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THURS: New Mexico aims more resources at missing Indigenous cases, + More

Officials conduct a blessing and moment of silence before New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs legislation aimed at addressing cases of missing and slain Native Americans during a ceremony in Albuquerque, N.M., on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. The measures will help to coordinate efforts among law enforcement and prosecutors, improve data collection, make resources more accessible to victims' families and boost awareness of the issue. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
Susan Montoya Bryan/AP
Officials conduct a blessing and moment of silence before New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs legislation aimed at addressing cases of missing and slain Native Americans during a ceremony in Albuquerque, N.M., on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. The measures will help to coordinate efforts among law enforcement and prosecutors, improve data collection, make resources more accessible to victims' families and boost awareness of the issue. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

New Mexico aims more resources at missing Indigenous cases - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday signed legislation aimed at ensuring more effective coordination among law enforcement agencies when it comes to cases involving missing or slain Native American women.

Aside from creating a new position in the state attorney general's office that will focus on cases involving missing Indigenous victims, the measures will boost data collection and education as well as provide grant funding to improve reporting of missing persons cases.

A large group of family members whose loved ones have gone missing or been killed flanked the governor as she pulled out a special pen and signed the legislation during an emotional ceremony at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

Lujan Grisham shared a long embrace with relatives of Shawna Toya as the tears flowed. Toya, a mother of four from Jemez Pueblo, was found dead last year in Albuquerque, and her family is pushing authorities to reopen her case. They said her death has turned their lives upside down.

Lujan Grisham said the signing of the bills should be seen as a declaration that the state is willing to put in the work needed to find justice for victims' families and prevent future tragedies.

"Not one more tragedy. Not one more family ripped apart. Not one more excuse about why it's difficult — particularly in Indigenous communities — to do right by the women, their families and every missing, murdered and at-risk person," the governor vowed.

Supporters say the efforts will help unite communities in providing better access to the resources needed to help solve potential crimes and find answers for families.

The Legislature appropriated $1 million for the hiring and training of one or more specialists and another $1 million to implement an online portal for electronically cataloging missing persons cases.

The New Mexico Indian Affairs Department has cited jurisdictional issues as one of the hurdlesin addressing the crisis of missing and slain Native Americans. The agency has noted that in New Mexico, there are over 100 law enforcement agencies, over a dozen prosecutorial entities, and 23 sovereign tribes.

In some parts of the state, officials have said the jurisdictional checkerboard affects response time, investigation and prosecution of missing Indigenous persons cases. They have said coordination and oversight are needed to improve the outcome for Native Americans.

A related bill signed by Lujan Grisham creates an annual "missing in New Mexico event" at which federal, state, local and tribal governments will come together to help families in filing missing persons reports. Families also would be able to update missing persons reports, submit DNA records or meet with investigators.

As of January, there were 946 active missing persons and 20 unidentified persons reported across New Mexico in the National Crime Information Center. However, advocates have long said the total number of missing or slain Indigenous people is unknown partly because federal databases do not contain comprehensive information.

A report by the Urban Indian Health Institute found there were more than 5,700 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in 2016, but only 116 of those cases were logged in a U.S. Department of Justice database. The study was limited in scope, however, because it reflected data from 71 U.S. cities not on tribal land. Albuquerque wasn't among those cities.

The changes in New Mexico come amid heightened efforts to address the crisis at the state and federal level. Other states including California, Oregon, Washington have approved studies of the problem or more funding for tribes.

Before the bill signing, a moment of silence was observed by the crowd to honor those who are missing or have been killed. Some of their names were read aloud as family members held photographs of their loved ones and signs that called for justice.

Attorney General Hector Balderas said there are special agents in his office ready to take on the new charge and that his office has met with the FBI about moving forward. He acknowledged that the families present Thursday have been on a journey of tragedy and pain and that the state is ready to walk with them.

"This is a day of hope," he told them.

New Mexico lobbyist accuses state lawmaker of groping her - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A lobbyist for progressive advocacy groups in New Mexico has accused a leading Democratic state senator of groping her at a hotel reception in 2015, calling on the lawmaker to resign in a public letter.

Marianna Anaya, a registered lobbyist whose recent work involves voting rights legislation, said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto of Albuquerque grabbed and pinched her buttocks as she stood at a cocktail table during a reception for a teacher’s union at a Santa Fe hotel. At the time, Anaya worked on the congressional staff for Michelle Lujan Grisham, who left Congress to become governor in 2019.

"I froze and felt an overwhelming sense of embarrassment," Anaya said in a letter released Tuesday on social media and through an attorney. Anaya said she shared her experience after she said Ivey-Soto continued to harass her and others.

Contacted Wednesday, Ivey-Soto said he has no recollection of touching Anaya during the encounter and that he reacted with horror when she raised the issue recently.

"Her recollection is that I reached around and grabbed her behind," Ivey-Soto said. "I was horrified when she told me this. That's not me. I said I don't reach around and unsolicited grab someone's behind. I can just tell you categorically that I didn't do that."

An attorney for Anaya said a written complaint against Ivey-Soto will be filed with the Legislature for investigation. Attorney Levi Monagle declined to share the complaint, citing procedural restrictions.

Previous allegations of sexual misconduct by lawmakers in their interactions with female lobbyists in recent years prompted an overhaul of anti-harassment training and investigative procedures at the Legislature, with new standards for what constitutes harassment and outside oversight of some investigations.

So far in 2022, four complaints of misconduct have been filed against New Mexico legislators. Legislative Council Service Director Raúl Burciaga, lead attorney to the Legislature, said further information cannot be disclosed without a preliminary investigation and finding of probably cause.

Previously, former State Rep. Carl Trujillo lost the Democratic primary in 2018 after a lobbyist accused him of inappropriately touching and propositioning her — though the lobbyist later declined to testify in a legislative inquiry. Trujillo denied the accusations.

Lobbyist Vanessa Alarid said in 2017 that a former House lawmaker had offered to vote for bill in 2009 if she would have sex with him.

Anaya's letter describes encounters this year with Ivey-Soto over glasses of wine in his office and later at a restaurant to discuss legislation aimed at expanding voting access. She described Ivey-Soto's behavior as aggressive and disrespectful, including shouting and sexual innuendo.

"That is why I decided to speak about this publicly," she wrote. "You have a pattern of sexually abusive behavior and abuse of your power as a legislator, and I want every women who has to work with you to know about your actions and hold you accountable."

Ivey-Soto said he has "no idea" about references to harassment of other women, and that his encounters with Anaya were never sexual. Ivey-Soto acknowledged confronting Anaya about her joining in previous calls for him to resign for badgering a female legislator during a Senate floor debate in 2021.

"I feel like a conversation with me would have been appropriate before publicly calling for my resignation," Ivey-Soto said, highlighting his activism on legislation aimed at protecting victims of domestic violence and ensuring their safe access to voting.

The senator said he keeps wine in his state Capitol office to "de-intensify" conversations.

Anaya in 2017 publicly accused Democratic gubernatorial contender Jeff Apodaca of trying to kiss her on the mouth at a whiffle ball game in Santa Fe that brought together staff from the Democratic Party and a labor union that employed her.

Apodaca's campaign said the accusations were false. There was no official vetting. Apodaca lost in a three-way primary.

Police: Car driver charged in Albuquerque school bus crash - Associated Press

One of two car drivers believed to have been racing on Albuquerque streets has been charged in connection with a school bus rollover crash in which three students were seriously injured, police said Thursday.

Mario Perez, 49, was charged with two counts of great bodily harm by vehicle in the incident Wednesday, which occurred just hours after police announced a new traffic enforcement pilot program targeting speeding and racing on city streets, a police statement said.

Police said they sought information from the public regarding the unidentified driver of the second car, a blue Ford Mustang, which left the scene after Perez's car, also a Ford Mustang, collided with the bus carrying 23 middle school students.

The impact caused the bus to roll over onto the driver's side.

Two students had leg injuries and a third had pelvic injuries and two of the three injured students needed surgery, police said.

Police said Perez was hospitalized for a leg injury that would require surgery and that he would be booked into jail once released from the hospital.

Online court records didn't list an attorney for Perez who might comment on his behalf.

7 middle school students injured in bus crash in Albuquerque -Associated Press

Seven middle school students were injured and taken to a hospital after a school bus rolled over following a crash with a sports car Wednesday afternoon, Albuquerque police said.

Police said none of the injuries were life-threatening.

The driver of the sports car also was taken to the hospital after Wednesday afternoon's crash and authorities were investigating whether the vehicle was street racing at the time of the collision.

The name and age of the driver wasn't immediately released by police.

KOB-TV posted a photo on its website showing the bus tipped over on its left side on a street near some houses.

Police said the sports car hit a rear tire on the bus and that caused it to roll.

Albuquerque Public Schools officials said the bus was carrying 23 students from George I. Sánchez Collaborative Community School.

Rocky Mountain states to team up on hydrogen tech proposal - By Mead Gruver Associated Press

Four Rocky Mountain states will cooperate on developing ways to make the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen, more available and useful as clean-burning fuel for cars, trucks and trains, the states' governors announced Thursday.

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming will plan a "hydrogen hub" to be built somewhere in the region, drawing from $8 billion in recently approved federal infrastructure funding for four or more such regional hubs in the U.S.

"This coalition represents a shared vision for the future of hydrogen in the Mountain West region," Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon said in a joint statement with governors Jared Polis of Colorado, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico and Spencer Cox of Utah.

The Western Inter-State Hydrogen Hub will have facilities in all four states under plans to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy, according to an agreement signed Wednesday.

Goals will include economic development and the "latest science, research and technology for cost-effective generation, transportation, and use of clean hydrogen," the states' agreement said.

Hydrogen has long been eyed as an abundant, clean fuel. Companies including major auto manufacturers have been developing hydrogen-fueled cars, trucks, buses and trains.

Hydrogen can be derived from water using an electric current and when burned emits only water vapor as a byproduct. The fuel could theoretically reduce greenhouse emissions and air pollution, depending on how it's obtained.

As with electric vehicles, however, hydrogen's potential has been limited by infrastructure. Lack of fueling stations limits the market for hydrogen-fueled vehicles. Few hydrogen-fueled vehicles limits investment in producing and moving hydrogen.

In New Mexico, Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has amid criticism pushed aggressively to attract private investment and federal dollars for hydrogen production and distribution.

"Hydrogen is coming everywhere in the country," Lujan Grisham said last week at the close of the state's annual legislative session. "My job is to make sure we have the right safeguards and effort."

Critics point out that as it's now produced, hydrogen isn't green, carbon-free or unlimited. Currently nearly all hydrogen commercially produced in the U.S. comes not from water but natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

While advocates say using fossil fuels to produce hydrogen now can help to develop a clean industry later, environmentalists are skeptical.

"It's essentially a push for expanded oil and gas development. More oil and gas development is completely at odds with the need to confront the climate crisis and drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels," Jeremy Nichols with the Santa Fe, New Mexico-based environmental group WildEarth Guardians said by email.

Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming rank seventh, eighth and ninth, respectively, for U.S. onshore gas production. Utah also is significant gas-producing state, according to the Energy Information Administration.

New Mexico officer wounded, 1 suspect dead, 2nd at large - Associated Press

An encounter between a New Mexico officer and two suspects left the officer wounded, one of the suspects dead and the other at large after she escaped in a police vehicle, officials said Thursday.

It began at about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday when the officer encountered what appeared to be a stranded vehicle in Hobbs, near the Texas border, a police statement said.

The male suspect ran away and multiple shots were fired, resulting in the Hobbs police officer and that suspect being shot, the statement said.

A woman who was with him was detained at the scene and placed in handcuffs. But "as this incident unfolded" and officers began rendering aid, she was able to drive away in a police vehicle, the statement said.

The police vehicle crashed a short time later and the woman ran off, the statement said.

The identities of the wounded officer and the man who died weren't immediately released, but the statement identified the escaped suspect as 28-year-old Janessa Perez of Hobbs.

City spokeswoman Meghan Mooney said the Hobbs officer was hospitalized in stable condition and expected to recover.

The incident is being investigated by the New Mexico State Police, and Mooney said authorities planned to release additional information later.

State Police: Suspect dead after shooting in Torrance County

Authorities say a suspect is dead following a shooting in Edgewood that involved the Torrance County Sheriff's Office.

A brief statement released Thursday by the New Mexico State Police didn't say whether a sheriff's deputy shot the suspect or provide other information on circumstances of the incident other than that no deputies were injured.

The statement said the state agency is investigating the incident.

Edgewood is 26 miles (42 kilometers) east of Albuquerque.

Pandemic crisis standards to expire for New Mexico hospitals - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico's top health official said Wednesday that the state is still on track to lift its crisis standards of care declaration for hospitals in the coming weeks as COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations continue to decline.

The declaration was issued last fall as a way to ease the strain on New Mexico's already overburdened health care system. A few hospitals enacted the standards, which cleared the way for them to ration care and suspend procedures that weren't medically necessary if they didn't have capacity.

State Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said during a virtual briefing that the availability of hospital beds increased this week, and the plan is to let the declaration expire March 11. He said the declaration did help the state to get some federal resources during the pandemic.

State data showed hospital admissions for the last week numbered 172, a significant drop from the 430 reported at the end of January.

"Most hospitals are now really feeling like they're out of the woods," he said. "We still have hospitals at 100% capacity. We still plan to try to support those hospitals as we are able with additional staffing resources, but workforce still is our key issue here in New Mexico."

Scrase also addressed the governor's surprise move to immediately lift her indoor mask mandate last week. While masks are still required at hospitals, nursing homes and in other congregate care settings, he said state officials believed it was time to give people a choice.

"I don't know that I agree that you need scientific evidence to remove a mandate," he said. "I think the role of government is to step in when necessary in critical situations and also to step back when you're out of that difficult period."

State officials also have sent text notices to some 40,000 people who are immunocompromised, recommending additional booster shots.

According to data from the state Health Department, about 15% of coronavirus-related hospitalizations and deaths in the last four weeks were among those who were vaccinated and received a booster. Overall, about 68% of those who died in New Mexico in recent weeks had one or more underlying conditions.

Court: Medical marijuana can't be taxed in New Mexico -Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court is letting stand a lower court ruling that found cannabis purchases by medical marijuana patients should not be subject to gross receipts tax.

The Supreme Court issued its order Wednesday, just days before parties in the case were scheduled to present arguments.

The case stemmed from requests for tax refunds by producers in 2014 and again in 2018. The state Taxation and Revenue Department had denied those claims. In 2020, the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled that medical marijuana should be treated like other prescriptions, which are not taxed.

Appellate Court Judge M. Monica Zamora had stated in the opinion at the time that New Mexico's Compassionate Use Act was intended to make medical marijuana accessible to those with debilitating conditions.

"It is reasonably self-evident that the deduction from gross receipts for prescription drugs was similarly intended to make medical treatment more accessible, by lessening the expense to those who require it," she wrote. "These statutes should be read harmoniously, to give effect to their commonality of purpose."

The Taxation and Revenue Department said it was disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision to quash its review of the case.

"We respect the decision and will move forward to issue refunds to the affected taxpayers once the court's decision is mandated to become final," agency spokesman Charlie Moore said.

It wasn't immediately unclear how much the refunds might total. Some in the industry have estimated that the state has collected between $25 million and $30 million in gross receipts taxes from medical marijuana producers.

Ultra Health, one of the state's largest producers, said Wednesday in a statement that it will receive a $7.4 million refund plus interest. Unlike some other producers, the company has not charged customers gross receipts tax and has been absorbing the cost throughout the litigation believing it would prevail in the case.

New Mexico established its medical marijuana program in 2007 and growth in recent years has been significant, with more than 130,340 patients enrolled as of January. The state also is preparing for recreational sales to begin April 1.

Marijuana rule changes spark criticism in New Mexico - Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

The agency charged with setting up New Mexico's marijuana industry is proposing changes to existing rules less than a month before recreational sales are scheduled to begin, sparking criticism from some who are preparing to open new businesses.

The Cannabis Control Division heard some of those criticisms during a public meeting Tuesday, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported. Officials acknowledged the challenge of establishing a new industry in a little over eight months and said tweaks are needed.

"We're not living in a perfect world," said Heather Brewer, a division spokeswoman. "There are changes that need to be made. There are things that, as we get further into the process and hear feedback (from various stakeholders), we realize we have to change."

Among the proposed amendments is eliminating a requirement for businesses to submit a diagram of their work premises in their license applications. Brewer said public safety was at the heart of the decision.

Jason Barker, a cannabis policy expert, said the diagram — which would be a publicly accessible record — could be used as a blueprint on how to break into a cannabis business.

"Obviously, with crime in the state, that's really concerning," he said.

Erica Rowland, who is working to open a cannabis country club in Albuquerque described the rules as moving targets. She spent about $2,000 to obtain a diagram as part of the licensing requirements.

"How is one to focus on requirements and plan to succeed when costly and timely paperwork requirements are constantly changing or being eliminated?" she asked.

The amendments also call for reports annually — "or as otherwise reasonably requested" — from manufacturers, testing laboratories and retailers.

During Tuesday's virtual hearing, a number of speakers also asked the agency to consider adding "Level 1 manufacturing" to production licenses to allow for the sale of such items as marijuana joints and cannabis oils to avoid putting micro producers at a disadvantage.

Barker said the basic micro producer license allows only for growing cannabis and selling the flower. A licensee would be breaking the law if they decided to sell pre-rolled joints, he said.

Others raised concerns about the division's lack of responsiveness, saying calls and emails have gone unanswered.

The agency has received more than 800 applications for business licenses across all sectors of the industry. Brewer said the agency has been short-staffed.

Slain cinematographer's husband angry Baldwin deflects blame - By Andrew Dalton Ap Entertainment Writer

The husband of a cinematographer shot and killed on the set of the film "Rust" says it's "absurd" that Alec Baldwin believes he's not to blame for the shooting and he was "so angry" when Baldwin didn't accept responsibility.

The remarks made in excerpts released Wednesday from an interview with the "Today" show are the first public words from Matt Hutchins on the Oct. 21 death of his wife Halyna Hutchins.

"The idea that the person holding the gun and causing it to discharge is not responsible is absurd to me," Matt Hutchins told "Today" host Hoda Kotb in the interview that airs in full Thursday.

Baldwin said in a December interview with ABC News that he was pointing the gun at Halyna Hutchins at her instruction on the New Mexico set of the Western when it went off without his pulling the trigger, killing her and wounding director Joel Souza.

"Watching him I just felt so angry," Hutchins said. "I was just so angry to see him talk about her death so publicly in such a detailed way and then to not accept any responsibility after having just described killing her."

Baldwin said in his interview that "someone is responsible for what happened, and I can't say who that is, but it's not me."

Matt Hutchins added that "gun safety was not the only problem on that set."

"There were a number of industry standards that were not practiced," he said, "and there's multiple responsible parties."

Matt Hutchins and his 9-year-old son are the plaintiffs in a wrongful death lawsuit filed last week that names Baldwin, the film's producers and others as defendants.

It alleges that Baldwin, who was also a producer on the film, and his co-producers showed "callous" disregard in the face of safety complaints, and their "reckless conduct and cost-cutting measures" led directly to her death.

Baldwin's attorney Aaron Dyer responded that any claim the actor was reckless is "entirely false."

At least four other lawsuits have been filed over the shooting, but Hutchins' is the first directly tied to one of the two people shot.

Last month Baldwin turned over his cellphone to investigators, and Dyer said he continues to cooperate fully with the investigation.

Investigators have described "some complacency" in how weapons were handled on the "Rust" set. They have said it is too soon to determine whether charges will be filed.