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FRI: Biden to visit state for briefing on wildfires, + MORE

President Joe Biden
Susan Walsh/AP
/
AP
President Joe Biden walks down the steps of Air Force One at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Thursday, June 2, 2022, as he heads to Rehobeth Beach, Del., for the weekend. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Biden to visit New Mexico as state battles record wildfireAssociated Press

President Joe Biden will travel to New Mexico next week to receive a briefing from state and federal officials as the state continues to deal with the largest wildfire in state history, the White House announced Friday.

Biden is expected to meet with New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, first responders and personnel from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies during his June 11 visit to the New Mexico State Emergency Operation Center in Santa Fe.

The nearly two-month-old Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire is 62% contained after charring roughly 495 square miles in rugged terrain east of Santa Fe.

Federal forest officials are now worried about future flash floods, landslides and destructive ash from the burn scar.

Meanwhile the Black Fire in the Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico has grown to 264,000 acres and is just 29% contained.

Biden was previously scheduled to be in Los Angeles from June 8 to June 10 for the Summit of the Americas and is expected to travel to Santa Fe following the summit.

Water drop on fire crew in New Mexico prompts investigationAssociated Press

Federal authorities confirmed Friday they are investigating how three firefighters battling the largest blaze burning in the U.S. were injured — one of them seriously — when a helicopter dropped part of a load of water on them.

It happened last weekend in northern New Mexico as a team of firefighters was working along the fire's perimeter. They were among the more than 3,000 people assigned to the fire, which has been burning for nearly two months.

An initial report from the Bureau of Land Management stated that the hotshot crew was holding a section of fire line around 10:30 a.m. in the Pecos Wilderness last Sunday as helicopters dropped water on the fire's edge.

"When a helicopter missed the identified drop area, the last of the load was delivered on top of several crew members," the report states.

Two received minor injuries and the third underwent several surgeries at an Albuquerque hospital to repair skull fractures and a broken kneecap.

The Bureau of Land Management confirmed Friday that an investigation was underway but declined to release any other information.

The blaze was the result of two government planned burns aimed at clearing the forest of overgrown and dead vegetation. It destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands of people to evacuate from numerous rural villages in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains east of Santa Fe.

President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration last month and plans to visit the state next week, but the fire still has fueled much criticism from residents and top elected officials in New Mexico.

The U.S. Forest Service vowed to conduct its own investigation and has since halted prescribed fire operations on all national forest lands while the agency conducts a review of protocols, decision-making tools and practices ahead of planned operations this fall.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández on Friday called for an independent investigation by the Government Accountability Office of the process used when conducting prescribed fires. She said she's hopeful that recommendations will be made to improve community involvement when it comes to forest management.

Leger Fernández said she wants to ensure that no other community in the U.S. suffers the destruction that her constituents have seen.

"Clearly, (the U.S. Forest Service) needs to enact substantive reforms to ensure accountability and restore trust in their use of prescribed burns to protect our forests," she said in a statement.

New Mexico Democrats vie for attorney general in primary - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Democratic voters are deciding on a nominee for New Mexico attorney general as state prosecutors contend with a surge in urban gun violence, outside claims to scarce water supplies and concerns about pollution, consumer protection and political extremism.

Albuquerque-based District Attorney Raúl Torrez is running against State Auditor Brian Colón for the Democratic endorsement to succeed termed-out Democratic Attorney General Hector Balderas. Absentee and early in-person voting are underway in advance of Election Day on Tuesday.

The winner will compete against Republican attorney and U.S. Marine veteran Jeremy Michael Gay of Gallup. Republicans have held the office only three times in New Mexico's 110-year history.

Torrez, a second-term district attorney for the county encompassing Albuquerque, has portrayed himself as a seasoned courtroom attorney and prosecutor of crime and corruption.

He has pledged to expand the state's capacity and expertise to handle consumer-rights litigation and prevail in a prolonged legal battle with Texas over management of Rio Grande waters amid a decades-long drought.

Colón is seeking to follow in the footsteps of Balderas, who parlayed his work as state auditor into a successful bid for attorney general in 2014. The two previously worked at the same law firm.

Colón has emphasized his upbringing in an impoverished New Mexico family and his watchdog role as auditor reviewing local government finances and calling out misconduct by pubic officials — including Las Vegas ex-Mayor Tonita Gurule-Giron before her convictions of interfering in city contracts to benefit her boyfriend.

The campaign has cast new light on the current practice of hiring outside lawyers to represent New Mexico in complex consumer protection and class-action lawsuits.

Torrez has criticized Colón for accepting campaign contributions from law firms that could benefit from referrals. Colón defended the system as effective and has pledged a transparent process in selecting outside lawyers.

Torrez's recent tenure as district attorney coincides with a crime crisis in Albuquerque, including a record-setting number of homicides in 2021.

Colón describes his campaign rival as a "failed prosecutor," highlighting conviction rates for violent felony cases under Torrez that are below the national benchmark.

Torrez has sought unsuccessfully to roll back bail reforms that allowed judges to deny pre-trial release to dangerous defendants and release low-risk defendants who might remain in jail because they can't afford bail bonds. The reforms were initiated by statewide referendum in 2016.

Both candidates have said they will support access to abortion, enforce state gun control provisions and confront political extremists who flout the law.

Torrez is prosecuting a right-wing militia that brought rifles and tactical gear to a 2020 protest in Albuquerque against a statue of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate.

Torrez previously served as as a federal prosecutor and senior adviser at the U.S. Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder during Barack Obama's presidency. Colón is a former chairman of the New Mexico Democratic Party.

Separately, five Republican candidates for governor are competing in Tuesday's primary to take on incumbent Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Democrats are also deciding on nominees in open races for state auditor and treasurer.

The primary will lock in nominees to challenge incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury of Albuquerque and Republican Congresswoman Yvette Herrell of Alamogordo.

Report finds at least 12 NM legislators joined extremist Facebook groupsSource NM

A report from the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights found 875 sitting state lawmakers are current or former members of extremist or conspiracy-minded Facebook groups, including 12 New Mexico legislators.

Source New Mexico reports all of the NM legislators identified in the report are Republicans. The report notes that there may be more legislators across the country who are members of these groups that were not identified in the progressive think tank’s research.

Among the New Mexico legislators identified in the report are all four members of the state’s elected GOP leadership in the Roundhouse, as well as gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Dow, who is also a state representative serving Grant, Hidalgo & Sierra counties.

According to the report, Dow was a member of the “New Mexico Patriots” Facebook group before it was removed by Facebook. This could not be confirmed independently by Source New Mexico, as the group no longer exists.

This Facebook group was linked to the real-world New Mexico Patriots, which was among the militia-style crews showing up at anti-police brutality protests in Albuquerque in 2020, drawing a rebuke from the Albuquerque Police Department. At the time, APD said it opposed “vigilante actions and attempts by civilians to intervene in planned, peaceful protests.” The Patriots also attended a 2019 anti-immigrant rally in Sunland Park in support of the privately funded “We Build the Wall” campaign.

“We Build the Wall” founder Brian Kolfage pleaded guilty this year to defrauding donors.

The institute found Dow was a member of at least two other Facebook groups researchers identified as extremist, including “New Mexicans Against Abortion” and “NM Parents Against Covid Mandates.” Source New Mexico was able to independently confirm Dow’s membership in both groups.

The “New Mexicans Against Abortion” — a public group —frequently features conspiracy content, including explicitly pro-QAnon posts. The “NM Parents Against Covid Mandates” group is similarly full of conspiracy theories, including a post promoting the idea that COVID-19 is not a virus but a synthetic form of snake venom purposely injected into the population. Dow’s account posted a link to one of her campaign ads in that group on April 15.

Dow did not respond to questions from Source New Mexico about her membership in extremist Facebook groups. She sent a short statement via email that read “I follow a lot of political pages to stay engaged. I’ve never heard of membership requirements to follow any of these pages.” Source did not ask about membership requirements.

Chuck Tanner, research director at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, said one of the problems with state legislators joining far-right or conspiracy-minded Facebook groups is that the presence of elected officials lends them credibility. “It doesn’t always mean (the legislators) completely believe it,” he said, “but they have to recognize that they lend some of their legitimacy to those groups.”

Speaking to the New Mexico Patriots Facebook group in particular, Tanner said it’s alarming that elected lawmakers would let themselves be seen as allies.

“They’re a group that has paramilitary politics. That right away should throw up a flag to a state legislator. They also have allied their cause to anti-immigrant politics,” he said. “A state legislator with any integrity would have no part of that.”

The institute found several other legislators that had joined the New Mexico Patriots group before it was removed from Facebook: Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt (R-Rio Rancho), House Minority Leader James G. Townsend (R-Artesia), Sen. David M. Gallegos (R-Eunice), Rep. Gail Armstrong (R-Magdalena), Rep. Kelly K. Fajardo (R-Los Lunas), Rep. Randall Pettigrew (R-Lovington) and Rep. Stefani Lord (R-Sandia Park).

Aside from Brandt and Townsend, the other two members of elected GOP leadership were also members of additional extremist Facebook groups listed in the report. Their membership in those groups was also independently confirmed by Source New Mexico.

Senate Minority Leader Gregory A. Baca is a member of the same “New Mexicans Against Abortion” Facebook group as Dow, which features posts promoting QAnon and accusing an abortion provider of being possessed by demons.

And House Minority Whip Rod Montoya (R-Farmington) is a member of “All Americans Are Essential.” A review by Source New Mexico found posts there promoting false claims that the 2020 election was stolen and advocating the conspiracy theory that the World Health Organization is exploiting the pandemic to create a one-world government.

Source New Mexico contacted every legislator named in the report for comment. In a phone interview, Armstrong said she does not remember joining the “New Mexico Patriots” group or another group listed in the report as extremist, “Constitution Party – Open Forum.” She said she’s a member of numerous Facebook groups on the left and right, including the Valencia County Democrats and Socorro County Democrats, and that she joins Facebook groups to keep up with political conversations happening across the spectrum in her district.

Fajardo said she’s not sure if she was ever a member of the “New Mexico Patriots” Facebook group but that she doesn’t support real-life actions like bringing guns to racial justice demonstrations and intimidating protesters. “I don’t support any group that attacks any other group,” she said.

Sen. Gregg Schmedes (R-Tijeras) was named in the report as a member of an anti-abortion extremist group called “We Can End Abortion In The USA & Worldwide!” The group is private, and Source New Mexico was unable to view its membership or content. But Schmedes confirmed in a phone interview that he is a member, though he said he doesn’t remember joining it.

“I like the name of course, but who is administrating that group, I really have no idea,” Schmedes said. He added that he supports banning abortion for all viable pregnancies, including in cases of rape and incest.

Pettigrew and Townsend declined to be interviewed, referring questions to Matt Garcia-Sierra, a spokesperson for the House GOP.

In an email, Garcia-Sierra refused an interview request, citing the “clear bias of this story,” and accusing Source New Mexico of using research “blasted” by ProgressNow, apparently referring to a blog post the organization wrote about the report. Source NM’s reporting for this story was not based on the blog.

The rest of the legislators named in the report failed to respond to requests for comment.

Researchers defined “far right” as a loose collection of ideologies that seek to “undermine political, social and/or economic equality along such lines as class, race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, immigration status, and religion.”

Researchers also examined legislation advancing far-right policies sponsored by elected officials who had joined extremist Facebook groups. The think tank found two pieces of far-right legislation in New Mexico sponsored by legislators who had joined at least one.

One was a measure, HB 91, introduced this year by Dow, Townsend and Pettigrew along with their House Republican colleagues, Reps. Luis M. Terrazas and Candy Spence Ezzell, that would have banned the teaching of what they call critical race theory in schools.

Tanner said the institute defines such bills as far right because critical race theory is an advanced legal framework not taught in K-12 schools anywhere, and proposed legislation instead aims to ban teachers from promoting diversity or accurately describing the often racist history of the United States. “You really got this reactionary and racist attack against even diversity programs in public schools and other institutions,” he said. “I think that attacking those kinds of programs undermines equality in this country, and that’s a human-rights issue.”

The other bill highlighted by the institute was 2021’s House Joint Resolution 2, which called for amending the New Mexico Constitution to ban any kind of vaccine mandate. The proposed amendment would have banned mandating all vaccines, not only those that prevent coronavirus. It was sponsored by Cook.

HB 91 and HJR 2 both failed to pass the Legislature.

Florida man killed in Colorado avalanche identifiedAssociated Press

Authorities have released the name of a man who was killed in a rock fall and avalanche that also injured two other climbers at Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Boulder County coroner's office identified the victim Friday as 25-year-old Christopher Clark, of Land O' Lakes, Florida.

Two New Mexico climbers were injured in Sunday's avalanche. Michael Grieg, 27, of Albuquerque was airlifted by helicopter and hospitalized at Medical Center of the Rockies. Lillian Martinez, 24, of Albuquerque, suffered minor injuries.

A helicopter crew on Tuesday lifted Clark's body from the avalanche zone on Mount Meeker, where rescuers worked in winter conditions in terrain above 11,500 feet at the site near Dreamweaver Couloir. Climbers in the area witnessed the slide.

Student not arrested after bringing gun to ABQ high school – Matt Reisen, Albuquerque journal, & KUNM News

Albuquerque Police decided not to arrest a 14 year-old who was found to have a handgun equipped with an extended magazine loaded with 20 hollow point bullets on school property.

After a tip from another student, officials combed the parking lot of Volcano Vista high school before finding the teen with two other students hiding in an SUV, according to a report from the Albuquerque Journal.

According to an Albuquerque public schools police report, the teen left the gun in his backpack in the SUV when initially approached by officials, and attempted to evade officers to get back to the SUV and his backpack “a few times” before the weapon was found.

The incident occurred on May 24th, the same day as the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

An APD officer on scene called in to the juvenile probation-Parole Office for guidance on how to handle the situation and was advised the teen was “low risk” and “was not to be arrested,” according to the journal.

A Children, Youth and Families Department spokesperson said a risk assessment inventory is used in cases like this to decide how to proceed, and could include further investigation or charges if warranted.

Volcanic cones near peak sacred to tribes gain protection — Susan Montoya Brown, Associated Press

A years-long effort to protect land around a New Mexico mountain peak held sacred by many Native American tribes got a major boost Thursday with the announcement that dozens of additional square miles will be set aside for wildlife, cultural preservation and recreation.

The $34 million effort by the national conservation group Trust for Public Land comes as New Mexico and the federal government look to preserve more natural landscapes as part of a nationwide commitment. The goal is to increase green spaces, improve access to outdoor recreation and reduce the risk of wildfires as the pressures of climate change mount.

Trust for Public Land partnered with other organizations and foundations to purchase adjoining properties that make up the sprawling L Bar Ranch, which sits in the shadow of Mount Taylor just west of Albuquerque.

The more than 84 square miles (218 square kilometers) includes grassland, rugged mesas and part of the Mount Taylor Traditional Cultural Property, which is on the state register of historic places due to its significance to Native Americans in New Mexico and Arizona.

Generations before the ranch became privately owned, people from surrounding Native American communities would make pilgrimages to the area and its timber, wildlife and plants provided sustenance beyond the ceremonial ties.

The dormant volcano, now covered with ponderosa pine and other trees, also served as a lookout with notable lines of sight to distant mountain ranges to the east.

Tribal leaders say some of the pilgrimage trails are still evident.

"The pueblo is hopeful that once the purchase is completed an ethnographic study can be conducted to identify areas, locations and sites of cultural significance," said Randall Vicente, governor of Acoma Pueblo.

Part of the property has been conveyed to the New Mexico Game and Fish Department and the rest will be turned over to land managers in the coming years to create what will be the largest state-owned recreation property in New Mexico. A legislative appropriation and money allocated through a federal excise tax on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment helped with the effort.

A management plan will be developed to ensure recreational access with special considerations for areas important to the pueblos of Acoma, Laguna and Zuni and the Hopi and Navajo people.

Jim Petterson, a regional vice president with Trust for Public Land, called the acquisition significant, saying it will serve as an important island for wildlife, allowing them to move and adapt across a wide range of elevations as temperatures get warmer and precipitation more scarce due to climate change.

In the lower elevations, the remnants of volcanic cones jut up from the valley floor. In the distance are dramatic cliffs that form the edge of mesa tops that are home to grasslands grazed by herds of elk and deer. The area also is home to bear, mountain lions and turkey.

"It's a relatively intact, healthy, just spectacular habitat," Petterson said. "Everything that should be there is there right now, and we have an opportunity to create a tremendous state wildlife area that will endure for generations to come. It's really beautiful."

Nearly 625 square miles (1,620 square kilometers) in and around Mount Taylor, including lands within the L Bar project, were designated a traditional cultural property through decisions made by the state's Cultural Properties Review Committee in 2008 and 2009. The New Mexico Supreme Court upheld the designation in a 2014 ruling.

The movement to protect the area was prompted by proposals to restart uranium mining. In response, tribes took an unprecedented step to detail their spiritual connections to the area in hopes of winning protection.

Similar fights are ongoing with energy development in northwestern New Mexico, where federal officials have agreed to put a hold on new leasing in the area surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park pending a review.

"The relationship with the land, as Native Americans, we are the stewards of the land. We maintain this harmony with Mother Earth through culture and prayer," Laguna Pueblo Gov. Martin Kowemy said in a statement Thursday. "It is our responsibility to protect and preserve our land for future generations."

New Mexico OKs rule on suspending boards of school districts — Associated Press

The New Mexico Public Education Department has approved a new rule allowing the state to suspend a school district board because of fraud or other serious problems that severely impair the district.

The rule approved last week allows both emergency and nonemergency suspensions of entire boards but not individual members, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

The rule includes a requirement that the state provide notice to the district and replaces a rule adopted in 2005 that applied to superintendents, principals and charter school governing boards.

The state in 2021 suspended the Los Lunas and Floyd school boards but department spokeswoman Judy Robinson said the revised rule was "an attempt to clarify the suspension process rather than a response to a particular incident."

The New Mexico School Boards Association supported the final version of the new rule.

"The main thing we were pushing for was to ensure the suspension of board members was the last step in a process," Association Executive Director Joe Guillen said Wednesday. "We got that commitment, and you'll see in a couple of places it does mention prior notice and opportunities for the board to address concerns and undergo trainings.

Convicted rapist pleads not guilty to rapes in Seattle — Associated Press

A man has pleaded not guilty to rape and voyeurism charges in Seattle after completing a prison sentence in New Mexico for raping a Washington woman there in 2017.

Redwolf Pope, who leased apartments in Seattle and Santa Fe, was arrested in 2018 after his house guests gave police videos from his iPad that allegedly showed him raping several women who appeared to be unconscious, court documents said.

A Santa Fe jury in 2020 found Pope guilty of rape and voyeurism, and a judge sentenced him to four years in prison, with credit for over two years already served. Pope claimed the incident was consensual.

Pope was booked May 19 into King County Jail, where he remains in custody in lieu of $500,000 bail, The Seattle Times reported. He pleaded not guilty Wednesday.

Pope was charged in 2018 with two counts of second-degree rape against two women inside his Seattle apartment in 2016 and 2017, charging papers say.

King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Aubony Burns told Chief Criminal Judge Karen Donohue Wednesday that based on additional video evidence he now faces three counts of second-degree rape and three counts of first-degree voyeurism.

Pope, who has claimed Western Shoshone and Tlingit heritage, is an activist who last Thanksgiving appeared as a spokesperson for the Seattle-based United Indians of All Tribes Foundation to discuss Native-American perspectives on Thanksgiving.

Pope's LinkedIn page describes him as a co-founder for tech startups and lists him as an attorney who has worked for the Tulalip Tribal Court for over a decade.

But Pope's heritage and resume have come under scrutiny since his arrest. While he received a law degree from Seattle University, the Washington State Bar Association previously confirmed he was not a licensed lawyer, and the Tulalip Tribes said he never worked as an attorney there.

Several tribes with Tlingit and Shoshone members also have said they've found no record of Pope's enrollment, though it's unclear whether he has claimed membership to any particular tribe.

Abigail Echo-Hawk, the executive vice president of the Seattle Indian Health Board and an advocate for Native women's rights, has said Pope created a "false identity and posed as a Native man to infiltrate Native communities and prey upon our Indigenous women."

Echo-Hawk said Wednesday she stands by that 2019 statement and that she's grateful police thoroughly investigated his alleged conduct.

Jury says it's deadlocked in 'We Build The Wall' fraud trial — Larry Neumeister, Associated Press

A jury said it was deadlocked Thursday in its deliberations of charges against a Colorado businessman accused of defrauding thousands of investors in a wall along the southern U.S. border hours after 11 jurors turned against one juror, accusing him of "political bias" and saying he'd labeled the rest of them liberals.

U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres rejected a defense request to declare a mistrial and instead read a so-called "Allen charge," designed to spark productive deliberations Friday in the trial of Timothy Shea. Jurors were then sent home.

The original four defendants in the case included Steve Bannon, an adviser to ex-President Donald Trump who was pardoned by Trump early last year. Two others pleaded guilty to charges.

The prosecution pertained to a "We Build The Wall" campaign that raised about $25 million for a wall. Only a few miles of wall were built. Prosecutors said Shea and other fund organizers promised investors that all donations would fund a wall, but Shea and others eventually siphoned away hundreds of thousands of dollars for themselves.

Shea, of Castle Rock, Colorado, owns an energy drink company, Winning Energy, whose cans have featured a cartoon superhero image of Trump and claim to contain "12 oz. of liberal tears."

Earlier Thursday, 11 jurors said in a note to the judge that they were unanimously requesting that one juror be replaced by an alternate juror because the juror had shown anti-government bias and had accused all the others of being liberals.

In their lengthy note, the jurors told Torres that the juror had said things such as "government witch hunt" and accused the government of bringing the case in New York City because it "knew people here vote differently." The note said the juror added that the trial "should have been tried in a southern state."

The jurors also accused the juror of saying: "Tim Shea is a good man. He doesn't beat his wife."

After the jurors requested that the juror be replaced, Torres interviewed him in her robing room with lawyers from both sides present. She asked him several questions aimed at determining if he was biased.

The hearing, which wasn't open to the public, produced answers that caused the judge to order jurors to resume deliberations. Ninety minutes later, they returned a note that said: "We cannot agree on a unanimous verdict on any of the counts."

Defense attorney John Meringolo had requested a mistrial hours earlier, contending that the jury had revealed so much about deliberations in their note that they had violated instructions to keep their talks secret. After the deadlock note, he resumed his request for a mistrial and the judge refused it again.