In the early morning hours of July 30, 2018, Robert Romero struggled with an unknown intruder outside his central Santa Fe home. His wife, Elizabeth, who saw them fighting, ran inside to call for help.
Then she heard a gunshot.
More than a year later, Santa Fe police are still searching for Romero’s killer.
Of the eight homicides inSanta Fe in 2018 and 2019, three remain unsolved. And for the loved ones of the victims, including the Romero family, the seemingly endless wait for answers can be torture.
Capt. Paul Joye, who oversees the department’s investigations division, said in a recent interview detectives have been in contact with Romero’s family, including his stepfather and brother. The family had expressed disappointment at the lack of progress.
“Their concern was that it had gone to the wayside, which wasn’t the case,” Joye said. “And that was what we, at least, wanted to stress to them. That this is still very much being worked and a priority for us.”
The Romero family declined to comment for this story.
The Romero case remains difficult to crack, police acknowledged.
Romero, 52, was shot at about 2 a.m. while struggling with a man wearing a gray hoodie outside his home on Las Casitas near Herb Martinez Park, police said. The father of two daughters, he was a financial officer for a local real estate firm and an avid mountain biker.
Police said there continues to be no known suspect, nor a motive.
Police said at the time the suspect ran from the area after shooting Romero in the chest. Dozens of pieces of possible evidence were taken from the home, including a spent .357-caliber casing.
“We’re still going through evidence, we’re still processing things,” Joye said. “We were able to eliminate some people that we were interested in [as potential suspects], which is also important.”
Investigators have examined surveillance video from homes in the area. “But to my knowledge, nothing fruitful at this time, at least not yet,” Joye said.
With no video and no indication that Romero knew the suspect, “it makes things challenging,” he said.
Asked about any possible DNA evidence, Joye would only say investigators were “processing things from the scene that may have links.”
There is still a $1,000 Crime Stoppers reward for information in the case.
Romero’s death is not the only mystery police are trying to close. Other unsolved cases include:
• The June 21, 2018, stabbing death of Michael Willms, a 58-year-old event planner who had moved from California to Santa Fe. He was found in his Calle Lorca apartment bedroom, wearing only his underwear, stabbed multiple times in the neck, shoulder and face.
Police have no suspects.
“We’re still going through evidence and sending evidence to the lab,” Joye said. “We do have a couple of people that we’re interested in, but it’s certainly not enough to say that they’re suspects.”
There also is a $1,000 Crime Stoppers reward for information in the Willms case.
• The May 5, 2018, death of James Babcock, 45, is considered cleared by police, but prosecutors have not yet made a decision whether to file charges. Babcock died a day after telling police that a neighbor had attacked him with a baseball bat. Babcock had declined medical treatment.
Police identified the suspect but acknowledged the case was not clear-cut. Instead they merely forwarded it to the District Attorney’s Office. A spokesman said this month the case remained under review and a charging decision had not been made.
• The July 21, 2019, killing of 33-year-old Matthew Corral, who was found shot dead in the street near the intersection of West De Vargas Street and Don Gaspar Avenue. Before his death, he had visited downtown bars, possibly with friends, but at some point went off on his own. Corral’s wallet was found lying in the street near his body, but police have said they do not know if anything was taken from it.
Detectives have been interviewing possible witnesses who may have been in the area the night of Corral’s death, and are reviewing surveillance footage, but they have no suspects and no motive.
“That one is really active,” Sgt. Bryan Martinez, head of the violent crimes unit, said of the Corral case. “They’re going through a lot of evidence. A lot of digital evidence, stuff from the area where it took place.”
But Martinez said it is still “hard to say” whether the actual shooting had been caught on any of the video.
“They’re trying to put a lot of that other stuff together so we can build a good timeline as to where he went and who he had contact with,” Martinez said, adding Corral’s vehicle had been found the day after the shooting, parked nearby on Alameda Street.
Martinez and Joye distanced themselves somewhat from a recent statement by Deputy Chief Ben Valdez, who said Corral’s killing did not appear to be a random act — and seemed “more likely that it’s possibly someone who knew him or who met him.”
“We don’t even have that information yet,” Martinez said. “We don’t have enough information to say that it was or was not a random act. I think maybe that was a little premature.”
Police acknowledged staffing shortages have complicated matters. As of this week, the department has only three full-time detectives investigating its caseload of violent crimes. Martinez assigns seven to 10 new cases monthly to detectives in the unit — which examines homicides, aggravated assaults, aggravated batteries, robberies and adult missing persons cases — in addition to the older ones detectives haven’t yet solved.
“They’re juggling whatever they haven’t closed out of those cases, on top of whatever cases that I’m assigning every month,” Martinez said.
“We’re busy,” Joye agreed.
The violent crime unit’s senior detective, John Boerth, who had been a detective for 14 years, retired Thursday. The senior detective now in violent crimes has been with the unit only since 2017. The unit’s newest detective, who began working violent crimes earlier this year, is now handling both the Romero and Corral cases.
The violent crimes unit operated with four detectives for a couple of years; it is considered fully staffed at five detectives. The entire police department has 19 detectives — another veteran detective retired Aug. 6. That’s eight below what is considered fully staffed.
Mayor Alan Webber earlier this year hammered out a new deal with the police union that boosts salaries for police. But the deal primarily affects new officers who won’t be eligible to become detectives for years. How much or whether that contributed to recent retirements was not known last week.
Police Chief Andrew Padilla has said his first priority remains bolstering the patrol division.
Plans to test experienced patrol officers to become detectives are up to Padilla and Deputy Chief Valdez.
Valdez said the department hopes to begin testing for new detectives as soon as its 10 recent police academy graduates begin street duty on their own in September. He said the process of getting new detectives assigned to their units can take three to four weeks. Then the detectives begin on-the-job training.
In the meantime, Joye, as head of the criminal investigations division, said he can temporarily or permanently move detectives from other units such as the special-victims unit to violent crimes as needed, including to new homicide cases.
“That will be my job, to kind of look at doing a shuffle of resources,” Joye said.