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MON: New Mexico State Forester lifts restrictions as fire danger eases, +More

Martin Cathrae
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New Mexico forester lifts restrictions as fire danger eases – Associated Press

New Mexico’s state forester on Monday lifted fire restrictions that had been imposed in the spring due to extreme wildfire danger, saying summer rains were bringing relief.

Still, State Forester Laura McCarthy warned that some parts of New Mexico remain dry and that people should be cautious with any use of fire and fireworks.

"New Mexicans are living through historic climate change that is becoming our new normal,” she said in a statement.

The state restrictions prohibiting campfires, smoking and other opening burning were put in place in late April as hot, dry and windy conditions fueled multiple large fires. That included two planned burns by federal land managers that became the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history.

Thousands of people were forced to evacuate and hundreds of homes in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range were destroyed as a result of the massive blaze. Now, surrounding communities are dealing with deadly flooding as storm runoff flows from barren mountainsides within the burn scar.

Three people died last week when they were swept away by fast-moving floodwaters northwest of the community of Las Vegas.

Residents say they are getting pounded daily by storms.

“I’ve never seen so much water in my life up here, and there’s nothing to hold the water back. There’s nothing,” Isidro Archuleta, 58, told the Santa Fe New Mexican.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency last week granted the governor's request to include flooding impacts in New Mexico’s disaster declaration for counties affected by wildfires.

Forest officials said Monday that areas across the fire still were experiencing dangerous conditions, such as flooding and debris flows and that as weather allows, crews will continue repairing culverts, mending fences and doing other work to control erosion.

Man convicted in death and dismemberment of New Mexico girl – Associated Press

A man was convicted Monday in the 2016 death of an Albuquerque girl who was strangled, dismembered and set on fire in the bathtub of her mother’s apartment on her 10th birthday.

The jury deliberated less than four hours before returning with guilty verdicts on all charges Fabian Gonzales faced in the death of Victoria Martens. He was charged with reckless child abuse resulting in death, tampering with evidence and conspiracy to tamper with evidence.

Prosecutors said Gonzales faces up to 43 1/2 years in prison when he is sentenced.

Gonzales, now 37, had moved into the girl's mother's apartment a month before the girl's death on Aug. 23, 2016. Prosecutors during the trial argued that although Gonzales didn’t kill Victoria, he set in motion a series of events that created a dangerous environment that ultimately led to the girl’s death.

Gonzales was also accused of helping his cousin, Jessica Kelley, dismember the girl, set her remains on fire and clean the crime scene in an attempt to conceal the death.

Kelley, 37, testified that she was high on methamphetamine at the time. She reached a plea agreement with prosecutors on charges that included reckless child abuse resulting in death in exchange for testifying at Gonzales’ trial. She was sentenced earlier this year to 44 years in prison.

The girl's mother, Michelle Martens, 41, pleaded guilty to one count of intentional child abuse resulting in death in a 2018 plea agreement. Her sentencing was delayed until the conclusion of Gonzales’ trial and prosecutors have said she is expected to get 12 to 15 years in prison.

During the investigation, police determined that Martens and Gonzales were not home when Victoria was killed and arrived later that night.

Defense lawyers tried but failed to convince jurors that Kelley was solely responsible for the girl's death and dismemberment. Gonzales had allowed Kelley to stay at the Martens’ apartment shortly after Kelley was released from prison.

“I would tell you, this is not a complicated case, it’s actually fairly easy to solve. But emotion can overwhelm that,” Stephen Aarons, Gonzales’ attorney, said in his closing argument. “There is an urge to flush anyone and everyone remotely connected down the toilet.”

Aarons said the verdict will be appealed.

Gonzales tested positive for COVID-19 last week and appeared virtually at his trial for two days.

He returned Monday to hear the verdict from a plexiglass box inside the courtroom.
Albuquerque council looking to protect homeless from floods — Associated press

The Albuquerque City Council is expected to introduce a proposal Monday to protect the homeless from rushing floodwaters.

Albuquerque TV station KOB reports that the proposal will give the city authority to remove people from arroyos, hopefully preventing unnecessary rescues.

The proposal would give the city authority to cite people for camping or otherwise hanging around in ditches and arroyos.

"The city's having a big conversation about homelessness and camping across the city, about where it should be, where it should not be allowed," council member Pat Davis told KOB. "But everyone agrees that these the number of these swift water rescues we're seeing, particularly for homeless folks that have been swept up in these flash floods, is increasing and that's dangerous for them (and) it's dangerous for our firefighters."

The proposal is one of several in the past year to tackle the homelessness crisis in Albuquerque.

"We're literally looking place by place, block by block, park by park, to figure out what works and what doesn't," Davis said.

States boost child care money as congressional effort stalls — Maysoon Khan, Associated Press

/Report for America

Difficulties in finding affordable child care cost Enoshja Ruffin her job three years ago. The mother of six was let go from her position as a counselor for kids with cerebral palsy after she missed three shifts because she had trouble finding babysitters.

After three months on a waiting list, though, she placed her children in a day care center whose cost was covered by government subsidies and the center's financial assistance program.

"Had I not gotten financial help, I would not be successful. I would not have a degree. I would just be another statistic," said Ruffin, 28, of Utica, New York, who was able to take college classes while her kids were in day care. She now works as an organizer for the liberal political group Citizen Action.

Democrats in Washington had big ambitions this year to boost child care subsidies nationally as part of a broad domestic spending bill. But with those plans stalled because of a lack of bipartisan support, some states moved ahead with plans of their own.

New York lawmakers passed a state budget in the spring that calls for it to spend $7 billion to make child care more affordable over the next four years.

The legislation will double previous state support for government subsidies that help families shoulder part or all of their child care costs. Eligibility will be expanded to more middle-income families. Under the new rules, a family of four with an annual household income of up to $83,250 will be eligible for subsidies.

New Mexico last spring raised income eligibility for subsidies to the highest level of any state. A family of four with an annual household income of up to $111,000 can now qualify for at least some government aid. Until June 2023, New Mexico will also waive child care copays, which saves families $400 to $900 per month, based on their income level.

Rhode Island lawmakers passed a state budget last month that provides a one-time tax credit of $250 per child to help pay for child care, nearly doubles the number of seats available in government-funded prekindergarten programs, and provides subsidies for child care workers.

All those steps were intended to address an affordability challenge. In 2019, child care centers in the U.S. charged an average of $406 per week for children under 18 months old, $315 per week for children ages 18-35 months and $289 per week for 3- to 5-year-olds.

Ronora James, a child care provider based in Rochester, New York, said she lost staff to fast-food restaurants that offer competitive wages.

Child care workers made an average hourly wage of $13.22 in the U.S. in May 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The minimum wage in New York ranges from $13.20 to $15 per hour, depending on the part of the state.

"People have to go where the money is to survive, and that is an issue for us," James said.

"In New York City, we have some of the highest minimum wages in the country, but a minimum wage worker has to work 26 weeks at a minimum wage to pay for the child care for their family," New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said Monday at an event promoting the state's child care investments. "That's asking too much of our families."

Although child care has seen increasing bipartisan support in recent years, some Republican leaders are cautious about expanding government aid.

"I support steps to create more quality, accessible and reliable child care options, especially as costs continue to rise," said New York's GOP Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay in a statement. "However, as we've seen repeatedly in state programs, the level of spending and how funds are distributed must be closely monitored. Too often, state-run programs spiral out of control and fail to provide the intended services. Despite the governor's lofty promises, we can't allow that to happen here."

New York's legislation also increased state reimbursements to child care providers, which the industry said was necessary to help centers remain financially viable.

Since January 2020, the number of center- and family-based child care facilities in the state has shrunk by about 1,326, according to Pete Nabozny, policy director at The Children's Agenda. Most of those programs are operated by women and people of color, he said.

Some New York lawmakers say they want to eventually make child care freely available as early as kindergarten. Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assembly member Sarah Clark, both Democrats, said they hope to get support in the state's next legislative session for more changes, including expanding eligibility even more and boosting pay for providers.

"I think child care is one of the few places where it's hard to fix one piece of it. You have to fix the whole system at one time. I'm hoping we can continue to build on what we've done so far and do more," Clark said.


Maysoon Khan is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Maysoon Khan on Twitter.

People trade guns for gift cards in event held in Santa Fe— Claudia L. Silva, Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

Guruka Singh Khalsa smiled as volunteers removed a rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun and a 1911 Colt semi-automatic pistol from the trunk of his car.

"For a couple of years, I've been thinking, 'I haven't used a gun in 30 years, why do I keep these in the house?' " Singh Khalsa said. "I think that the general number of guns in this country needs to be decreasing instead of increasing. A gun has no other purpose than to kill a living being. … I have no desire to kill."

Singh Khalsa was one of the many people who lined up in their cars in a parking lot recently for a gun buyback event hosted by the nonprofit New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence and the Santa Fe Police Department.

Participants were able to surrender their guns anonymously in exchange for gift cards that ranged from $100 to $250, depending on the type of firearm they turned in.

The guns turned in ranged from palm-sized pistols to AR- or AK-style rifles. This was the first gun buyback event New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence has held with the help of a private business.

Kirsten Dick, co-owner of Fiesta Nissan, said the dealership offered to host the event in response to the shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and two teachers were killed.

"After the shooting in Uvalde, my husband and I were obviously very distressed," Dick said. "We have two small kids. We work in Santa Fe and we just felt like we needed to do something, and a gun buyback event seemed like something that we could do on our own."

Deputy Police Chief Ben Valdez said the purpose of these events is to keep unwanted guns off the street and out of the hands of people who can cause irreparable damage to their communities.

New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence was founded in 2013 in response to escalating gun violence throughout the country and notably the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, in which 20 children and six adult staff members were fatally shot.

The shooting at Robb Elementary School was like déjà vu for the organization.

"It's like that every mass shooting, but when it's a classroom of children, it's even harder," said the group's co-president, Miranda Viscoli.

Organizers said they started hosting drive-thru-style events because of the pandemic and have kept it up as a safety precaution.

Volunteers collected the firearms from trunks before handing them over to Santa Fe police, who ensured each gun was unloaded and checked to make sure it wasn't stolen. If a gun were stolen, Valdez said the police department would try to return it to its owner. Otherwise, they were handed over to a volunteer to be sawed into pieces and eventually turned into garden tools.

Kim Musser said she was relieved when she found out about the gun buyback event after her husband found a .38-caliber handgun in a closet of the home they had just bought.

Musser said she tried to return it to its owner. But after months of not being able to contact him, she just wanted it gone.

"I just don't own guns," Musser said.

Many of the people turning in guns said they were aware they could have probably sold them for more, but they worried they would end up in the wrong hands.

"Why would I want to sell a gun?" Musser said. "So someone else could use it? We have enough random shootings as it is; I'd rather have it destroyed."

Volunteers like Lori Shepard asked participants why they were turning in their guns. She spoke to one woman who was an Army veteran who turned in an AR-15 she had built herself.

"She's tired of the mass shootings, and she's worried it'll get in the wrong hands and cause a lot of damage," Shepard said.

By the end of the event, the nonprofit had collected 166 firearms, more than double the haul at their last event in Santa Fe in 2021.

Forty of them were semi-automatics; one man turned in 11 firearms including one AK- or AR-style rifle, two semi-automatic handguns, eight semi-automatic rifles and a pistol. The group gave out $20,000 in gift cards, $15,000 of which were donated by Fiesta Nissan.

The event was the 15th gun buyback hosted by New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence and the fifth hosted with the help of the Santa Fe Police Department.

Film industry brings in $855M to New Mexico in fiscal 2022 — Associated Press

Fiscal 2022 has been a record setting year for movies and TV shows shot around New Mexico.

Officials with the New Mexico Film Office said the film industry brought in $855 million this year — about $200 million more than last year — and involved a record 109 different productions.

Among the popular movies and TV shows shot in New Mexico are AMC's "Better Call Saul," Netflix's "Stranger Things" and Focus Film "Vengeance."

"Fiscal year 2022 was a pretty great year. I feel like that is an understatement," Amber Dodson, director of the New Mexico Film Office, told Albuquerque TV station KOB. "We smashed all previous records for film and television spend in New Mexico."

Netflix is planning a 300-acre studio expansion in New Mexico and NBC Universal has also opened a production facility in Albuquerque.

"We only see strong, steady growth ahead for New Mexico," Dodson said.

Navajo Code Talker Samuel Sandoval dies; 3 left from group — Felecia Fonesca, Associated Press

Sandoval died late Friday at a hospital in Shiprock, New Mexico, his wife, Malula told The Associated Press on Saturday. He was 98.

Hundreds of Navajos were recruited from the vast Navajo Nation to serve as Code Talkers with the U.S. Marine Corps. Only three are still alive today: Peter MacDonald, John Kinsel Sr. and Thomas H. Begay.

The Code Talkers took part in every assault the Marines conducted in the Pacific, sending thousands of messages without error on Japanese troop movements, battlefield tactics and other communications critical to the war's ultimate outcome. The code, based on the then-unwritten Navajo language, confounded Japanese military cryptologists and is credited with helping the U.S. win the war.

Samuel Sandoval was on Okinawa when got word from another Navajo Code Talker that the Japanese had surrendered and relayed the message to higher-ups. He had a close call on the island, which brought back painful memories that he kept to himself, Malula Sandoval said.

The Navajo men are celebrated annually on Aug. 14. Samuel Sandoval was looking forward to that date and seeing a museum built near the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock to honor the Code Talkers, she said.

"Sam always said, 'I wanted my Navajo youngsters to learn, they need to know what we did and how this code was used and how it contributed to the world,'" she said Saturday. "That the Navajo language was powerful and always to continue carrying our legacy."

Sandoval was born in Nageezi near Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico. He enlisted in the Marine Corps after attending a Methodist school where he was discouraged from speaking Navajo. He helped recruit other Navajos from the school to serve as Code Talkers, expanding on words and an alphabet that an original group of 29 Navajos created.

Sandoval served in five combat tours and was honorably discharged in 1946. The Code Talkers had orders not to discuss their roles — not during the war and not until their mission was declassified in 1968.

The roles later became an immense source of pride for Sandoval and his late brother, Merrill Sandoval, who also was a Code Talker. The two became talented speakers who always hailed their fellow Marines still in action as the heroes, not themselves, said Merrill Sandoval's daughter, Jeannie Sandoval.

"We were kids, all growing up and we started to hear about the stories," she said. "We were so proud of them, and there weren't very many brothers together."

Sandoval was curious, always reading the local newspapers, and attending community, veterans, Code Talker and legislative meetings. He enjoyed traveling and sharing what he learned, grounded in his Diné beliefs and the Navajo way of life, said one of his daughters, Karen John.

"It was engrained early in me, to be part of the community," she said. "He was really involved in a lot, some of which I couldn't comprehend as a kid."

Samuel Sandoval often told his story, chronicled in a book and documentary of the same name — "Naz Bah Ei Bijei: Heart of a Warrior" — at the Cortez Cultural Center in Cortez, Colorado. He had a favorite folding chair there with vinyl padding and took coffee black, said executive director Rebecca Levy.

Levy said Sandoval's talks drew dozens of people, some of whom had to be turned away because of space limitations.

"It was a great opportunity for people who understood how important the Navajo Code Talkers were to the outcome of the war, in our favor ... to thank him in person," Levy said.

Sandoval's health had been declining in recent years, including a fall in which he fractured a hip, Malula Sandoval said. His last trip was to New Orleans in June where he received the American Spirit Award from the National World War II Museum, she said. MacDonald, Kinsel and Begay also were honored.

Sandoval and his wife met while he was running a substance abuse counseling clinic, and she was a secretary, she said. They were married 33 years. Sandoval raised 11 children from previous marriages and in blended families, John said.

Navajo President Jonathan Nez said Sandoval will be remembered as a loving and courageous person who defended his homeland using his sacred language.

"We are saddened by his passing, but his legacy will always live on in our hearts and minds," Nez said in a statement.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker Seth Damon said Sandoval's life was guided by character, courage, honor and integrity, and his impact will forever be remembered.

"May he rest among our most resilient warriors," Damon said in a statement.

Funeral services are pending.


This story was first published on July 31, 2022. It was updated on July 31, 2022 to correct the name of Sandoval's book and documentary. It's "Naz Bah Ei Bijei: Heart of a Warrior," not "Naz Bah Ei Bijei: Heart of a Warrier."