WED: 1 Body Recovered, 2 People Still Missing After Intense ABQ Storm + More

Jul 21, 2021

1 Body Recovered, 2 People Missing After Albuquerque Storm - Associated Press

One body was recovered Wednesday and the search continued for two other people swept into an arroyo after storms hit Albuquerque, authorities said.

Firefighters pulled a man’s body from the end of a diversion channel on Wednesday morning.

Crews initially responded Tuesday afternoon when three people were seen floating down the diversion channel in northeast Albuquerque after the area was hit with heavy rains.

Swift water rescue units scrambled to the sides of the channel to attempt a rescue but didn’t spot the three people over a two-hour period.

Authorities say it can take days for bodies to surface and crews will continue searching for the other two missing people until they have exhausted all efforts.

Santa Fe Hospital Reaches Settlement Over Fraudulent Billing - Associated Press

Federal prosecutors have reached a settlement with a Santa Fe hospital over claims of fraudulent billing.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico announced Wednesday that Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center will pay nearly $564,000 as part of the agreement.

Prosecutors say a doctor at the hospital caused fraudulent claims for payment to be submitted to Medicare, Medicaid and other federal healthcare programs during a seven-year period while he worked at the hospital.

Authorities said Christus St. Vincent came forward with the billing concerns in early 2020 and cooperated with investigators.

Prosecutors determined that the hospital billed government healthcare programs for services that the doctor did not provide or properly supervise.

The hospital did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Federal officials said the government spends more than $1 trillion dollars annually to provide health through Medicaid and the other programs. During the 2019 fiscal year, the government recovered more than $3.6 billion dollars from healthcare fraud judgments and settlements.

Chile Harvest Starts Early For Some New Mexico Farmers - Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The aroma of fresh roasted green chiles is already wafting through southern New Mexico as some farmers are getting a jumpstart on the harvest.

The earlier start to the season is the result of some much needed rain, cooler temperatures and a change in the way some farmers are planting the state's most famous crop.

Instead of starting from seed, more farmers are planting seedlings that have sprouted in a greenhouse to get their fields going faster. For some it's a hedge against increasing labor costs, while others see the method as a way to save water as climate change adds to the uncertainty of irrigation supplies with every passing growing season.

This year, irrigation allotments around New Mexico are among historic lows as other Western states are grappling with their own water problems, drought and wildfires. Federal officials expect to make the first-ever water shortage declaration in the Colorado River basin next month, prompting cuts in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

In New Mexico, winter snowpack was close to average. But climate experts say the soil already was parched following a dismal summer monsoon season and warmer temperatures resulted in the snow melting earlier and more rapidly.

Add to that more evaporation, and less water makes its way into streams and reservoirs.

“We were really scared in the spring with the water situation we were having and those really high temperatures. There wasn't enough irrigation water," said Joram Robbs, executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association.

With transplants, Robbs said one benefit is that farmers don't have to water their seeds for four to six weeks in the spring.

Before 1940, transplanting chile seedlings was common. While most commercial chile acreage today is started from seed, industry experts say there could be a shift again as water and labor pressures mount.

Sergio Grajeda Jr. has been using transplants in some fields on his family farm in Hatch for about five years.

He was thankful for the recent rains, saying they could not have come at a better time.

“God willing, the crop is going to turn out good. Everyone’s crop is going to be really good,” he said.

The one thing he has concerns about is market demand and whether people have room in their freezers for fresh chile.

“I think everything has to do with COVID," he said. “The same thing that happened with toilet paper, that’s what happened with chile last year. They just stocked up and stocked up."

Processors and distributors took the hit last year. Commercial demand was reduced as restaurants and other venues were forced to close. Robbs said people got used to buying their chile from grocery store freezers and eating it at home.

With businesses reopening, the industry has a more optimistic outlook.

Lisa and Herb Hawkins of Tucson, Arizona, made a pitstop at a roadside stand in Hatch on a recent Monday, lured by painted wooden signs that read “Now Roasting.” They've been buying chile in Hatch — dubbed the “Chile Capital of the World” — for about three decades.

“It’s just better than buying it in the grocery store,” she said. “There’s nothing better than fresh green chile. Nothing.”

Walmart To Remove Sales Tax Assessment On Delivered Groceries - Associated Press

Walmart taxed the delivered groceries of at least two people in New Mexico even though a tax deduction governing such home deliveries took effect on July 1.

Walmart told the Las Cruces Sun-News that it was working to remove the assessment of sales tax on delivered groceries after receiving clarification from the state about the new tax exemption. “We apologize for the confusion,” Walmart said in a statement.

As delivered groceries became more popular during the pandemic, New Mexicans noticed gross receipts tax charges on their delivered groceries, which would normally be tax-free in grocery stores.

Previously, only food sold at retail stores could be deducted from gross tax receipts. But earlier this year, New Mexico lawmakers amended the policy so that the deduction would apply to food sold by retail stores, thereby making delivered groceries deductible.

Tax and Revenue Department spokesman Charlie Moore said that although the agency will make a grocer aware of the change in the food tax deduction, the department “can’t control what deductions a taxpayer chooses to claim.”

The grocer can decide whether to take the deduction, according to Moore, though most grocers take the deduction and choose not to charge the tax.

“It is up to each taxpayer to interpret their eligibility for deductions,” Moore said. “The gross receipts tax is an obligation of the business.”

Volunteer Firefighter In New Mexico Hit By Fire Truck, Dies - Associated Press

New Mexico State Police said Wednesday that they're investigating the death of a volunteer firefighter who was fatally struck by a fire truck.

They said 59-year-old Janet Tracy of Caballo was at a crash scene south of Truth or Consequences on Tuesday providing aid and support to a victim.

A fire truck driven by a 52-year-old-man was being repositioned and the driver said he didn’t see Tracy and backed over her, according to State Police.

The woman was pronounced dead at the scene by the Office of the Medical Investigator.

State Police said the fire truck was not equipped with a backup camera and they aren’t releasing the name of the driver, who's also a Caballo volunteer firefighter.

 

Navajo Nation: 17 New COVID Cases, No Deaths 3rd Day In Row - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Tuesday reported 17 new COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths for the third consecutive day.

The latest numbers brought the total number of coronavirus-related cases on the vast reservation to 31,218 since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

The number of known deaths remained at 1,366.

The Navajo Nation recently relaxed restrictions to allow visitors to travel on the reservation and visit popular attractions like Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley. 

The reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles and it covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

While cases are down, Navajo leaders are urging residents to continue wearing masks and get vaccinated. 

"We have a large majority of residents here on the Navajo Nation who are fully vaccinated, but we still have a percentage who are not," tribal President Jonathan Nez said in a statement Tuesday. "Our most effective weapons against the virus are the vaccines and our masks."

Trial In Las Cruces Girl's Death Put On Hold By State Court – Las Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press

A New Mexico Supreme Court order has brought a trial in the death of a 2-year-old Las Cruces girl to an abrupt halt.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reports opening statements were given Monday before the trial of 26-year-old Lalo Anthony Castrillo had to stop.

The issue stems from prosecutors' appeal of Judge Douglas Driggers' decision to exclude exhibits involving Faviola Rodriguez's 2018 death. According to the judge, the Third Judicial District Attorney's Office had missed too many deadlines to turn over exhibits to the court and defense attorneys.

The exhibits include tangible evidence like 911 calls and photos of the young girl's body. Prosecutors would have to rely mainly on witness and expert testimony.

Castrillo, who was dating Faviola's mother, is accused of abusing the girl while babysitting her. Authorities say he abused her to the point where her injuries were fatal.

Castrillo's attorneys say the prosecutors' lag in turning over exhibits severely damaged their ability to prepare for the trial. 

Assistant District Attorney Daniel Sewell says the judge's ban on physical evidence is too severe.

Judge Driggers has until July 26 to respond to the order suspending the trial, according to the Supreme Court.

Las Cruces Lawmaker Says Politics Led To Denial Of Communion - Associated Press

A New Mexico lawmaker says he was denied Communion by his local Catholic priest because of his politics.

Democratic state Sen. Joseph Cervantes said Monday that he has been treated differently by the church since voting to repeal a state law banning abortion under most circumstances.

Cervantes' statement came after he tweeted over the weekend about not getting Communion from Peter Baldacchino, bishop of Roman Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he said he "felt it necessary to address those who would politicize, and thereby belittle, the promises of the Eucharist."

Cervantes, of Las Cruces, says the outdated law, which would have jailed women for getting an abortion, was unconstitutional. 

A spokesman for Baldacchino declined comment to media outlets. The diocese, however, put out a statement.

"The Diocese regrets that Senator Cervantes chose not to enter into dialogue with any diocesan official and felt that Twitter would be the most appropriate outlet to express his concerns," the diocese wrote.

The controversy reflects an ongoing effort by some bishops in the U.S. to rebuke politicians who support abortion rights but continue to receive Communion. 

Mexican Wolf Breeding Program Gets Boost From Zoo - By Fabiola Sánchez Associated Press

Five gray wolf pups born at Mexico City's Chapultepec Zoo are giving a boost to efforts to broaden the endangered species' genetic diversity amid continuing efforts to reintroduce the animals to the wild decades after they were reduced to captive populations. 

The pups' father, Rhi, alerts them every midday to the delivery of breakfast, in the form of chicken and quail meat brought by zookeeper Jorge Gutiérrez, 58. 

Gutiérrez has cared for Rhi since he was born, and is now proud to see he has formed a pack with the pups' mother, Seje.

"It's marvelous. What I am experiencing is something unique," says Gutiérrez. 

He watches as the five wolf pups stumble out of their den to eat. The three males and two females were born in early April.

They are part of a four-decade, binational program between the United States and Mexico to breed the gray wolves in captivity and release them back into the wild. 

Even the "endangered" classification is progress for the Mexican wolf; two years ago, given the success of the breeding program, Mexican authorities were able to move the subspecies up from its previous "probably extinct in the wild" classification.

For more than two decades, the effort to return Mexican gray wolves to the wild in the U.S. Southwest has been fraught with conflict. Ranchers have complained about the challenges of having to scare away the wolves to keep their cattle from being eaten. Many have said their livelihoods and rural way of life are at stake.

Environmentalists argue that wolf reintroduction has stumbled as a result of illegal killings and management decisions they contend are rooted in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's attempt to accommodate ranchers and the region's year-round cattle calving season.

North America's rarest subspecies of gray wolf, the Mexican gray wolf was listed as endangered in 1976 after being hunted, trapped and poisoned to the brink of extinction. From the 1960s to the 1980s, seven gray wolves — believed to be the last of their kind — were captured and the captive breeding program began.

Wolves started being released in the late '90s. The wild population has nearly doubled over the last five years, with the latest annual census finding about 186 Mexican wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona. 

In northern Mexico, the other part of the wolves' historic range, reintroduction initially stumbled. 

An effort to reintroduce them to the wild in the border state of Sonora in 2011 ended in tragedy when all five wolves were poisoned, it's not clear by whom. But another release was carried out in 2012 in the state of Chihuahua, and those wolves now number around 40, most born in the wild.

Mexico is now studying other areas for possible releases.

Fernando Gual, a veterinarian who serves as director of Mexico City's zoos, notes that the Chapultepec Zoo also has a sperm and egg bank that provides backup for genetic material.

But the best guarantees are animals like Seje, who holds out a piece of meat with her mouth to show the pups how to eat. 

"This is our jewel," Gual says. "Every litter of pups is hope for the life of this species." 

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