Jerry Fuentes became a reluctant public figure 35 years ago after being falsely accused of attempted murder at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Fuentes, who went on to become a farmer, lobbyist and actor in Hollywood movies, finally receded from the headlines to the sideline this year.
His third fight against cancer prevented him from being at the state Capitol for the winter legislative session.
This time it’s small-cell lung cancer that has spread to his liver, spinal column and a shoulder.
“The prognosis? Not too good,” Fuentes, 66, said Tuesday from his home in Truchas. “I might not have too long to live, but I’m trying hard.”
Fuentes cut an unmistakable figure at the state Capitol. He patrolled the halls in a tan Western hat with a decorative band of Comanche beads. His shoulder-length black hair fell below his shoulders.
Legislators listened to Fuentes, even if he didn’t look the part of a lobbyist.
The old-timers respected his perseverance in clearing himself on criminal allegations that could have ruined him. Younger lawmakers knew little or nothing about Fuentes’ personal history. He impressed them with his encyclopedic knowledge of the bills he pitched.
Fuentes lobbied for many causes, including the bill that legalized research of industrial hemp.
Then-Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the measure twice, acting more from spite than law or reason.
Hemp, a tame cousin of the marijuana plant, can’t get people high. It’s used by manufacturers in other countries to produce auto dashboards, briefcases, carpeting, insulation and countless other products.
Fuentes persuaded most legislators hemp could become a profitable crop that wouldn’t strain water supplies in a drought-ridden state.
But Martinez, a Republican, was warring with Democratic legislators who carried the hemp bill. She vetoed the measure without providing any reason.
Democrats in the Legislature sued her and won. The state Supreme Court invalidated Martinez’s veto of the hemp bill and nine other measures, saying state law required her to provide a timely explanation if she rejected legislation.
All 10 bills became law, and Martinez became known as the governor who hadn’t mastered her veto pen.
Fuentes had championed the hemp bill for 17 fruitless years. He almost couldn’t believe Martinez handed him the win through her sloppiness.
He fought for other high-profile causes, too.
One was legislation to protect native heirloom seeds from genetic modification by giant companies such as Monsanto.
Another set aside $50 million a year to provide tax subsidies for companies that made movies and television series in New Mexico. Legislators later raised the annual amount to $110 million.
In addition to lobbying for the film industry, Fuentes has appeared in a number of movies shot in New Mexico.
One was 3:10 to Yuma starring by Russell Crowe. Fuentes was on set for six days late last year with Tom Hanks for the upcoming Western News of the World.
Not long afterward, doctors diagnosed Fuentes with lung cancer. Fuentes, who survived prostate and colon cancer, believes his employment at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1979 to 1985 accounts for his history of medical problems.
Fuentes didn’t see himself as someone who would become a government watchdog and help shape policy. His troubles at Los Alamos turned him into one.
A boss at the lab falsely claimed Fuentes and three other Hispanic employees had contaminated the supervisor’s locker with radioactive plutonium-239.
The FBI bore down on Fuentes, who was portrayed by supervisor Leon Duval as the leading culprit of workers out to get him.
But the case turned around after Duval admitted he had injected the plutonium into his own locker.
During this stretch, screenings by the lab showed Fuentes had high levels of plutonium in his body. He says someone poisoned his food at the lab as part of the scheme to frame him in the contamination case.
Fuentes and the other three Hispanic employees received $500,000 to settle discrimination lawsuits they’d filed against the lab. Not much was left for four workers after the lawyers took their cut.
The lab fired Duval but admitted no liability in the settlements.
Fuentes had saved his reputation. But his life has been filled with health problems since.
“I’ve fought cancer before. I’m doing it again,” he said. “I wear my mask, and I stay active.”
He grows squash, peas and corn on his land. For meat, he fishes the Rio Grande and Rio Pueblo.
“I just landed a 15-inch rainbow trout, and I caught a 17-inch brown trout before that,” Fuentes said.
His attempts at normalcy never last long.
“Every two weeks, I have chemo. It’s Stage 4 cancer this time,” Fuentes said.
His life has been a roller-coaster ride. Exhilarating highs in politics, terrible lows at the lab and with all the sickness that followed.
Fuentes doesn’t sound dejected.
He’s been dealt plenty of bad hands. Never has he folded.