.”
According to the Roswell Daily Record, Beltran pleaded guilty last month to second-degree murder in connection with Gonzales’ killing.
Later in the debate, Ronchetti brought up Beltran again, saying “the governor’s parole board” let him out early.
Last month, the Ronchetti campaign issued a news release stating Lujan Grisham ended the early release program “after Ronchetti started attacking her for it on the TV airwaves.”
To qualify for early release, an inmate’s release date had to be within 30 days, among other requirements.
“The early release of incarcerated individuals who are near their release date and meet certain criteria will help to protect public health without a concomitant risk to public safety,” the governor’s executive order states. “This measure will serve to protect the health of those individuals, of staff and inmates at all state correctional facilities, and of all New Mexicans.”
Asked why the governor rescinded the order, Lujan Grisham’s press secretary, Nora Meyers Sackett, wrote in an email it was done “in conjunction with recent Corrections Department updates to pandemic protocols, in line with updated health guidance.
“The governor’s office rescinded several pandemic-related executive orders on September 27th as part of a periodic review of COVID-19 mitigation measures to ensure state resources and policy are up to date and as reflective as possible of evolving conditions and guidance,” she wrote.