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FRI: Archdiocese sues insurers over sexual abuse coverage, + More

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The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Archdiocese sues insurers over sexual abuse coverage - Associated Press

One of the oldest Roman Catholic dioceses in the U.S. is suing four insurance companies over claims that they haven't fulfilled contracts to provide liability coverage for sexual abuse complaints.

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe filed the lawsuit this week as it deals with a bankruptcy case involving more than 400 people who allege they were victims of clergy sexual abuse. Some of the claims date back decades.

The archdiocese hopes to raise enough money, including through insurance payouts, to settle the bankruptcy case, which has stretched over more than three years and is on its third mediator.

At least one attorney sees the archdiocese's lawsuit as a step toward a resolution in the case, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

The defendants named in the lawsuit are Great American Insurance Co., Arrowood Indemnity Co., St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co. and United States Fire Insurance Co. Representatives of three of the companies couldn't be reached for comment, nor could attorneys representing the archdiocese.

A man in the legal department of United States Fire Insurance Co. said his company doesn't comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge David Thuma that would outline the rights and obligations of the parties in a contract. The lawsuit says this would "terminate or significantly reduce the existing controversy between the parties."

Aaron Boland, a Santa Fe attorney who represents one of the accusers, said the archdiocese's lawsuit "pulls back the curtain" on the case.

"The hope is this will move things toward justice," he said.

Earlier this month, Thuma rejected the archdiocese's request to seal court filings involving confidential insurance documents from public view.

The archdiocese has been raising money through property sales, property auctions and contributions to settle with people claiming abuse, though the amount of funding it would need to settle the case has not been specified.

Insurance payouts also are expected to fund a large chunk of the settlement.

According to the lawsuit, the archdiocese in the 1990s sought coverage for sexual abuse claims from insurers that had sold liability to the Catholic organization between February 1953 and April 1986, and they reached a series of agreements.

Some settlements released certain insurers from continuing insurance obligations, the suit says, but agreements with the insurers named as defendants didn't free them of all liability.

The archdiocese claims those insurers have "ongoing obligations to provide insurance coverage for present and future sexual abuse claims." Church officials also claim in the lawsuit that the insurance companies' actions "have impeded and obstructed" the archdiocese's ability to resolve the bankruptcy case.

New Mexico delegation voices concern about FAA tracking rule - Associated Press

Members of New Mexico's congressional delegation are calling on federal aviation officials to waive a requirement that could affect the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta as well as year-round flights over the city.

A letter outlining the concerns was sent Thursday to the Federal Aviation Administration by Congresswoman Melanie Stansbury and U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan, all Democrats.

Republican Congresswoman Yvette Herrell also penned her own letter on Wednesday, writing that the economic impact of the fiesta and the balloon industry provides millions of dollars and supports stable jobs for the community.

"In this case, the hot air balloon industry faces the prospect of abandoning a storied state tradition close to the hearts of New Mexicans," she wrote. "It is vital that this tradition be preserved in its entirety and thrive for generations to come."

At issue is a requirement that aircraft have specific tracking technology. The federal rule requiring "automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast" equipment inside certain airspaces took effect in 2020, but some balloonists have said it was not enforced actively until September 2021.

The FAA granted a waiver for last year's fiesta, and event officials are seeking a similar exemption for this year's 50th anniversary celebration. Some advocates are asking for a permanent exemption.

The congressional delegates noted in their letters that the FAA has granted a permanent waiver to the Colorado Springs ballooning community.

The surveillance technology is different from the transponders that balloonists can install temporarily so they can be seen on radar by Air Traffic Control. Under the rule, it must be permanently integrated into an aircraft's onboard electrical system.

Balloonists note that their aircraft don't have permanent electrical systems.

Heinrich, Lujan and Stansbury noted in their letter that the FAA adopted the tracking requirement with the intent of improving safety by decreasing the likelihood of midair collisions. They wrote that since the inception of the balloon fiesta decades ago, that balloon pilots have relied on visual flight rules to keep themselves and their passengers safe and that there have been no midair balloon-aircraft collisions.

In a response to a separate request for a waiver from Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, a local FAA official said the agency has convened a work group to study the matter, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

Albuquerque police investigate deadly shooting near school - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A teenager was shot and killed across the street from an Albuquerque school on Friday morning, prompting a temporary lockdown of the school and a search for the suspect.

Authorities said during a news conference that the shooting appeared to have stemmed from an altercation between the unidentified West Mesa High School student and another person who was believed to be a juvenile.

City and school officials said the gun was not brought onto campus but that more needs to be done to ensure that children don't have access to guns.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, both Democrats, were among those who pushed for tougher gun laws during the recent legislative session. That included a failed measure that would have enhanced the charge of possession of a firearm by a minor to a felony rather than a misdemeanor, which does not require prosecutors to be notified.

Keller said the case marks another example in the last six months of a deadly shooting involving juveniles.

"The connection between juveniles and weapons is extremely dangerous. It's also something that we have to work on in our criminal justice system," Keller said. "Right now we just do not have adequate tools to deal with a juvenile who we know has a firearm and how to keep them off the street or how to get them safe and keep everyone safe from them."

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is running for reelection, also issued a statement Friday on the shooting death, calling gun violence a scourge on society, particularly among young people.

Crime has been a hot-button issue in New Mexico, where Republicans have criticized the governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature for not doing enough in recent years to crack down through tougher penalties and other measures.

Albuquerque police said the investigation was in the early stages and they did not know the relationship between the student and the suspect or what might have sparked the altercation. They did say they did not believe there was any further threat and they hoped to make an arrest soon.

Police Chief Harold Medina said additional officers would be stationed in the area to provide a sense of security when students return Monday.

Medina also acknowledged the city's ongoing battle with violent crime, saying it will take a concerted effort across the criminal justice system and through prevention efforts to turn the tide.

In 2021, Albuquerque shattered its homicide record, reaching a total of 117 within city limits. The previous record was set in 2019. when there were 81 homicides, with one of those being investigated by federal authorities. The total dipped to 77 in 2020, during the height of the pandemic.

Replacements for removing derogatory names on federal lands published - Shondiin Silversmith, Az Mirror

The Department of the Interior’s Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force published a list of replacement names for the geographic features with the name “sq***,” which was officially declared a derogatory term last year by Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland.

“Words matter, particularly in our work to make our nation’s public lands and waters accessible and welcoming to people of all backgrounds,” Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland said in a press release. “Consideration of these replacements is a big step forward in our efforts to remove derogatory terms whose expiration dates are long overdue.”

There are currently 664 federal land units that contain the term, according to a database maintained by the Board on Geographic Names. In Arizona, there are 67 that are tied to various geographic features like summits, valleys, streams and reservoirs.

Federal land units include the National Forest System land, the National Park System, the National Wilderness Preservation System, the National Landscape Conservation System, and the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Per the secretarial order, the task force established a list of candidate geographic names to replace those declared derogatory by the order and the names will be open for public comment until April 25, according to the federal register document.

“A list of five candidate names for each feature was developed by the U.S. Geological Survey,” Derogatory Names Task Force Chair Michael Tischler wrote in the federal register document. “The candidate replacement names were derived through a search of nearby named geographic features until at least five nearby names were available. The candidate replacement name will replace the derogatory modifier.”

An example of the replacement name candidates would be, if “Castle Creek” is the closest named feature to the geographic feature “Sq*** Mesa,” then the first candidate replacement name for the feature would be “Castle Mesa,” according to the federal register document.

The candidate replacement names can be found in the federal register under “Reconciliation of Derogatory Geographic Names,” and it is currently in the tribal consultations and a public comment period.

“Throughout this process, broad engagement with Tribes, stakeholders, and the general public will help us advance our goals of equity and inclusion,” Haaland said in a statement.

This period allows the task forces to seek additional replacement names and feedback from tribes and the public, according to the Interior Department. The task force will prioritize these names in its review and provide a final recommendation for the Board on Geographic Names to vote on.

“Replacement names, to the extent possible, shall adhere to the Board on Geographic Names Principles, Policies, and Procedures for the Domestic Names Committee,” Tischler wrote in the federal register document. “Replacement names proposed during the public comment period that are in clear violation of an existing policy will not be considered by the Task Force.”

Before the implementation of the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force, the Interior Department stated that changes to derogatory names for geographic features were submitted as a proposal to the Board on Geographic Names, which then worked through its deliberative process.

The Board on Geographic Names received 261 proposals to replace geographic features with sq*** in the name in the past 20 years, according to the department.

The 13-member task force includes representatives from the Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, National Park Service, Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Civil Rights, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation, U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service.

For more information on how to submit public comments on the candidate replacement names, please visit: www.federalregister.gov and search for “Reconciliation of Derogatory Geographic Names.

Police: Deputies fatally shoot man after he shot at one - Associated Press

Torrance County sheriff's deputies fatally shot a Las Cruces man after he allegedly pulled a handgun from his waistband and shot at one of the deputies, who was not hurt, officials said.

A New Mexico State Police statement said deputies encountered Andrew Castellano when they responded to a report of a a vehicle gotten stuck in snow in Edgewood early Thursday.

After Castellano fired at one of the deputies, at least two deputies returned fire, shooting Castellano at least once, the statement said.

Edgewood is 26 miles east of Albuquerque.

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.

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 hurdles in 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 regulators approve plan to keep coal plant open -Associated Press

New Mexico regulators on Wednesday approved a plan by the state's largest electric utility to keep part of a coal-fired power plant open for an extra three months as a way to keep air conditioners humming this summer and reduce the risk of blackouts.

The Public Regulation Commission made its decision less than a week after the Public Service Co. of New Mexico submitted its proposal.

The utility will keep one unit at the San Juan Generating Station running through September, rather than closing it this summer as planned.

Developers have blamed supply chain problems and the pandemic for delays in the construction of the solar farms and battery storage stations that were supposed to replace the lost capacity once the coal plant shut down.

As PNM tries to avoid a shortage this summer, the utility said challenges remain on ensuring customer needs are met in the summer of 2023 due to regulatory delays related to another case that involves the upcoming expiration of leases for power generated by the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona.

"PNM will always work to serve PNM customers regardless of regulatory outcomes," Tom Fallgren, vice president of generation, said in a statement. "While this was not PNM's original plan, we are relieved that the commission acted promptly on our solution."

Environmentalists said Wednesday during a briefing that no one could have predicted that the closure of the San Juan power plant and construction of the replacement power would be disrupted by a pandemic. They argued that the delays are short term and should not derail public confidence in New Mexico's mandates for emissions-free electricity generation within the next two decades.

"We're still squarely on this path to transition out of fossil fuels," said Jason Marks, a former member of the Public Regulation Commission and an attorney who works with the Sierra Club. "Renewable energy plus storage is a solution. It works. There's nothing that we're seeing that changes that."

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

The male suspect ran away and multiple shots were fired, resulting in the Hobbs police officer and that suspect being shot, Acting Police Chief August Fons said at a news conference Thursday.

A woman who was with the male suspect was detained at the scene and placed in handcuffs. She has been identified as 28-year-old Janessa Perez of Hobbs.

Fons said body-camera footage shows that as officers began rendering aid to the wounded policeman, Perez was able to drive away in a police vehicle.

It crashed a short time later, and Perez ran off, according to Fons.

The police chief identified the suspect who later died at a Hobbs hospital as 27-year-old Daniel Ramirez.

"He had an extensive, violent criminal history," Fons said. "Perez also has a criminal history."

The wounded officer was in "good, stable condition and recovering with his family." Fons said.

He said the New Mexico State Police was handling the investigation into the shooting.

Colorado turns to ice-fishing tents to house homeless - By Patty Nieberg Associated Press/Report For America

Gary Peters spent seven years camping outside a Denver golf course to avoid sleeping in a public shelter until last summer when he moved into a new homeless community where he's been given his own ice-fishing tent featuring electrical outlets, a cot and a zero-degree rated sleeping bag.

The 75-year-old is among the benefactors of Denver's nearly $4 million investment aimed at providing homeless people with "safe outdoor spaces" as an alternative to public shelters, which many have chosen to avoid due to safety concerns or restrictive rules — including curfews and bans on pets. The need for alternatives to shelters increased during the pandemic as more people moved outdoors due to concerns over the risk of COVID-19 transmission in such indoor facilities.

"I'd rather freeze than spend the night in a shelter," Peters said, noting the threat of theft or assault in traditional shelter facilities.

Cities across the United States have been struggling to deal with a surge in homelessness that has in part been blamed on a nationwide housing shortage. The situation in Colorado — where home prices already were at record highs — was made worse in December when hundreds of homes just northwest of Denver were destroyed by fire, sending victims in search of temporary housing.

Some cities such as Seattle and Portland, Oregon, have experimented with constructing tiny homes, some just big enough to sleep inside and others with kitchens and indoor plumbing,

But such tiny homes can cost nearly $25,000 per unit to build, whereas Denver's ice-fishing tents run by the Colorado Village Collaborative come at a price of less than $400 each. Last year, the Denver program served nearly 240 people across three locations and this year the collaborative estimates it will help about 370 people with a fourth location.

Fenced off with a key code entrance, the almost 42-square-foot (3.9-square-meter) insulated tents sit on leased land and are available to people who agree to a set of rules including no weapons, selling drugs or disrupting neighbors. The community is open to people of any gender, and couples are allowed to stay together. Residents can come and go 24-hours a day and pets are welcome, though not guests. The sites also have daily meals, wireless internet, showers, trash and laundry services.

Other cities like Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Missoula, Montana, have launched similar programs with tents and community bathrooms, kitchens and support services. The national move towards these types of communities shows the failure of the current public sheltering system, said Cole Chandler, the Colorado Village Collaborative co-founder and executive director.

"People can't afford housing and the emergency sheltering system that was sort of developed, you know, largely in the 80s, when the federal government got out of the business of funding housing is just like busting at the seams at this point," Chandler said.

Not everyone likes the approach.

Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said it's much better for people's health and long-term chances at finding permanent housing to get them off the street and into indoor housing.

"We're institutionalizing that it's OK for people to live outside. Of course we need to do whatever they can if they're living outside to keep them safe there's no question," Roman said. "It's just hard to see us say as a nation 'Well it's OK to see people stay outside as long as they have a tent.' It's hard to feel that that's progress."

Chandler said the tent collective provides stability and autonomy for people sleeping outside and helps transition them to housing.

"Not everybody is immediately ready to come indoors," he said. "And I don't want that to get played up as people don't want housing, people want housing. But people want to come indoors on their own terms."

The collaborative contracts with other organizations to provide support for indoor housing, employment, legal resources and physical and mental health services. It also employs people who have a history of homelessness or substance use to help residents connect with on-site staff and feel more comfortable accessing services and asking for help.

Chandler acknowledges the program is not a "silver bullet solution to homelessness" and advocates for policy change and more investment in affordable housing.

"But we don't have enough housing," he said. "And so in the meantime, how do we take care of people? And how do we build the types of cities that reflect our values? And we think safe outdoor spaces, help us get closer."

New Mexico Republicans compete to appear on primary ballot

Republican Party contenders for Congress and statewide elected office are competing for positions on the primary ballot ahead of the June vote.

A pre-primary convention Saturday is set to bring together hundreds of local GOP delegates from across the state to meet and listen to candidates.

Five contenders are seeking the Republican nomination to challenge incumbent Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, including state Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences, Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block and former television meteorologist Mark Ronchetti of Albuquerque.

Ronchetti released a video ad Wednesday that highlights concerns about public safety and drug trafficking along the state's international border with Mexico. He promises to deploy National Guard troops and "create a border strike force to go after the cartels."

Ronchetti ran unsuccessfully in 2020 for an open Senate seat against Sen. Ben Ray Luján.

The Republican convention will determine who gets on the primary ballot with at least 20% of endorsement votes and who gets top billing with the highest approval.

Candidates also can gather extra petition signatures before or shortly after the convention to qualify automatically for the primary ballot. Ronchetti appears to have a large number of signatures that guarantee participation.

U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell is defending her 2nd District seat without a Republican primary challenger. The district spans much of southern New Mexico and was redrawn in December to include portions of Albuquerque.

Three Republicans are vying for the 1st Congressional District nomination to take on first-term Democratic Rep. Melanie Stansbury of Albuquerque. They are health care businessman and a shooting range owner Louie Sanchez, nurse practitioner Jacquelyn Reeve and former police detective and public prosecutor Michelle Garcia Holmes.

Republicans, farmer Jerald McFall of Angel Fire and Santa Fe-based engineer Alexis Martinez Johnson, are seeking the nomination to challenge Democratic first-term Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez of Santa Fe. McFall and Johnson have run unsuccessfully for the seat in previous general elections.

In several other races for statewide office, only one Republican is seeking the nomination. Among Republicans, former Santa Fe County commissioner Harry Montoya is running for state treasurer, attorney Jeremy Gay of Gallup is running for attorney general, and state utilities regulator Jeff Byrd of Tucumcari is running for state land commissioner to oversee oil, mineral and livestock grazing leases on state land.

Democrats control all statewide elected offices in New Mexico.


This story has been updated to correct that health care businessman and a shooting range owner Louie Sanchez is competing for a spot in the Republican primary, and not the Albuquerque city councilor with the same name.