Jordan Anthony Nuñez, who was accused of helping his late father fatally beat and torture 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia in 2017 at a home in northern Santa Fe County, likely will be sentenced to between 14 and 24 years in prison after pleading guilty Friday.
In an agreement with prosecutors, Nuñez, 21, pleaded guilty to recklessly permitting child abuse resulting in death and two counts of tampering with evidence. His sentencing hearing will be held at a later date.
Investigators found Jeremiah’s body inside a plastic container in a roadside grave near Nambé in January 2018.
Investigators said Jeremiah’s mother, Tracy Ann Peña, and her boyfriend, Thomas Wayne Ferguson — Nuñez’s father — buried Jeremiah in November 2017 after Ferguson and Nuñez, then 19, tortured and beat the boy to death.
The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office said in court documents that Ferguson beat Jeremiah with brass knuckles, choked him, confined him to a dog kennel, urinated on him and forced him to wear diapers.
Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Padgett Macias on Friday said Nuñez participated in the ongoing abuse that led to the boy’s death and watched his father viciously beat Jeremiah several days after Thanksgiving 2017.
Padgett Macias said Nuñez helped Ferguson clean Jeremiah in the shower, bandage some of his wounds and stood by while Ferguson put Jeremiah in a small plastic dog crate in the living room.
“Later that night or the next day, Jordan by his own words hears groaning from inside the kennel,” Padgett Macias said. Nuñez would later say he “rattled” the cage, while A.V. — Peña’s 13-year-old daughter — said he “flipped it,” the prosecutor said. “But regardless, it was in that kennel where [Jeremiah] took his final breaths.”
Had the case gone to trial, Padgett Macias said, the state medical examiner would have testified that Jeremiah died of blunt force injuries he suffered as a result of Ferguson’s beating. Investigators believe “positional asphyxiation” from not being able to move or breathe inside the kennel also might have played a part in his death.
“Only Jordan, Thomas and Jeremiah know what happened in that room, but without a doubt, Jordan was an adult in that household and at times had accepted responsibly for Jeremiah’s care. With this responsibility comes a duty,” Padgett Macias said.
“And despite having opportunity to do so, [Nuñez] failed to stop Ferguson and failed to intervene to protect Jeremiah, and Jeremiah died as a result. The defendant may not be pleading guilty to participating in the actual beating of Jeremiah. However, in the weeks leading up to Jeremiah’s death, we do know there was some level of participation in the constant taunting and tormenting of Jeremiah.”
Nuñez showed little emotion Friday in court.
After the hearing, Padgett Macias said the state offered Nuñez a plea in part because his legal team planned to present “an incredibly complicated defense theory” at trial that would have included arguments that Nuñez had been under Ferguson’s control when he participated in abusing Jeremiah.
“We would have had a tough time overcoming the boogeyman and the monster that Ferguson was,” she said.
Though authorities say Jeremiah died in November 2017, police didn’t discover his body until January 2018, after receiving a tip from an inmate who said Peña had talked about her son’s death while in jail on an unrelated charge, raising questions about why nobody, including school officials, noticed he was missing.
Ferguson had a history of abusing women and children, according to court documents, and was in violation of his probation on a 2014 domestic violence case at the time investigators say he killed Jeremiah. Ferguson died of an apparent suicide in April 2018 at the Santa Fe County jail.
Peña pleaded guilty in 2018 to one count of child abuse resulting in the death of her son and three counts of conspiracy to traffic methamphetamine as part of a deal with prosecutors that required her to cooperate with the state’s case against Nuñez and serve 12 years in prison.