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FRI: Community outraged after a SWAT standoff leaves a teen dead and a home destroyed, + More

Sundra Coleman lost her home after a SWAT standoff began on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in Albuquerque’s International District.
Marisa Demarco
Source NM
Sundra Coleman lost her home after a SWAT standoff began on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in Albuquerque’s International District.

Community outraged after a SWAT standoff leaves a teen dead and a home destroyed – By Marisa Demarco, Source New Mexico

Demonstrators marched in Albuquerque’s International District Thursday night to protest police violence after an hourslong SWAT standoff ended in a home burning down and the death of a teen who was inside.

“That young man lost his life … because the police did not stop and think about what they were doing,” said Sundra Coleman, who lived in the house. “That was somebody’s son.”

Protesters and initial news reports said the boy was 14 years old. Police have since said they aren’t certain of his age and haven’t yet identified him.

But the family who lost their home are keeping him in their minds. “Remember him,” Coleman told protesters.

Police said they don’t know the cause of the boy’s death, though information from the Office of the Medical Investigator is expected soon.

“What happened from the get-go was unacceptable,” said another resident of the house, Deja, holding her toddler in one arm and gripping a mic with her other hand. “I don’t have nowhere to go now, and I don’t know where my son is going to live. I don’t know my mom is going to live.”

Her mom worked two jobs all her life, Deja said, to raise her. When the house burned down, “they took everything,” she said.

The family was telling police a 14-year-old boy was still in the house, she said, “and they let him die, and burn.”

On Wednesday, officers were following Qiaunt Kelley, who had warrants out for his arrest, one for “unlawful taking of a vehicle out of the city of Santa Fe” and one for a probation violation, according to a police lieutenant at a news conference Thursday.

Kelley and the teen went to the house where a friend lived, according to police, and when detectives tried to arrest Kelley, he ran inside. Then SWAT was called in, Police Chief Harold Medina explained Thursday.

Copwatchers and other observers there that night attended the demonstration and said munitions SWAT officers shot into the home started the fire.

“Different types of munitions were used,” Medina said. “It is unknown exactly where in the home the individual was.”

The Albuquerque Police Department and city’s fire department said they’re investigating whether tear gas and pepper spray canisters ignited the fire — such weapons have done so when used in similar SWAT situations elsewhere.

“At the end of the day,” said Coleman’s niece before the march began, officers are “going home to their home, and my Aunty Sundra’s not going to a home.” She pointed to other relatives. “She’s not going to a home. He’s not going to a home.”

It’s unclear who gave orders preventing Albuquerque Fire Rescue from extinguishing the fire more quickly or saving the person inside. “It took time for us to turn off the fire,” Medina said. “We have to remember that the fire department, they are not police officers… It is a challenge for us to get them into an unresolved situation.”

According to a fire department news release, firefighters had to battle the flames from outside the house “in coordination with APD” because Kelley was still inside.

When Kelley came out, fire crews went inside and found the teen dead, according to the news release.

Demonstrators said the teen was brought out of the burned house and laid in the street while people demanded he be given some dignity.

“A 14-year-old Black man — Black child — a child,” Clifton White corrected himself standing in the intersection of Central and Wyoming as night fell and the protest wound down, police lights flashing behind him. “They didn’t know who he was. He could have been a 9-year-old. They didn’t care. They used their toys. They burned a house down.”

Facing threats, some election workers weigh whether to stay - By Christina A. Cassidy Associated Press

After polls closed in New Mexico's primary last month, a worker returning ballots and other election materials to the clerk's office in Santa Fe was followed by a partisan election observer driving so close that mere inches separated their bumpers.

The poll worker was so rattled by the ordeal that she said she may not return for the upcoming November election, according to Santa Fe County Clerk Katharine Clark.

The incident is just one of many in which election officials and workers have felt threatened since the 2020 presidential election and the false claims that it was stolen from former President Donald Trump. A federal effort to investigate these threats has so far yielded three prosecutions since it was launched a year ago.

In the meantime, the harassment and death threats haven't stopped against those who have pushed back against the false claims. The threats have contributed to an exodus of election officials across the country, particularly at the local level, and made recruiting poll workers even harder — adding to the challenges of conducting smooth elections in the fall.

"I'm a Republican recorder living in a Republican county where the candidate that they wanted to win won by 2-to-1 in this county and still getting grief, and so is my staff," said Leslie Hoffman, the top election official in Yavapai County, Arizona.

Hoffman announced last week that she was resigning to take another job, saying her decision was motivated largely by "the nastiness that we have dealt with." Hoffman said the county elections director left for the same reasons.

On Friday, an official with the U.S. Department of Justice was scheduled to update state election officials gathered in Louisiana for their summer conference on the work of the task force that was announced in June 2021.

Three men have been charged by federal prosecutors, with one of them pleading guilty last month. In that case, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold was the subject of multiple threatening posts on social media.

Griswold said the threats have not stopped. Just last week, a caller to her office's public phone line said: "Hey, I've got a message for the secretary and I want you to pass it along. The angel of death is coming for her in the name of Jesus Christ."

"The fact of the matter is they've only done three prosecutions when we know there are literally thousands and thousands of violent threats going to election workers and secretaries of state," Griswold said. "People are using threats as part of the attack on democracy to try to intimidate election workers, to try to intimidate county clerks and secretaries of state, and they are succeeding in some places."

Kenneth Polite, assistant attorney general for the department's criminal division, said federal investigators were working through each report to determine which cases can be successfully prosecuted, noting challenges in attributing threats often made anonymously and weighing free speech protections. He said additional prosecutions are expected.

"The department is committed to protecting our election community from violence and threats of violence," Polite said in a statement. "These are ordinary people from across the political spectrum filling a vital democratic role for our nation, typically with little recognition or support."

In the first six months of the task force, members conducted over 20 trainings and outreach events on election threats with state, local, and federal law enforcement as well as election officials and social media companies.

A survey released earlier this year by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU's School of Law found one in three election officials knew someone who had left a job in part because of threats and intimidation, and that one in six had experienced threats personally.

Federal and state election officials and Trump's own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the election was tainted. The former president's allegations of fraud were also roundly rejected by courts, including by judges Trump appointed.

Experts said it is critical that those making threats are held accountable to deter others from thinking they can do the same.

"The steps that the task force has taken, election officials are appreciative. But absolutely there is more to be done," said Liz Howard, a former state election official in Virginia now at the Brennan Center.

Among the recommendations that the Brennan Center has made is to expand the task force to include state and local law enforcement agencies that are typically the first contact for an election official.

A group of former and current election and law enforcement officials recently formed the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, which plans to provide guidance and training for preventing and responding to threats and violence against election officials.

Last month, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission -- which distributes federal grants to election offices -- said its funding could be used to protect election officials against threats. Legislation has also been pursued at the state and federal level to increase penalties for those targeting election workers.

In Colorado, lawmakers passed a bill that makes it a misdemeanor to release online the personal information of an election official for the purpose of threatening them or their family.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, held a hearing last year highlighting the threats and urging federal protections for election workers. Klobuchar and other Senate Democrats have sent a letter asking the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to issue a joint public service announcement to local law enforcement agencies to "ensure that they are aware of both the recent increase in these threats against election officials and federal resources for reporting and countering them."

Back in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Clark said anxiety remains high among her staff. Employees have been trained on active shooter situations, they have requested bulletproof glass be installed and GPS tracking is used during the transportation of ballot boxes.

While she is concerned about her safety, she says she's not ready to quit or change careers, noting her responsibility to voters who elected her.

"My dad served in the military, my grandfather served in the military," Clark said. "I don't feel it's bad enough yet to feel that my public service is too much."

Associated Press writers Bob Christie in Phoenix and Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico, contributed to this report.

Hiker found dead at White Sands National Park - Associated Press

A 27-year-old hiker who went missing while visiting White Sands National Park has been found dead, authorities said Friday.

New Mexico state police and officials at the southern New Mexico park reported that rescue teams discovered the body of Brad Utegaar of Wausau, Wisconsin, earlier this week after a search was initiated over the holiday weekend. A military helicopter and state and federal officers helped with the effort.

Utegaar's car had been parked at the Alkali Flats Trail for two days. His body was found about 2 miles northeast of the trail.

State Police Officer Ray Wilson said there did not appear to be any foul play and that Utegaar had a backpack and water bottles with him.

Utegaard's family told authorities in New Mexico that he was on a cross country trip alone.

Several people have died among the white sand dunes over the years, and park officials on Friday warned again about the dangers of hiking in extreme temperatures as there is no shade or water along any of the trails at the park. It was exactly one year ago that a hiker from northern New Mexico was found dead at the park.

Officials recommended that hikers bring at least 1 gallon (3.79 litres) of water per person per day and high energy snacks along with a hat and sunscreen.

Restrictions on prison mail don’t appear to decrease drug use, legislative report says - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

Restrictions on personal mail for people incarcerated in New Mexico prisons have not had any effect on drug use, according to legislative analysts, even though state prison officials said the new policy was meant to prevent drugs from getting inside. And the contractor that processes the mail has likely made over $100,000 so far.

The New Mexico Corrections Department in December told incarcerated people’s families that it would ban personal mail in prisons, and directed them to send their letters to private company Securus in Florida, which creates photocopies and sends those on to the prisons.

Incarcerated people, their families and advocates say the restrictions isolate them from their loved ones, and violate their basic humanity.

The department previously said Securus will charge the state $3.50 for each prisoner in the state’s prisons, at the beginning of every month.

In April, the number of people held in New Mexico prisons averaged 5,651, according to the Legislative Finance Committee. That means Securus made around $19,778 in April.

If the average prison population has stayed the same since the department hired Securus, then the company has made an estimated $118,000 so far processing mail.

At the time, the department said new procedure and expense were needed because of contraband smuggled in through the mail.

But a report from the LFC published on June 6 raises questions about how drugs are really getting into New Mexico prisons.

Every three months, the LFC publishes quarterly reports on how various state agencies are performing. According to the latest quarterly report on the Corrections Department, the new prison mail policy “does not appear to have reduced drug use in the third quarter.”

In fact, the proportion of positive results from random drug tests on people incarcerated in state prisons rose from 2% between July 2020 and June 2021 to 3.7% between July 2021 and February 2022, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.

The report said the increase was significant and “reverses three years of reduced drug use.”

Corrections Department spokesperson Carmelina Hart said in a written statement Wednesday that “there will always be those who are inventive in their attempts to skirt the rules, and eliminating contraband is a daily endeavor.”

“But, with the increased use of body scanners and security searches, and extensive efforts by our dedicated security professionals, NMCD is continuously working to reduce the introduction of contraband,” Hart said. “The department will continue to monitor the effectiveness of the changes to our mail system policy.”

The LFC suggests that results on drug use in prisons should be monitored to determine if the prison mail policy is having its intended impact.

Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque), co-chair of the Courts, Corrections & Justice Committee which meets between legislative sessions, said members intend to ask the department to explain its rationale for the policy, show evidence of whether it is working and for details about other options officials explored before paying Securus to screen N.M. prison mail in Florida.

Chasey expects the committee will want to hear more about this LFC evaluation of the practice “as early as possible,” she said. “The committee will also seek information from experts regarding evidence-based practices to reduce drug use in prison and to protect correctional staff.”

Independent lawmaker Sen. Jacob Candelaria, who is also a civil rights attorney, on Jan. 4 submitted a records request to the state’s Corrections Department asking for all documents related to its new prison mail policy, because it could still be subject to challenge.

On Wednesday, over six months later, Candelaria said he had received no response from the department to the records request.

“It’s clear to us at this juncture that the Corrections Department is in absolute, glaring violation of the Inspection of Public Records Act, which for me raises additional red flags and concerns about whether or not there is even a rational basis to support what the agency has done in this policy,” he said, “which has had the net effect of severely limiting the communication that inmates have with the outside world, and thus infringing upon their First Amendment rights.”

New Mexico plans for more electric vehicle charging stations - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The first in a series of electric vehicle charging stations that will be paid for with state and federal infrastructure money will be installed in Socorro, one of the few populated areas along a major interstate that spans New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday.

The first-term Democrat used her visit to the central New Mexico community to tout efforts to fund infrastructure projects as she seeks reelection. She also planned stops in Clovis and Roswell over the coming days.

She said $10 million secured through the legislative process will be spent to develop the charging network. Another $38 million in federal funding will bolster the work as state officials aim to have charging stations every 50 miles along New Mexico's interstates.

"New Mexico has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make truly transformative investments in communities large and small around our state," the governor said.

The Biden administration earlier this year announced the availability of $5 billion for states over five years to help create seamless electric vehicle travel from coast to coast. The money was far less than the $15 billion that Biden had envisioned to fulfill a campaign promise of 500,000 charging stations by 2030.

New Mexico regulators in May adopted more stringent motor vehicle emissions standards that supporters say will boost the number of electric vehicles available for sale in the state. Lujan Grisham has called for more electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles to be sold as part of her push against climate change.

However, access to charging stations has been an issue for consumers and utility executives are still working on plans to ensure they have enough capacity to meet future electricity demands as more solar and battery storage facilities are bought online to replace coal-fired power plants.

The new charging station in Socorro will be installed on city property near the historic plaza and not far from the New Mexico Tech campus. Officials said it will be available for use in the next few weeks.

Michael Jackson, the associate vice president of academic affairs at Tech, said building out an alternative fuel corridor will expand access and reliability for those who have electric vehicles and local economies like the one in Socorro can benefit by travelers stopping for a charge.

New Mexico school trust feels pressure; voters weigh changes - Associated Press

State investments are being buffeted by turbulent financial markets as New Mexico voters consider whether to divert more money each year toward early childhood education programs.

A report Thursday from the Legislature's budget and accountability office shows that the state's four major public pension and permanent funds shrank by about $825 million during the first three months of the year amid a federal interest-rate hike, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a wave of COVID-19 infections.

The losses are a tiny share of the funds' $66.3 billion valuation that grew by 40% over the past five years — a $19 billion surge.

A statewide referendum in November will decide whether to increase annual distributions slightly from the state's nearly $26 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund. That fund is sustained by investment returns along with oil extraction and other natural resource development on state trust lands.

Currently 5% of the fund balance each year goes mainly toward public schools and universities. The referendum would increase the rate to 6.25% to provide roughly an additional $200 million to public education.

The increased withdrawals would go toward public school funding for at-risk students and early childhood education programs.

Advocates for the increase want to expand programs such as pre-K, child care assistance and voluntary home-visits to new parents. Critics worry the changes undermine the growth and sustainability of trust.

The referendum would amend to the state's constitution and also requires authorization from Congress.

Police: Teenage boy found dead after Albuquerque standoff - Associated Press

A teenager has been found dead inside a southeast Albuquerque home after a fire, and a suspect who was the subject of standoff at the home has been arrested, authorities said Thursday.

The fire ended the overnight SWAT standoff with the suspect, and the body of a 14-year-old boy was later located in the house.

Police said the suspect, whose name wasn't immediately released, was wanted on a federal felony warrant for robbery and is a person of interest in several violent crimes in the Albuquerque area.

The suspect was tracked to the home and he and the teen hid in the house, according to police who said smoke was seen coming out from windows around 3 a.m. Thursday.

The suspect reportedly exited the home as firefighters extinguished the flames. He was taken into custody and then transported to a local hospital for burn injuries.

Authorities stressed that no officers fired their weapons during the standoff. Those who lived at the home questioned whether gas canisters fired by the SWAT team sparked the blaze, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

Police Chief Harold Medina said the team uses Tri-Chamber canisters when trying to get someone to surrender.

"They're built in a way that's supposed to reduce the likelihood of causing a fire. And it's something we use over and over — in tons of calls," he said.

Medina said arson investigators were working to determine how the fire started and the dead teenager has yet to be identified.

Scramble as last Mississippi abortion clinic shuts its doors - By Emily Wagster Pettus Associated Press

Mississippi's only abortion clinic has been buzzing with activity in the chaotic days since the U.S. Supreme Court upended abortion rights nationwide — a case that originated in this conservative Deep South state, with this bright-pink medical facility that is closing its doors Wednesday.

Physicians at Jackson Women's Health Organization have been trying to see as many patients as possible before Thursday, when, barring an unlikely intervention by the state's conservative Supreme Court, Mississippi will enact a law to ban most abortions.

Amid stifling summer heat and humidity, clashes intensified Wednesday between anti-abortion protesters and volunteers escorting patients into the clinic, best known as the Pink House.

When Dr. Cheryl Hamlin, who has traveled from Boston for five years to perform abortions, walked outside the Pink House, an abortion opponent used a bullhorn to yell at her. "Repent! Repent!" shouted Doug Lane.

His words were drowned out by abortion rights supporter Beau Black, who repeatedly screamed at Lane: "Hypocrites and Pharisees! Hypocrites and Pharisees!"

Abortion access has become increasingly limited across wide swaths of the U.S. as conservative states enact restrictions or bans that took effect when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

The court, reshaped by three conservative justices appointed by former President Donald Trump, issued the ruling June 24. But the Mississippi clinic has been inundated with patients since September, when Texas enacted a ban on abortion early in pregnancy.

Cars with license plates from Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas have been driving through Jackson's Fondren neighborhood to bring women and girls— some of whom appeared to be teenagers — to the Pink House. Drivers parked on side streets near the clinic in the shade of pink and purple crepe myrtles, their car air-conditioners blasting as they waited.

Diane Derzis, who has owned the Mississippi clinic since 2010, drove to Jackson to speak at the Pink House hours after the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.

"It's been such an honor and a privilege to be in Mississippi. I've come to love this state and the people in it," Derzis told those gathered in the sweltering heat.

The Supreme Court ruling was in a case called Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization — the clinic's challenge of a 2018 Mississippi law to ban most abortions after 15 weeks. The Pink House had been doing abortions through 16 weeks, but under previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings, abortion was allowed to the point of fetal viability at about 24 weeks.

Mississippi's top public health official, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, was named in the lawsuit, but has not taken a public position about the case. The state's Republican attorney general urged justices to use the case to overturn Roe v. Wade and give states more power to regulate or ban abortion.

Derzis told The Associated Press after the ruling that she didn't regret filing the lawsuit that eventually undercut nearly five decades of abortion case law.

"We didn't have a choice. And if it hadn't been this lawsuit, it would have been another one," said Derzis, who also owns abortion clinics in Georgia and Virginia, and lives in Alabama.

The Mississippi clinic uses out-of-state physicians like Dr. Hamlin because no in-state doctors will work there.

As the Pink House prepared to close, Dr. Hamlin said she worries about women living in deep poverty in parts of the state with little access to health care.

"People say, 'Oh, what am I supposed to do?'" she said. "And I'm like, 'Vote.'"

Shannon Brewer, the Pink House director, agrees low-income women will be most affected by being unable to get abortions in-state.

Brewer told the AP the anti-abortion protesters know her by name and yell at her but she tunes them out.

"They don't say a lot to me anymore other than, you know, 'You're coming to work to kill babies,'" Brewer said. "I've been here for 20-something years. So, it's like when I get out of the car I don't really hear it because it's like the same thing over and over and over again."

Some staffers were expected to be in the Pink House on Thursday for paperwork ahead of its closure, but no procedures.

With the Mississippi clinic closing, Derzis and Brewer will soon open an abortion clinic in Las Cruces, New Mexico, about an hour's drive from El Paso, Texas, — calling it Pink House West. Hamlin said she is getting licensed in New Mexico so she can work there.

Mississippi and New Mexico are two of the poorest states in the U.S., but have vastly different positions on abortion politics and access.

Home to a Democratic-led legislature and governor, New Mexico recently took an extra step to protect providers and patients from out-of-state prosecutions. It's likely to continue to see a steady influx of people seeking abortions from neighboring states with more restrictive abortion laws.

One of the largest abortion providers in Texas, Whole Woman's Health, announced Wednesday that it is also planning to reopen in New Mexico in a city near the state line, to provide first- and second-trimester abortions. It began winding down operations in Texas after a ruling Friday by the state Supreme Court that forced an end to abortions at its four clinics.

Standing outside the Mississippi clinic on June 24, Derzis was pragmatic about the future of the building she had painted bright pink several years ago.

"This building will be sold and maybe someone will knock it down and make a parking lot here," Derzis said. "And that will be sad, but she served her purpose and many women had their abortions here."