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MON: Driver arrested in hit-and-run that killed Albuquerque child, + More

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By Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States - Police Line Do Not Cross, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70449253
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Driver arrested in hit-and-run that killed Albuquerque boy - Associated Press

A driver suspected in a December hit-and-run that left a 7-year-old boy dead in Albuquerque has been arrested, authorities said Monday.

The U.S. Marshals Service announced that 27-year-old Sergio Almanza surrendered to authorities in southwest New Mexico.

Albuquerque police said Almanza is facing charges of homicide by vehicle, leaving the scene of an accident causing death and tampering with evidence.

It was unclear if Almanza has a lawyer yet who can speak on his behalf about the case.

Pronoy Bhattacharya was with his family on Dec. 12 as they walked across a street after attending the River of Lights show at the ABQ BioPark, according to authorities.

Police said Almanza was driving an illegal off-road vehicle and allegedly ran a red light before hitting the boy and then fleeing the scene.

Tips from the public enabled investigators to identify Almanza as the suspected driver and police served an arrest warrant at his home in Belen but he wasn't there.

Police said Almanza was considered a fugitive for the past six weeks until he turned himself in.

Bernalillo County on fast track to fill legislative vacancy -Associated Press

With the New Mexico Legislative in session, Bernalillo County commissioners are on a fast track to replace a Democratic lawmaker who resigned her House seat representing an Albuquerque district.

A day after Rep. Brittney Barreras announced her resignation Friday to focus on her mental health, county officials on Saturday announced that the County Commission will hold a special meeting at 2 p.m. Wednesday to appoint a representative to fill the vacancy.

A separate announcement said the commission was seeking applications to fill Barreras' Distict 12 seat and that the deadline to submit applications is 5 p.m. Tuesday.

"Due to the Legislature being in session, there is an urgency to fill the position; therefore, the application period will be condensed," the announcement said.

Barreras was halfway through her first term when she abruptly announced her resignation through a statement issued by the Democratic caucus.

She said she was honored to represent her constituents but said "all of the pressure and stress" had taken a toll on her mental health. and become increasingly difficult.

"I know that I need to take care of myself right now in order to be a good mom, daughter, co-parent, and community member," she said.

'Rust' death sparks New Mexico gun safety bill for actors - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A Republican New Mexico legislator wants movie actors and other film-set professionals to undergo state-sponsored gun-safety training after a cinematographer was fatally shot last year by Alec Baldwin with a weapon he says he thought was not loaded with live ammunition.

State Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell on Monday introduced a bill that would require all film set personnel who handle firearms to complete a safety course offered by the New Mexico Game and Fish Department.

It was unclear whether the Democrat-led Legislature will bring the bill up for debate and a possible vote during a 30-day legislative session that ends Feb. 17. The office of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the bill.

Pirtle is a partner in a farming business and an ardent supporter of gun rights. He has handled firearms on film sets while acting in minor roles for Western movies, such as "Deadman Standing" in 2018 and "Death Alley" in 2021.

The senator said in a statement that he was heartbroken to learn of the death of Halyna Hutchins in October 2021 on the set of "Rust."

"Unfortunately, to the Hollywood elite, the talk around guns is all too abstract," Pirtle said. "This is a simple bill to bring some gravity back to the use of firearms on film sets."

Baldwin has said he didn't know the gun he was holding contained a live round when it went off while pointed at Hutchins.

The Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office that is leading an investigation into the cause of the death has said it is too soon to determine whether charges will be filed.

Investigators have described "some complacency" in how weapons were handled on set at a movie-set ranch near Santa Fe, as they trace the source of ammunition from the set including live and dummy rounds.

Pirtle says his 10-year-old son has undergone standard firearms training by the state Game and Fish Department to instill an understanding that guns are not only household tools but also can be deadly.

New Mexico lawmakers advance Native American education bills - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For American

The New Mexico Legislature is considering three bills aimed at improving education for Native American students that would increase funding to tribal education departments and libraries and allow more tribal control over how funds are spent.

Members of the House Education Committee approved two of the measures Monday morning, while a third bill focusing on higher education funding for Native American teachers is also under discussion.

The tribal school funding bill would grant greater authority to tribal governments over how to spend money already allocated by state officials to support Native American education. Instead of flowing through grants from the New Mexico Public Education Department, most of the money would go directly to tribal education departments.

Supporters of the funding measures have said the state is late in taking aggressive efforts to address Indigenous education highlighted in an unresolved 2018 state court ruling.

Santa Clara Pueblo Tribal Education Director Jeremy Oyenque spoke in support of the funding measure, calling the current grantmaking process "cumbersome."

Critics of the measure to give tribal education officials more clout in allocating money raised questions about how the success of the educational spending would be tracked.

But the sponsor of the bills, Democratic Rep. Derrick Lente, said that mutual agreements between individual tribes and state officials would specify those metrics, not the Legislature.

The school funding bill passed the committee 9-2, and the library bill passed 9-3.

Santa Fe airport poised to get long overdue expansion - Associated Press

The Santa Fe Regional Airport is set to embark on the first phase of a long-planned expansion.

The Albuquerque Journal reported Monday that Bradbury Stamm Construction of Albuquerque will officially break ground after the results of a utility survey, which is currently in the process. Construction is anticipated to take 12-14 months.

The expansion, with a $21.5 million price tag, will include doubling the terminal size to 14,000 square feet and creating a bigger parking lot. There will also be an expanded baggage claim and a new cafe and gift shop.

Airport officials say this is not cosmetics. The airport has seen its passenger traffic nearly double from 93,000 in 2017 to 175,000 in 2019.

With both American and United airlines providing service there, the narrow terminal and lobby can get packed.

The airport was originally designed by Santa Fe architect John Gaw Meem. Officials say they will be "keeping the quaintness" of his design.

Hackers prey on public schools, adding stress amid pandemic - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

For teachers at a middle school in New Mexico's largest city, the first inkling of a widespread tech problem came during an early morning staff call.

On the video, there were shout-outs for a new custodian for his hard work, and the typical announcements from administrators and the union rep. But in the chat, there were hints of a looming crisis. Nobody could open attendance records, and everyone was locked out of class rosters and grades.

Albuquerque administrators later confirmed the outage that blocked access to the district's student database — which also includes emergency contacts and lists of which adults are authorized to pick up which children — was due to a ransomware attack.

"I didn't realize how important it was until I couldn't use it," said Sarah Hager, a Cleveland Middle School art teacher.

Cyberattacks like the one that canceled classes for two days in Albuquerque's biggest school district have become a growing threat to U.S. schools, with several high-profile incidents reported since last year. And the coronavirus pandemic has compounded their effects: More money has been demanded, and more schools have had to shut down as they scramble to recover data or even manually wipe all laptops.

"Pretty much any way that you cut it, incidents have both been growing more frequent and more significant," said Doug Levin, director of the K12 Security Information Exchange, a Virginia-based nonprofit that helps schools defend against cybersecurity risk.

Precise data is hard to come by since most schools are not required to publicly report cyberattacks. But experts say public school systems — which often have limited budgets for cybersecurity expertise — have become an inviting target for ransomware gangs.

The pandemic also has forced schools to turn increasingly toward virtual learning, making them more dependent on technology and more vulnerable to cyber-extortion. School systems that have had instruction disrupted include those in Baltimore County and Miami-Dade County, along with districts in New Jersey, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Levin's group has tracked well over 1,200 cyber security incidents since 2016 at public school districts across the country. They included 209 ransomware attacks, when hackers lock data up and charge to unlock it; 53 "denial of service" attacks, where attackers sabotage or slow a network by faking server requests; 156 "Zoombombing" incidents, where an unauthorized person intrudes on a video call; and more than 110 phishing attacks, where a deceptive message tricks a user to let a hacker into their network.

Recent attacks also come as schools grapple with multiple other challenges related to the pandemic. Teachers get sick, and there aren't substitutes to cover them. Where there are strict virus testing protocols, there aren't always tests or people to give them.

In New York City, an attack this month on third-party software vendor Illuminate Education didn't result in canceled classes, but teachers across the city couldn't access grades. Local media reported the outage added to stress for educators already juggling instruction with enforcing COVID-19 protocols and covering for colleagues who were sick or in quarantine.

Albuquerque Superintendent Scott Elder said getting all students and staff online during the pandemic created additional avenues for hackers to access the district's system. He cited that as a factor in the Jan. 12 ransomware attack that canceled classes for some 75,000 students.

The cancellations — which Elder called "cyber snow days" — gave technicians a five-day window to reset the databases over a holiday weekend.

Elder said there's no evidence student information was obtained by hackers. He declined to say whether the district paid a ransom but noted there would be a "public process" if it did.

Hager, the art teacher, said the cyberattack increased stress on campus in ways that parents didn't see.

Fire drills were canceled because fire alarms didn't work. Intercoms stopped working.

Nurses couldn't find which kids were where as positive test results came in, Hager said. "So potentially there were students on campus that probably were sick." It also appears the hack permanently wiped out a few days worth of attendance records and grades.

Edupoint, the vendor for Albuquerque's student information database, called Synergy, declined to comment.

Many schools choose to keep attacks under wraps or release minimal information to prevent revealing additional weaknesses in their security systems.

"It's very difficult for the school districts to learn from each other, because they're really not supposed to talk to each other about it because you might share vulnerabilities," Elder said.

Last year, the FBI issued a warning about a group called PYSA, or "Protect Your System, Amigo," saying it was seeing an increase in attacks by the group on schools, colleges and seminaries. Other ransomware gangs include Conti, which last year demanded $40 million from Broward County Public Schools, one of the nation's largest.

Most are Russian-speaking groups that are based in Eastern Europe and enjoy safe harbor from tolerant governments. Some will post files on the dark web, including highly sensitive information, if they don't get paid.

While attacks on larger districts garner more headlines, ransomware gangs tended to target smaller school districts in 2021 than in 2020, according to Brett Callow, a threat analyst at the firm Emsisoft. He said that could indicate bigger districts are increasing their spending on cybersecurity while smaller districts, which have less money, remain more vulnerable.

A few days after Christmas, the 1,285-student district of Truth or Consequences, south of Albuquerque, also had its Synergy student information system shut down by a ransomware attack. Officials there compared it to having their house robbed.

"It's just that feeling of helplessness, of confusion as to why somebody would do something like this because at the end of the day, it's taking away from our kids. And to me that's just a disgusting way to try to, to get money," Superintendent Channell Segura said.

The school didn't have to cancel classes because the attack happened on break, but the network remains down, including keyless entry locks on school building doors. Teachers are still carrying around the physical keys they had to track down at the start of the year, Segura said.

In October, President Joe Biden signed the K-12 Cybersecurity Act, which calls for the federal cyber security agency to make recommendations about how to help school systems better protect themselves.

New Mexico lawmakers have been slow to expand internet usage in the state, let alone support schools on cyber security. Last week, state representatives introduced a bill that would allocate $45 million to the state education department to build a cybersecurity program by 2027.

Ideas on how to prevent future hacks and recover from existing ones usually require more work from teachers.

In the days following the Albuquerque attack, parents argued on Facebook over why schools couldn't simply switch to pen and paper for things like attendance and grades.

Hager said she even heard the criticism from her mother, a retired school teacher.

"I said, 'Mom, you can only take attendance on paper if you have printed out your roster to begin with,'" Hager said.

Teachers could also keep duplicate paper copies of all records — but that would double the clerical work that already bogs them down.

In an era where administrators increasingly require teachers to record everything digitally, Hager says, "these systems should work."

___

Associated Press writers Michael Melia in Hartford, Connecticut, and Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.

Albuquerque is distributing about 80K at-home COVID-19 tests -KOB-TV, Associated Press

Some 80,000 at-home COVID-19 tests are beginning to be handed out by city officials in areas of Albuquerque determined to need them the most.

The supplies are from the federal government and the distribution has started in areas of high social vulnerability.

The Barelas Senior Center was one of the first stops.

Each person who wanted the at-home tests were getting four kits, which is eight COVID-19 tests total.

Albuquerque has 25 locations designated for distribution, including community centers, libraries, and local organizations.

City officials said that there eventually will be test instructions in 12 different languages.

Michelle Melendez, director of Office of Equity for the City of Albuquerque, told KOB-TV that testing is going to be one of the best strategies to stop transmission of the virus.

Officials: COVID a financial hammer on New Mexico hospitals -Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

The pandemic is financially stressing New Mexico hospitals because the money they get for treating COVID-19 patients doesn't keep pace with rising costs, officials said.

New Mexico Hospital Association President and CEO Troy Clark said it's incorrect to think that hospitals are doing OK financially because they're full. He said that assumption doesn't take into account that federal relief provided hospitals hasn't made up for reimbursement shortfalls, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

"Medicare pays you what Medicare pays you; Medicaid pays you what Medicaid pays you; commercial insurance payments are renegotiated every one to three years, but you don't renegotiate every week when costs go up," he said.

University of New Mexico Hospital CEO Kate Becker said the hospital's expenses have outpaced revenues by $4.6 million for the fiscal year now half over.

Becker cited reimbursement s haven't kept up with rising staff and supply costs

It doesn't help that many COVID-19 patients currently don't require ICU beds but still need costly care elsewhere in the hospital.

"But a lot of the revenues generated by those patients are not equivalent to some of the revenues we were seeing last year when the mix was more folks in intensive care," she said.

Last Afghan refugees depart Air Force base in New Mexico

The last Afghan refugees have departed Holloman Air Force Base in southern New Mexico where they were temporarily housed while being resettled in the United States after being relocated following the U.S. military's withdrawal from their home country, base officials said.

A tent city at Holloman sheltered a total of nearly 7,100 Afghans during the five months since the first arrived Aug. 31, officials said in a statement.

Prior to the last refugees' departure Wednesday, Aman Omid Village at Holloman housed a rolling average of about 4,500 Afghan refugees, the  Alamogordo Daily News reported.

While at Holloman, Afghan refugees were given halal meals, lessons in American culture and used recreation areas where they played with soccer balls or played cricket.

Holloman was one of eight U.S. military installations used for Operation Allies Welcome. Refugees remain at four of the bases.

"With the completion of operations at Holloman AFB, we have now helped more than 66,000 Afghan evacuees begin their new lives in the United States," Robert J. Fenton, Jr., senior response official for Operation Allies Welcome said in a Department of Homeland Security press release.

Mexican gray wolf that tried to cross border shot in leg -Associated Press

An endangered Mexican gray wolf that drew media attention late last year after it appeared to spend five days pacing along the border fence separating New Mexico from Mexico has been found with a serious gunshot wound.

The Center for Biological Diversity announced Friday evening that the male wolf that was released into the wild in Arizona in 2020 had been found with a gunshot to one of his legs. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used a helicopter to track the injured wolf and used a tranquilizer dart to sedate him.

The animal called "Mr. Goodbar" was then taken to the Albuquerque BioPark Zoo and veterinarians planned to amputate part or all of the injured leg, according to Michael Robinson, of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Robinson said the wolf is expected to survive and be released back into the wild once he recovers.

The injured wolf was spotted during the Fish and Wildlife Service's annual census of wolves in the Southwest. Last year's census counted 186 Mexican gray wolves living in New Mexico and Arizona. Robinson said that number is likely to rise above 200 when the current census is completed.

Mexican gray wolves were wiped out in the U.S. by 1950. After the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, some of the last remaining members of the species were captured in Mexico and bred in captivity. Wolves began to be reintroduced to the Southwest in 1998.

The Center for Biological Diversity believes Mr. Goodbar was trying to go to Mexico while searching for a mate when it wandered along the new border fence for days in November. The fence blocks wolves and other animals from crossing back and forth in search of mates.

"Mr. Goodbar's painful experiences illustrate the inhospitable world we've created for Mexican gray wolves and other vulnerable animals," Robinson said in a statement.

*This version corrects the date of the wolf's release to 2020, not 2000.

New Mexico canine search and rescue group seeks volunteers - By Mike Easterling Farmington Daily Times

Serving as a handler for a certified search-and-rescue dog may sound like an appealing job, especially for someone who loves dogs and is inclined toward community service.

But Jon Bonnette, the president of the newly founded Trinity K9 Search and Rescue nonprofit organization in Aztec, warns that the role isn't for everyone. He's a canine handler himself, and he said the requirements of the job can be considerable.

"To be the handler, it takes quite a bit of dedication," said the Marine Corps veteran who relocated to New Mexico with his wife in 2020 after spending much of his life in Guam.

Bonnette told the Daily Times that every handler must own the dog with which he or she is paired. Handlers also must be willing to work the dog tirelessly, even after it has undergone the 1,000 hours of scent training needed to be ready to engage in search-and-rescue work.

"They go nuts if you just leave them locked in the house," he said of canines certified for search-and-rescue operations. "They require constant engagement and exercise."

Many of the dogs used by Trinity K9 Search and Rescue are American Belgian malinois rescue canines, which are especially well suited for the kind of work they do with the organization. They are animals that want to be challenged both physically and mentally, Bonnette said.

"Technically, they not the kind of dogs that want to lay on the couch and eat Cheetos," he said. "They've got to be doing something or they go crazy."

That means they aren't ideal pets. Bonnette acknowledged that even he can get exasperated with the demands his search and rescue dogs make on him sometimes, especially when all he wants to do is relax in a recliner and lose himself in a movie. A dog that is impatient to be worked doesn't really understand that, he said, and will be inclined to make a nuisance of itself until it gets what it wants.

"They're high-drive dogs," he said.

But Bonnette said once you get hooked on working with such animals, it's not something you can leave behind easily.

"On the flip side of that, if you do love dogs, the bond you build with that animal is second to none," he said, adding that the rewards of doing search-and-rescue work are the best feeling in the world.

Bonnette's organization, which began operating Jan. 1, is designed to assist local, state and federal agencies in the search for and recovery of lost or missing people. Bonnette hastens to explain that Trinity is not the only canine-assisted search and rescue team in the Four Corners region, but he said there is plenty of need for all those teams.

After all, a single trained dog can take the place of 30 to 40 people in a search party, he said, covering the same amount of territory as all those people in much less time. In terrain like the Four Corners, which is mostly wilderness, dog teams are an invaluable asset.

"That really ups the chances of finding a missing person," he said.

And if that person has been injured and requires medical attention, that time savings can be the difference between life and death, Bonnette said.

Bonnette is retired and said his work as the head of Trinity is essentially his full-time job. The organization has five team members and five dogs, and it is eager to recruit new volunteers, he said.

Of course, not everyone who has an interest in such work is cut out to be a handler, and Bonnette said there are plenty of other ways volunteers may contribute. Every search team needs a navigator and a base camp operator as well, he said.

Since the dog and its handler are responsible for searching a specific grid, usually a 160-acre plot, it is the navigator's job to keep the dog and handler on course as they conduct a methodical search of that territory, Bonnette said. The base camp operator keeps track of the canine team's progress and remains in communication with the incident commander, who oversees the entire search and rescue operation, he said.

Bonnette also wants to add drone operators to his team, as well as dog training professionals, he said, adding that all the dogs need to be worked at least two or three times a week.

"There's a lot of different things they can do," he said of anyone who volunteers for the organization. "If you love dogs and love being outdoors and love being involved with your community, it's a great way to do it."

Being a handler is especially rewarding, Bonnette said. But the job can be a physically demanding one, in addition to requiring great time and patience, he said.

Bonnette said before he launched Trinity, he was involved in a search and rescue operation on the Navajo Nation. His canine, Izzy, traveled 30 miles in one day searching for the missing individual, and Bonnette said he covered 10 miles that day — much of it up and down hills and arroyos. He said he was spent by the time the day was over.

"Many dogs move extremely fast, and you're at their mercy, so you have to keep up with them," he said. "It's taxing."

If you don't have the time or inclination to volunteer, Bonnette said Trinity, as a new organization, has a great many needs and welcomes donations of cash or equipment and is especially in need of kennels and a response vehicle.

Police investigate shooting in Albuquerque's southwest area -Associated Press

Police in Albuquerque were investigating a shooting Sunday in the southwest part of the city.

They say the shooting occurred in the early morning hours in a neighborhood.

One person was taken to a hospital for treatment, but police didn't immediately release the victim's name or condition or the circumstances that led to the shooting.