FRI: Special Session Set To Consider Cannabis, Sandia To Build Solar Testing Center, + More

Mar 26, 2021


Governor Calls Special Legislative Session In New Mexico - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is calling legislators back to the Capitol to consider proposals to legalize recreational marijuana.

Lujan Grisham set Tuesday as the start of the special legislative session.

Negotiations to legalize the sale and use of recreational cannabis for adults 21 and over collapsed in the final days of the regular annual legislative session that ended March 20.

Marijuana reforms have become a top political and policy priority for state Democrats after voters last year ousted several legalization opponents from the state Senate.

The House, led by Democrats, has approved recreational marijuana legalization bills several times in recent years that emphasize support for communities hit hard by aggressive policing on drug laws.

House Republicans criticize the governor's push for marijuana legislation as financially frivolous and disrespectful in the run-up to Good Friday and Easter celebrations in a heavily Roman Catholic state.

One legalization framework from GOP Sen. Cliff Pirtle highlights low tax rates on marijuana and and robust drug-safety precautions in the workplace and for roadways.

Lujan Grisham has promoted legalization of marijuana as an opportunity to create jobs and bolster long-term state government income that some say is too reliant on oil production. New Mexico has well over a billion dollars in financial reserves, not including $1.6 billion in new federal aid than can be spent through 2024.

The session also will address efforts reform and expand the state's closing fund for businesses that expand or relocate in New Mexico.

State spending through the Local Economic Development Act currently helps businesses offset infrastructure related spending.

The governor and Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf want to channel gross receipts taxes on sales and business services toward major private sector construction projects to spur investment and employment in New Mexico.

Legislators stripped that provision from a successful bill this year that authorizes $200 million in state general fund spending on grants to small businesses that are not repaid.

New Mexico Governor Gets Initial Vaccine Shot At School GymAssociated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has received an initial vaccination shot as the state opens up eligibility to more residents.

The 61-year-old governor and former congresswoman announced Friday in a news release that she received the shot of the Pfizer-manufactured vaccine at a clinic on a school campus in Santa Fe.

The state is making the vaccine available to residents ages 60 and over, essential workers and a variety of health and hospice workers, among others.

"I will keep wearing my mask and I will keep up the physical distancing to protect myself, my family and my neighbors," Lujan Grisham said in a statement.

Nearly 1.1 million vaccine doses have been administered across the state of 2.1 million residents, according to state's vaccine information dashboard. About one-quarter of New Mexico residents are fully vaccinated.

Department of Health data also show that nearly half of residents from ages 60 to 74 have received at least one vaccine shot.

Local rates of COVID-19 positivity in testing and related deaths in New Mexico have plummeted in recent months.

New Mexico Schools Expand In-Person Learning - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report For America

New Mexico public schools have a long way to go if they are to meet goals for returning students to the classroom set by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the administration of President Joe Biden.

An analysis by The Associated Press shows that 5% of students from kindergarten through grade 8 are walking through school doors full time. The national average for a similar age group was around to 45% in February.

The governor has urged schools to open their doors to in-person learning for all students on April 5.

On Thursday, Biden reiterated his goal to have over half of K-8 schools open by March 20, his 100th day in office.

The state and federal government are dedicating enormous resources to rebooting in-person education and making up for learning loss. State officials haven't estimated the toll on learning for the entire pandemic, but a legislative analysis found learning loss of between four and 12 months as a result of the last spring's closures alone.

An increased percentage of New Mexico students were failing at least one class last fall, and some rural districts still hadn't connected students to the internet. The clock is ticking to get students in front of teachers before the semester ends.

More students can access full-time and partial in-person learning in New Mexico as more teachers get vaccinated and more schools open their doors. Around 85% of all educators including those who work in pre-K and universities have received at least one shot and a third are fully vaccinated.

Lujan Grisham gave schools the green light to reopen starting March 8.

Since then, the federal government included an additional $900 million in funds for New Mexico schools and part of The American Rescue Plan and loosened social distancing requirements from 6 feet to 3 feet, allowing more students in each classroom.

"I can't think of anything in my career that will have the impact on children that this bill will have. And, and I think it's going to be incumbent upon all of us to follow through and follow the lives of these kids, and hold up the success stories that this creates," said Democrat Sen. Martin Heinrich on Thursday in a presentation alongside education advocates highlighting the Act.

The Public Education Department says nearly 30% of students have access to some form of in-person learning, including those who are part of small-group or special education programs, attend two days per week in a hybrid system, or attend full time. Some schools in the state normally run four days per week, but most are five.

A Biden administration survey of school reentry found that nearly 60% of Black and Latino students attended schools in remote learning modes in February, compared to nearly 30% of white students. Access by Native American students varied widely by region, and not enough surveys were collected from New Mexico or the Southwest to draw conclusions.

Remote learning had a disproportionate impact on Native American, rural, and students who are learning English as a second language. But no agency tracks access to in-person learning by equity metrics like race or area income levels.

The Navajo Nation reported in a survey taken by the state a year ago this month said that around 75% of its students did not have internet at home. State efforts and federal funds allowed schools to purchase hotspots and laptops for many students in the ensuing months, though some didn't have access as early as December.

The New Mexico Public Education Department provides weekly updates on school reentry status, but does not break down the numbers by enrollment for full or remote learners. It also doesn't track demographics.

"PED is offering its full support to help every New Mexico district and charter school return to full in-person learning on or before April 5," said spokeswoman Judy Robinson.

Citing logistical hurdles to testing during the pandemic, state officials have asked for a federal waiver form blanket testing requirements that could reduce spring testing from blanket assessment of 95% of students to a representative sample of around 1%. Education advocates worry the lack of tracking and assessment might complicate efforts to target needy students next year.

"We have been a bit disappointed in that the PED has not been tracking sort of educational outcomes and harms done in quite the way that we would like to see happen," said James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, in the presentation with Heinrich.

He applauded state officials for taking emergency measures to get students online, and for laying the groundwork for expanding broadband  in a bill that passed last week.

"I feel like they — Governor Lujan Grisham, and the (education) secretary — have tried to begin to address that, and the Legislature just created an office of broadband — essentially, technology — to make sure that we can start addressing this lack of access in a systemic way," Jimenez said.

Man Held In New Jersey Killing Charged In New Mexico Deaths - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A man accused in the beating death of a New Jersey resident he claimed sexually abused him as a child was charged Friday with killing his ex-wife and two others in New Mexico in what investigators call a complicated case spanning multiple states.

The new charges follow numerous interviews and searches of storage units, sheds and a home where Sean Lannon, his ex-wife and their three children lived in the city of Grants, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) west of Albuquerque.

The remains of Jennifer Lannon, two of her friends and an Albuquerque man were found earlier this month inside a vehicle at a parking garage at the Albuquerque airport about a month after they were reported missing. Charges in the death of the Albuquerque man have yet to be filed.

Authorities also have been looking into Sean Lannon's claims that he killed 11 other people in New Mexico, but police have said there were no records of people missing from the area or other police reports that would indicate there are potential victims.

Authorities said in court documents that Lannon, 47, admitted to the additional killings in a phone call to a relative.

An arrest warrant affidavit filed Friday details a case that began in late January when Lannon found his ex-wife, 39, and Jesten Mata, 40, together at home. He told investigators that the pair, were having an affair and had given the children drugs to get them to sleep. He said Jennifer began to freak out when she thought they might be dead.

Lannon told investigators that after Mata left, Jennifer tried to overdose on heroin. She still had a pulse so he shot her in the head, according to the affidavit. He said he planned to kill himself but then heard one of the children cry out and put the gun away.

It would be a week before he could lure Mata back to the home and kill him, he told investigators, and another week went by before Miller came over and was also shot. Lannon accused Miller of selling drugs to his ex-wife and Mata.

The court records alleged that Lannon tried to hide the killings by telling police and others that the three friends had run off with a bag full of drugs. The affidavit says Lannon used plastic containers to conceal the bodies and that friends unknowingly help him move the containers along with his other belongings to Albuquerque in mid-February.

Lannon said he used handsaws and knives to dismember the bodies of Miller and Mata to put them into the containers. Court records also say that carpeting and flooring had been removed from the Lannons' home in Grants.

Lannon is in custody in New Jersey on charges stemming from the death of Michael Dabkowski there.

Lannon is accused of breaking in to the 66-year-old's New Jersey home, just south of Philadelphia, and beating him to death with a hammer, according to an affidavit. Lannon told investigators that Dabkowski had sexually abused him as a child and that he had gone to the home to retrieve sexually explicit photos.

Prosecutors are investigating the sex abuse claim and more.

"There are a lot of aspects to the investigation that we're still following up on," said Thomas Gilbert, chief of detectives for the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office. "We're conducting a full and thorough investigation and everything that connects to it."

Dabkowski's body was discovered March 8, three days after the remains were found in New Mexico. Lannon was driving Dabkowski's car when he arrested March 10 in St. Louis. Authorities are not sure why he was in Missouri.

Assistant deputy public defender Ronald Appleby has declined to comment on the New Jersey charges. A court hearing in that case is scheduled for April 8.

Sean and Jennifer Lannon lived in New Jersey before moving to New Mexico a few years ago — before he filed for divorce.

Court records related to the couple's divorce and custody case showed that Sean Lannon was awarded sole custody of the couple's three children in 2019 and that a protective plan from the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department included only supervised visitation by their mother over concerns about the potential for neglect due to prescription drug abuse.

Relatives say Sean Lannon flew to New Jersey in early March with the couple's three children — 6- and 7-year-old girls and a 4-year-old boy. He dropped them off with relatives, claiming he was going back to look for his ex-wife. Her family already was worried, saying it wasn't like her to be without her children.

The other man slain in New Mexico was Randal Apostalon, 60, of Albuquerque. Lannon told investigators that he killed him Feb. 24 after he asked for more money to help him move the containers.

Authorities have said Apostalon was known to give rides for money. The remains of the four victims were found in Apostalon's pickup truck.

Man Wanted For Questioning In New Mexico Case Is ArrestedAssociated Press

A man wanted for questioning in the disappearances of three people from Grants last month was arrested on a warrant in Albuquerque, authorities said Thursday night.

Albuquerque police said 45-year-old Daniel Lemos was taken into custody by the U.S. Marshals Service.

Grants police said they want to question Lemos in the disappearances of 39-year-old Jennifer Lannon, 40-year-old Jesten Mata and 21-year-old Matthew Miller because he knew the victims.

The three were found dead March 5 in a vehicle in a parking garage at Albuquerque International Sunport along with 60-year-old Randal Apostalon in Apostalon's truck.

Grants police first identified Lemos as a person of interest in late February, before the bodies were found at the airport.

The city of Grants is about 80 miles west of Albuquerque.

Authorities said Sean Lannon, the 47-year-old ex-husband of Jennifer Lannon, has been named a suspect in all four slayings but hasn't been charged.

Lannon is jailed in New Jersey in connection with a homicide he allegedly committed there after fleeing New Mexico.

Grants police are awaiting autopsies to determine how Lannon, Mata and Miller died.

Loved Ones Struggle With Why New Mexico Friends Were Killed - By Susan Montoya Bryan and Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

Jennifer Lannon loved her children, though she lost custody of them because of her struggle with prescription drug use. Just about a year before the mother of five went missing, she posted a heartfelt message to her daughter on social media for her sixth birthday, calling her unforgettable, sweet, sassy and smart.

"Somehow you were able to learn early on that life is too short to take it for granted. Thank you for reminding me when I forget so easily," Lannon wrote.

The decomposing body of the 39-year-old mother and those of two of her troubled friends — Jesten Mata, 40, and Matthew Miller, 21 — were found this month in a pickup truck at the Albuquerque airport. With them was the body of Randal Apostalon, a man known to give rides for money.

The gruesome discovery at the parking garage — about 80 miles (129 kilometers) from the tiny town where Lannon, Mata and Miller lived — touched off a nationwide manhunt for Lannon's ex-husband in a strange case stretching from New Mexico to New Jersey that raised questions about possible serial killings and left grieving loved ones trying to understand what happened.

Sean Lannon, 47, was arrested in St. Louis and charged with the beating death of a man in New Jersey he said sexually abused him as child. Authorities have not said why Lannon was in Missouri, but they revealed that he claimed he had killed a total of 16 people in New Mexico, including the four found at the airport.

They are investigating his claims but have said there are no missing people or other police reports to indicate additional victims.

Lannon was charged Friday with killing his ex-wife, Mata and Miller. Lannon's public defender in New Jersey has declined to comment on the charges there.

Meanwhile, those who loved the three friends from the town of Grants are searching for answers.

The trio had their share of struggles with substance abuse, according to authorities and court records.

Police Lt. David Chavez said Miller "had his demons" — an addiction to opioids that led to run-ins with officers over minor offenses like loud music and traffic violations. He described Miller as a decent guy who was fond of his pets.

Miller would never leave his dogs and cats, so when he had not been home for some time, something had to be wrong, authorities said. Police began investigating in late January and learned Jennifer Lannon and Mata also were missing.

It had been a rough year for Miller. His father died in January 2020, only to be followed by his grandparents and mother.

His maternal grandmother, Juanita Shult, said Miller was mixed up with the wrong people and she couldn't get through to him about not using drugs. She said Miller couldn't work because of a health issue with his brain and sometimes couldn't keep the utilities on. He would drive to her home to fill buckets of water, shower or ask for money.

"I know this hit Matthew hard," she said of the string of deaths in his family. "I didn't want to make any excuses for him. But he didn't deserve this. Nobody did. He has two little sisters that are brokenhearted over this."

Shult said she has days when she feels like she failed as a mother and grandmother, when she's sat in the car sobbing and when she imagines her daughter and grandson together in heaven.

Miller's remains were still being held as evidence, with autopsy results pending. When his body is released, Shult plans to have him cremated and place his ashes next to his mother.

Mata had talked about making changes in his life, for his 17-year-old son with an ex-girlfriend and for the children of his fiancée, Leony Calzada.

Calzada said Mata was sweet and good with children, especially her 5-year-old son, Jayden, who considered Mata his best friend. Mata had trouble finding work in Grants because of the time he spent incarcerated on charges ranging from shoplifting to drug trafficking, and Calzada said people didn't give him a chance.

"Everyone has their faults," she said. "He was a real nice person. He would help anybody."

The ex-girlfriend, Hilary Sweeney, met Mata in high school in the Arizona mountain town of Show Low where Mata's family still lives. She was drawn to the tall, handsome guy with a great smile who would wrap his arms around her like a security blanket. They were together for several years.

Sweeney would send Mata coloring pages, school assignments and pictures of Ryan to keep in touch when he was locked up. It had been years since she saw Mata in person, but she said they talked last year about him getting to know his son and getting his life straight.

"I told him, 'I want you to be happy. I don't want you to worry about Ryan and I financially. I made it to where I already know, you need to take care of you and focus on you and get better so you can be part of Ryan's life,'" Sweeney said. "That was the plan, and things didn't go as planned."

Separate from the friends, Apostalon was likely in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was killed, Albuquerque police said. They confirmed Wednesday that he died by blunt force trauma but didn't release other details.

The 60-year-old from Albuquerque had no criminal record. After some financial trouble, Apostalon had been working odd jobs.

While Sean Lannon is considered the primary suspect in the four killings, charges have yet to be filed. He's due in court next month on charges in the New Jersey slaying.

Albuquerque investigators planned a trip back east next week to question Lannon again. Grants police talked to him shortly after his arrest in St. Louis.

Chavez, the Grants police lieutenant, has been tightlipped about what might have led to the killings but says drugs were not the main motive. He describes it as a complicated case.

As is life.

Jennifer Lannon's family remembered her as a beloved daughter, sister, friend and most important, a mom. She provided a glimpse into her life via social media with posts about resilience and understanding herself better after a rough patch.

She described life last summer as low key and happy.

"... just learning to focus on little moments together as a family," she wrote, "and reminding everyone that we don't get time like this to really be together often so don't take it for granted!"

New Mexico High Court Affirms Man's Extended Commitment Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court has upheld a district court decision to extend the criminal commitment of a Las Vegas, New Mexico man placed in a mental institution after he was accused of killing his roommate in 2003.

Psychiatrists have told different judges over the years that Ricky Quintana, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, could not stand trial because of his mental illness, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported Thursday. He was instead committed to the state Behavioral Health Institute.

A district judge ruled in 2017 that Quintana still presented a danger to the community and extended his commitment for another five years.

The Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed the decision, ruling that defendants found to be mentally incompetent to stand trial and dangerous can be ordered to spend additional time in mental institutions.

Prosecutors accuse Quintana of killing and mutilating his roommate Michael Grube, who was 47. The district court extended his commitment after concerns Quintana would not take his medication and his psychosis might return.

Officials said defendants who are committed to mental institutions must be reviewed every two years for competency and for how dangerous they are.

Under the New Mexico Mental Illness and Competency Code, there is no maximum sentence for people who are committed.

But defendants can receive the maximum sentence they would have received in their criminal case if they had been mentally competent to stand trial.

US Lab To Build Solar Power Testing Center In New Mexico - Associated Press

Sandia National Laboratories has been awarded a $25 million contract to build, test and operate a new solar power test facility on its campus in New Mexico. 

Using a concentrated beam of sunlight to heat up sand-like particles, lab officials say the system will be able to produce thermal energy for thousands of hours and will have the capacity to store six hours of energy. This heat can be used to spin a turbine or power an engine to generate electricity.

The contract was announced Thursday by the lab and the U.S. Energy Department. The goal of the federal agency is to develop technology that can make concentrating solar power plants more reliable and easier to build using fewer high-cost materials so that they can be more widely commercialized. 

The New Mexico-based lab already is home to the National Solar Thermal Test Facility and has been working for years on the development of wind turbines and other renewable energy systems.

Officials say the team at Sandia is working with researchers from Australia as well as particle-technology researchers who are building a second concentrating solar power facility in Saudi Arabia to test variants of key components.

New Mexico Adopts Rules To Curb Emissions From Oil Industry - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico oil and gas regulators on Thursday adopted new rules to limit most venting and flaring in the oilfield as a way to reduce methane emissions.

The Oil Conservation Commission took the final vote, bringing to a close a two-year process that involved testimony from environmental advocates and technical experts from the oil and gas industry. Virtual public hearings also were held.

"I think this is a huge day for New Mexico," Adrienne Sandoval, director of the state Oil Conservation Division, said after the unanimous vote.

State officials are billing the rules as some of the strongest gas capture requirements in the nation. Unlike other states, New Mexico's rules also apply to the midstream sector, which collects natural gas from wells for processing.

State officials and other supporters also say the rules encourage innovation in the industry and will spur job creation for a new industry focused on methane tracking and control.

The first phase of implementation will include data collection and reporting to identify natural gas losses at every stage of the process. Once this information is in hand, regulators will then require operators — from those that manage pipelines to stripper wells and other infrastructure — to capture more gas each year. The target will be capturing 98% of all natural gas waste by the end of 2026.

If operators fail to meet the state's targets, regulators can deny drilling permits.

Sarah Cottrell Propst, head of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, said the rule-making process has been long and thorough.

"The 98% capture is an ambitious target that will secure significant methane waste reductions that will directly benefit New Mexico's environment," she said in a statement. "Oil and gas operations make up the biggest portion of greenhouse gas emissions in New Mexico and the rules established today will lead to reductions across the board beginning in 2022."

The rules are one part of a two-pronged approach by the state to address climate change. Still pending are rules being drafted by the state Environment Department that would target oilfield equipment that emits methane, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.

Michael Jensen with Conservation Voters New Mexico said the oil commission listened to many residents from communities that border New Mexico's oil and gas basins.

"We are hopeful that the Environment Department will take the next step and propose comprehensive rules regulating leaks from oil and gas facilities," he said in a statement.

The Environment Department has indicated the proposed rules could come before regulators in May, with a public hearing likely in the fall.

High Court: More Police Excessive Force Suits Can Go Forward - By Jessica Gresko Associated Press

The Supreme Court is siding with a New Mexico woman who was shot by police as she drove away from them, in a case that will allow more excessive force lawsuits against police to go forward.

The justices ruled 5-3 on Thursday that Roxanne Torres' suit could continue because she had been "seized" by police when she was shot, even though she fled. The five justices in the majority included the court's three liberals and two of its conservative members.

"The question in this case is whether a seizure occurs when an officer shoots someone who temporarily eludes capture after the shooting. The answer is yes: The application of physical force to the body of a person with intent to restrain is a seizure, even if the force does not succeed in subduing the person," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in an 18-page opinion  for himself, conservative Brett Kavanaugh and liberals Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The decision does not end the case. Roberts wrote that the "Fourth Amendment does not forbid all or even most seizures — only unreasonable ones." Lower courts will have to weigh in on the "reasonableness of the seizure, the damages caused by the seizure, and the officers' entitlement to qualified immunity," which could also end the case in the officers' favor.

When the case was argued in October, the Trump administration had urged the justices to side with Torres and send the case back to lower courts.

Torres was shot in 2014 when four members of the New Mexico State Police arrived at her Albuquerque apartment with an arrest warrant for someone else. Torres was in her car with the engine running when officers attempted to speak with her. But Torres, who was experiencing a methamphetamine withdrawal, did not notice them until she said one tried to open her car door. Thinking the officers were carjackers, Torres hit the gas. Two of the officers fired their weapons 13 times as she drove off. She was hit twice in the back.

Torres pleaded no contest to aggravated fleeing from a law enforcement officer and assault on a peace officer. She also pleaded no contest to unlawfully taking a different motor vehicle, which she took after she fled and used to drive to a hospital 75 miles away.

Torres sued officers. She claimed they used excessive force, making the shooting an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. A lower court ruled for officers and dismissed the case; an appeals court agreed. The Supreme Court's decision now lets the suit move forward.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

"The majority holds that a criminal suspect can be simultaneously seized and roaming at large. On the majority's account, a Fourth Amendment 'seizure' takes place whenever an officer 'merely touches' a suspect. It's a seizure even if the suspect refuses to stop, evades capture, and rides off into the sunset never to be seen again. That view is as mistaken as it is novel," Gorsuch wrote in a 26-page dissent.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett had not yet  joined the court when the case was heard on Oct. 14 and did not participate in the decision.

The case is Torres v. Madrid, 19-292.

Navajo Nation Reports 9 New COVID-19 Cases And 8 More Deaths Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported nine new COVID-19 cases and eight additional deaths.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's numbers to 30,031 cases and 1,243 known deaths since the pandemic began.

The Navajo Nation had a soft reopening last week with 25% capacity for some businesses under certain restrictions.

Still, mask mandates and daily curfews remain on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

"Here on the Navajo Nation, we continue to mandate the wearing of masks and other measures to help reduce the spread of the virus and to save lives. Now is not the time to let up our guard," tribal President Jonathan Nez said in a statement.

"We have to stay the course and keep pushing back on COVID-19... We cannot let the fatigue caused by the pandemic undo the progress we've made in terms of lower numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths," Nez added.

TV Series From 'Dr. Death' Podcast Being Shot In New Mexico Associated Press

The New Mexico Film Office says a new television series based on a popular true-crime podcast by the Wondery network has started production in Albuquerque and Moriarty.

The UCP production "Dr. Death" stars actors Joshua Jackson, Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater and is directed by Maggie Kiley, So Yong Kim and Jennifer Morrison.

Film Office Director Amber Dodson said the series will be the first production to use NBCU's new studio in Albuquerque.

According to the Film Office, "Dr. Death" is about a neurosurgeon whose operations start going wrong, prompting intervention by two fellow physicians.