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FRI: Balloon Fiesta prepares to launch after COVID hiatus, + More

Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press
In this Oct. 5, 2019, file photo, hot air balloons are inflated during the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, N.M.

Hot-air balloons return to desert skies after virus hiatusAssociated Press

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is returning after a pandemic hiatus with plans to launch about 540 hot-air balloons in a stunning visual spectacle.

The nine-day event starts on Saturday in the predawn twilight with balloons of every shape and size inflating and lifting off with people aboard — weather permitting. The 2020 fiesta was canceled as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.

Fiesta organizers won't be checking for vaccination cards but precautions are being taken to preserve social distancing and provide access to hand sanitizer and hand-washing stations.

Indoor dining for balloon pilots and VIPs is canceled. More than 80 balloons that come in special ornate or cartoonish shapes will disbursed throughout the launch field, rather than clustered together — encouraging crowds to spread out, Balloon Fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity said.

Relatively clear, calm weather is essential for ballooning. The National Weather Service highlights past weather patterns associated with the October balloon extravaganza and current forecasts for the Albuquerque metro area that called for mostly sunny skies on Saturday and sunny skies on Sunday.

Special attractions this year include remote control hot-air balloons that have their own dedicated following of enthusiasts. Those aircraft are one-fourth the size of a typical passenger balloons and also can roam with the wind. At the Balloon Fiesta, they'll be tethered to give crowds a better view.

Other scheduled events include a chainsaw carving display, fireworks, sky divers, musical stage performances and a strolling mariachi band.

Farmington Police Say Teens Had Plan For School Shooting AttackAssociated Press

Farmington police say two 15-year-old students are accused of plotting to conduct a shooting attack at Farmington High School and that a third student is under investigation.

A 15-year-old boy had a map of the school and a plan that included a list of items needed for a shooting on a specific date and a 15-year-old girl "contributed to the plan," police said Thursday in a statement.

Those two students were charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated battery and another 15-year-old boy was under investigation, the statement said.

Police said they learned of the plan on Jan. 24 when notified by a school administrator following a report by another student.

"We're grateful to the student who reported this early so that school staff and our officers could intervene," Police Chief Steve Hebbe said. "This is a perfect example of how we work as a community to keep our kids safe in Farmington."

The investigation included determining that the accused students didn't have access to guns, according to police.

Democratic governor juggles energy priorities in oil region - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico's Democratic governor is balancing competing pressures from environmental activists and the fossil fuel industry as she seeks reelection in 2022 in a major region for oil production.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham returns to the podium for a scheduled annual gathering of oil industry executives next week, two years after she vowed that her administration would work on behalf of the fossil fuel industry and help New Mexico become the nation's No. 2 oil producer.

At the same time, the first-term governor has indicated an interest in attending next month's United Nations Climate Conference in Scotland, where world leaders will talk about accelerating action toward the goals of the Paris Agreement to slow global warming.

An email exchange among top administration officials outlines the opportunity to travel to Scotland in cooperation with the Energy Futures Initiative, a project led by Ernest Moniz, former secretary of energy under President Barack Obama. Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the event "would certainly be an exciting opportunity," though travel plans are not final.

The two forums highlight Lujan Grisham's challenges in overseeing a state government that is increasingly dependent on income from oil and natural gas production — while attempting to chart a course toward cleaner energy sources.

At least seven Republicans are exploring a run for their party's nomination for governor, including failed prior candidates for Congress and Senate. Early contenders run the gamut from education services entrepreneur and state Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences, to military veteran-turned-Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block and Albuquerque shooting range owner Louie Sanchez.

New Mexico state and local governments — and public schools, in particular — rely heavily on income from the oil and natural gas industry. That dependence has grown since Lujan Grisham won election in 2018, according to the Legislature's budget and accountability office.

As economic activity has rebounded from early pandemic restrictions, New Mexico oil production has reached record levels, recently exceeding 1.2 million barrels a day.

Lujan Grisham has cautioned President Joe Biden against efforts to curb oil production on public lands because it would affect her ability to achieve goals like universal access to early childhood education. A federal judge has blocked the Biden administration's suspension of new oil and gas leases on federal land and water.

The governor's stance has been disheartening among advocates for a faster transition to clean energy sources such as solar and wind power, amid natural disasters and extreme weather linked to climate change.

They include Seneca Johnson of Santa Fe, a recent high school graduate and registered Democrat who voted for the first time in 2020. She says the clamor for oil income to support public education holds a bitter irony for youths in a state where academic proficiency among K-12 students trails most or all states.

"Growing up, I had heard that oil and gas is paying for our education," said Johnson, who joined an anti-fracking protest of about 200 people outside the governor's office in the state Capitol in late September. "This system doesn't really seem to work in the first place."

Political science professor Lonna Atkeson said the governor is among politicians who are accountable to constituents who work in the oil fields of southeastern New Mexico.

"That's really important in the south, those interests," she said. "You live with your constituents here. You're supposed to be sensitive to their needs."

Lujan Grisham has set herself apart from a Republican predecessor in supporting new restrictions on local oilfield pollution and establishing future quotas in state statue for renewable energy production.

State oil and gas regulators adopted rules earlier this year to limit venting and flaring as a way to reduce local releases of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Newly proposed rules are aimed at reducing oil industry contributions to ground-level ozone.

Reelection would give Lujan Grisham unprecedented influence over the future of renewable energy in New Mexico by allowing her to appoint the next Public Regulation Commission that oversees electrical utilities in 2023. A state constitutional amendment, approved by voters in 2020, ended direct election of the commission.

Spears case spotlights state efforts to rein in conservators - Daisy Nguyen Associated Press

Britney Spears' fight to end the conservatorship that controlled vast aspects of her life is putting the spotlight on ongoing efforts throughout the U.S. to reform state laws that advocates say too often harm the very people they were meant to protect.

Already this year, New Jersey cracked down on the circle of people who could petition for someone to be placed under a guardian. New Mexico created an independent review process to oversee how conservatorships are being handled, including the ability to check bank records. And Oregon is ensuring that anyone placed under a guardian gets free legal help.

On Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed into law a set of changes prompted by the attention generated by Spears' legal battle to free herself from a 13-year conservatorship run by her father.

The law includes greater oversight of professional fiduciaries, such as those who controlled Spears' life and financial decisions. It will increase scrutiny of financial, physical or mental abuse, which could result in $10,000 fines.

The new law also will allow people placed under a conservatorship to choose their own attorneys, which Spears was finally allowed to do in July.

California lawmakers had passed a series of reforms to the state's conservatorship system in 2006, but they were never implemented by the courts because of budget cuts during the recession in 2008 — the same year Spears was placed in the conservatorship after suffering a mental health crisis.

Her ordeal caught the attention of Congress, which held a Senate Judiciary committee hearing this week examining ways to reshape conservatorships.

The system "is failing people from every walk of life, whether they are a global superstar whose struggles unfortunately play out in public or a family unsure of how to take care of an elderly parent," said state Assemblyman Evan Low, a Democrat who introduced the bill after watching the recent documentary "Controlling Britney Spears."

Low added: "This bill saw unanimous, bipartisan support throughout the process because it's painfully clear that we can and should do better."

Changes to conservatorship laws in other states also have sought to protect assets and provide less severe alternatives to conservatorships, which also are referred to as guardianships.

In New Jersey, lawmakers introduced legislation that would eliminate a "catch-all" category that lets virtually anyone who claims to have concern for the financial or personal well-being of another adult petition the court to strip their decision-making power.

Studies have found that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or those with mental illnesses, dementia and Alzheimer's disease are at high risk of being placed under a guardianship.

"Let's say some wealthy woman is worth millions and millions, and their nephew is going around saying she's not all there and she needs to be taken care of. Well, under current law you can do that," said New Jersey Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, a Democrat who was a primary sponsor of the bill. "I want it to be hard for somebody to be a conservator and take money from somebody without adequate protections for that person."

High-profile cases of guardians exploiting vulnerable people in their care led Nevada and New Mexico to overhaul their laws governing conservatorships.

New Mexico reformed its system, starting in 2018, amid rising public complaints and a federal investigation that found 1,000 clients lost more than $10 million in a multi-year embezzlement scheme perpetrated by the Albuquerque-based company Ayudando Guardians. In July, a married couple that helped operate the company  were sentenced to a combined 62 years in prison  on fraud, theft and money laundering convictions. A judge said their conduct left former clients destitute and homeless.

Initial legislation provided greater access to secretive guardianship records and court proceedings. It also prohibited guardians from placing limits on visitation with the elderly and infirm after families complained they weren't allowed to visit or communicate with their loved ones. The state has added bonding requirements and training for conservators, new rights for the incapacitated and a grievance process to challenge court decisions.

New Mexico state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino said he's glad Spears' legal battle thrust the conservatorship process into the spotlight. The Democrat cosponsored successful legislation that pays for judicial staff to review conservator and guardianship accounts.

"It really goes to the heart of the matter," Ortiz y Pino said. "You're taking away basic civil rights from a person, and it's not that apparent to the casual observer if a person is capable of managing their own affairs any longer. That's why you have someone evaluate the person's mental acuity. You have someone check whether there are less restrictive options. You try to build in some protections."

In March, New Mexico lawmakers gave the state auditor's office new authority to review conservator and guardianship annual reports, conduct audits and subpoena bank records.

"That's not necessarily public transparency, but transparency in the sense of third eyes are looking at what the conservator is doing, besides the judge," said Democratic state Rep. Marian Matthews, a co-sponsor of the legislation.

After a guardian was charged in 2017 with siphoning more than half a million dollars from hundreds of people she had been appointed by courts to protect, Nevada lawmakers enshrined a right to legal counsel for adults under guardianship, created a system to allow people to pre-nominate guardians in case they became incapacitated and formed a compliance office to crack down on abuse.

Karen Kelly, who heads the Clark County Public Guardian's office, said the number of private guardianships have plummeted since the reforms went into effect and more people challenged proposed arrangements.

In June, Oregon's Democratic governor signed a bill that provides legal counsel — paid by the state — for people potentially being placed into guardianship.

"Protected persons currently don't have a right to representation, which obviously sets up people without means for potential abuse," said Sen. Michael Dembrow, a Democrat who was one of the measure's sponsors.

Delaware, Oklahoma, Texas and Wisconsin area among a growing number of states seeking to provide a less restrictive alternative to full guardianship, a step that is intended to allow people to direct their own lives.

The laws, backed by advocates for people with disabilities, require the courts to consider "supported decision-making" agreements. They allow a person with a disability to choose someone who can help with critical tasks such as reviewing a lease, but cannot make a decision for them.

"We're not calling for abolishing conservatorships, but changing the paradigm in which we see people with disabilities and see their ability to make choices in their own lives," said Judy Mark, president of Disability Voices United, a Southern California advocacy group.

Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said that approach applies "the lightest possible touch" to the process of formal oversight.

Borel said it's extremely hard for someone to be removed from a guardianship. In one memorable case, he recalled a man with an intellectual disability who had the support of his caretakers in a state institution to move into a community housing facility.

But the move was initially denied because the man remained under guardianship of his grandmother — even though she had died years before.

"It's still harder to get your rights restored than to never go under unnecessary guardianship," he said.

COVID cases see one-day spike in New Mexico – Albuquerque Journal

The number of new COVID-19 infections in the state spiked yesterday to over 1,000 cases. The Albuquerque Journal reported it was the highest one-day total in eight months. There were also 13 deaths.

The Journal reported the surge could be a reporting blip, but state health officials have been warning of an increase in cases due to the delta variant.

On Friday state health officials reported 791 new COVID-19 cases with 11 deaths. Hospitalizations are also creeping back up, with 347 patients on Friday after falling to 287 this week.

The latest numbers bring the total number of deaths of New Mexico residents related to COVID-19 to 4,812. About 93% of deaths over the last month are among those who are not fully vaccinated. A little over 70% of adults in the state are fully vaccinated and 80% have received at least one dose.

The state has opened an online questionnaire for people to determine if they are eligible for a booster shot of the Pfizer vaccine.

County jails contend with high-risk environment for COVID-19 - Associated Press

County jails across New Mexico are contending with a high-risk environment for COVID-19 infection at the same time that many more beds are being filled with inmates, an association of county governments announced Wednesday.

Grace Philips, general counsel to New Mexico Counties alliance of local governments, warned legislators that overall coronavirus vaccination rates among staff at county detention centers are lower than the statewide average — 61% versus about 71% for adults in general.

Vaccinations rates among county jail inmates are far lower — 39% statewide as of late-September.

Philips complimented county jails on their efforts to limit the spread of the highly contagious delta variant through entry screenings, quarantine procedures and vaccination clinics for inmates, but noted that the number of detected cases is on the upswing in the congregate living facilities.

"What we have is an extremely high-risk environment for COVID," Philips said.

The number of inmates held in county detention centers has increased to 5,280 in late September, from about 3,850 on May 1, 2020 — an increase of more than 25%, New Mexico Counties estimates. 

Philips also noted that the highly contagious delta variant arrived this summer as courts started to restore in-person proceedings, contributing to risks of infection.

The upward population trends at county jails stands in stark contrast to state prison facilities, where populations are declining.

In response to the pandemic, more than 550 state prisoners have been released since April 2020 under an executive order from the governor to commute sentences for prisoners who are eligible for early release, with the exception of several serious crimes.

Navajo company takes over operation of coal mine it owns - Associated Press

A Navajo Nation company is taking over the operation of a coal mine it owns in northwestern New Mexico.

The Navajo Transitional Energy Co. has owned the Navajo Mine since 2013 but had contracted with a subsidiary of the North American Coal Corp. to run it.

Clark Moseley, the company's chief executive, said the Navajo company will take over on Friday. 

The mine that feeds the adjacent Four Corners Power Plant has nearly 400 employees — 85% of whom are Native American. Moseley said the Navajo Transitional Energy Co. will retain the workforce.

The company is one of the largest coal producers in the United States as the resource increasingly is falling out of favor. The company owns three coal mines in Montana and Wyoming, and a share of the Four Corners Power Plant near Farmington, New Mexico.

Albuquerque man sought in fatal shooting of dog-walker - Associated Press

An arrest warrant has been issued for a suspect accused of killing another Albuquerque man after the victim's service dog was shot and wounded for reportedly barking at the gunman, police said.

The warrant issued Tuesday seeks Xavier Marquez, 22, on suspicion of murder and extreme animal cruelty along with firing a weapon at an occupied home.

Shawn Lynch, 34, was fatally shot and his dog wounded on Sept. 22. Another shot fired by Marquez went into a nearby home and lodged in the mattress of a sleeping woman who escaped injury, police said.

The death added to Albuquerque's record number of homicides this year with at least 85 as of Monday, according to police records.

Witnesses told investigators that Lynch was walking his dog on a street and headed for a friend's house where they encountered Marquez as he sat in a truck.

The complaint said Marquez got out of the truck and yelled at the dog before shooting and wounding the animal.

When Lynch objected, he was shot in the head and left on the street, according to the complaint.

Witnesses told police that 10 shots were fired and Lynch was struck by bullets at least four times. They said Marquez fled in a moped.

Lynch was pronounced dead at a hospital Monday, five days after the shooting.

His dog named Yessica survived after veterinarians removed a 9 mm bullet from one of the animal's legs during emergency surgery, authorities said.

Court records also show Marquez was out on bail on charges stemming from a different violent attack.

According to the documents, police arrested Marquez on Aug. 20 on accusations of punching two people in the face after his car caught fire in front of a shoe store.

One of the people was an off-duty police officer, who was trying to keep him from leaving the scene of the fire. 

Marquez was released without bond on assault charges and told not to have any guns, court records show, and he was given one of the least restrictive bail conditions because he had no prior violent convictions.

Navajo Nation reports 88 new COVID-19 cases but no deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported 88 more COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 33,995 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago. The known death toll remains at 1,447.

Based on cases from Sept. 10-23, the Navajo Department of Health issued an advisory for 40 communities due to an uncontrolled spread of COVID-19. 

The tribe's reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles and it covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Navajo officials are urging people to get vaccinated, wear masks while in public and minimize their travel. 

Officials said all Navajo Nation executive branch employees had to be fully vaccinated against the virus by the end of September or submit to regular testing.

The new rules apply to full, part-time and temporary employees, including those working for tribal enterprises like utilities, shopping centers and casinos. 

Any worker who did not show proof of vaccination by the end of September must be tested every two weeks or face discipline.

Relative says girlfriend of slaying suspect missing since 2017 - Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Associated Press

The girlfriend of a man who police say confessed this week to killing her, his roommate and three other people whose bodies were found dismembered in a burning dumpster in Texas was reported missing in 2017 after not returning from a trip with him to Arizona, the woman's relative said.

Jason Thornburg, 41, was arrested Monday on a capital murder charge in the deaths of the three people found in the dumpster last week in Fort Worth, Texas. He told officers that he'd felt compelled to sacrifice  those three people, as well as his roommate in Fort Worth in May and his girlfriend, according to an arrest warrant.

His girlfriend's name was redacted in the warrant, but a relative told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that she was Tanya Begay, an American Indian woman from Gallup, New Mexico. Sheryl Tsosie said Wednesday that Begay disappeared while taking a trip with Thornburg. 

"We didn't want to believe he had killed her," Tsosie told the newspaper.

The Associated Press reported on Begay's disappearance in 2018, as part of a series of stories on missing Native American women and how authorities can better pursue their cases.

Thornburg was being held Thursday on $1 million bond. Jail records did not list an attorney for him.

During his interview with police on Monday, Thornburg told officers that he had in-depth knowledge of the Bible and believed he was being called to "commit sacrifices," according to the arrest warrant.

The AP reported  that the last time Begay spoke to her mother was in March 2017. Begay told her mother that she planned to travel from the tiny Arizona town of Leupp back to her family's home near Gallup, New Mexico — a drive through the Navajo Nation that should've taken a few hours.

A day earlier, Begay had made a stop near Tohatchi, New Mexico, to visit a relative's home with her boyfriend, marking the last time any of her relatives had seen her, according to a police report.

Messages left with police in the Navajo Nation and Gallup seeking more information were not immediately returned Thursday. 

Thornburg, an electrician's apprentice, had been staying in a motel in the Fort Worth suburb of Euless since late July, according to the arrest warrant.

Police said that when they identified Thornburg as a suspect in the deaths of the three people found in the dumpster, they were already familiar with him from a suspicious death investigation earlier this year.

According to the arrest warrant, Thornburg's roommate was killed in a suspicious house fire on May 21. During the police interview on Monday, Thornburg told officers he had slit his roommate's throat, uncapped a natural gas line and lit a candle, the warrant said. At the time, the medical examiner wasn't able to determine his roommate's cause of death.

Court dismisses lawsuit filed against Navajo commissioner - Associated Press

The Utah Supreme Court tossed out a lawsuit Thursday filed by a Republican candidate trying to overturn the victory of a Navajo commissioner in a county dogged by allegations of discrimination against Navajo voters.

Kelly Laws filed a lawsuit in January 2019, after losing the race to Democrat Willie Grayeyes in San Juan County. He claimed that Grayeyes was not truly a Utah resident, but the high court ruled Laws did not have standing to challenge his victory.

County officials had tried to remove Grayeyes from the ballot before the election for the same reason, saying an investigation sparked by a complaint from a different Republican hopeful found that he lives primarily over the nearby Arizona border. A federal judge reversed that decision after deciding the county clerk falsified the complaint by improperly backdating it. U.S. District Judge David Nuffer did not rule directly on the residency issue, however.

Grayeyes has called the residency question a political attack as Navajos were poised to form a majority of the three-person commission for the first time. He has been registered to vote in San Juan County since he was 18 and held leadership positions in Utah for decades, his lawyers have said.

Laws' attorney Peter Stirba did not immediately return messages seeking comment.