WED: Longtime NM Lawmaker Focus Of Criminal Investigation, + More

Jul 28, 2021

Longtime New Mexico Lawmaker Focus Of Criminal Investigation - Felicia Fonseca, Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

Authorities are investigating longtime New Mexico legislator Sheryl Williams Stapleton's possibly illegal connections to a company that received more than $5 million in contracts to do business with the school district where she works.

Authorities executed search warrants at the Albuquerque Public Schools offices and Stapleton's home this week as part of a criminal investigation into alleged racketeering, money laundering, illegal kickbacks and possible violations of a law governing the conduct of state lawmakers.

No charges have been filed against Stapleton, the No. 2 Democrat in the state House and a member of the chamber's education committees. Stapleton, a former teacher, began serving in the Legislature in 1995.

She also oversees career technical education for Albuquerque Public Schools, the largest school district in the state and the top employer in Albuquerque. The district serves about 20% of public school students in New Mexico.

A call to Stapleton's home went unanswered Wednesday, and she did not immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press. Her legislative office said it had no information.

House Democratic leaders said they were shocked by the allegations against Stapleton, whom they see as a valued colleague. Nonetheless, they said they'll investigate any allegations related to her legislative service.

“New Mexicans deserve to know that their elected officials hold the highest ethical standards and are free of corruption,” a statement from House Speaker Brian Egolf, Doreen Gallegos and D. Wonda Johnson read.

The state Republican Party said the allegations must be taken seriously and, if proven true, “they are a disturbing violation of the sacred public trust.”

Monica Armenta, a spokeswoman for the school district, declined to comment on the investigation or Stapleton's employment status. Messages left with the school district's attorney weren't immediately returned.

The investigation came at the request of school district Superintendent Scott Elder, who wrote to the state attorney general's office in April, saying he suspected Stapleton was violating state law because of her dealings with a company that provides computer software to the district.

Stapleton told the district that Robotics Management Learning Systems LLC. provided a unique interactive program called CyberQuest as justification for sole source contracting, according to a search warrant affidavit. The district said the program appeared to be a standardized online quiz that wasn't used by many students.

Investigators and school district officials questioned the existence of the company and found it curious that although its official address was in Washington, D.C., it had a post office box in New Mexico. Stapleton intervened when the company's contract with the school district appeared to be in jeopardy, providing documentation and acting as a go-between, according to a search warrant affidavit.

While it had a sole source contract for years, Robotics went through the formal bidding process in 2019. The district stuck with the company but for less than it had been paying in prior years. Overall, the district paid the company more than $5.4 million from 2006 until May 2021.

The search warrant affidavit showed that Stapleton had access to the post office box where checks were being sent to Robotics, and video surveillance showed her depositing checks from the school district for Robotics on multiple occasions.

A number listed for Robotics in the affidavit went unanswered Wednesday. In documents provided to the school district, Joseph F. Johnson Jr. was identified as the chief executive and president of Robotics. He also is listed as the president for two nonprofit organizations registered to Stapleton, the affidavit states.

Investigators found Stapleton’s son, David Hendrickson, was a onetime coordinator for CyberQuest.

They're also looking into Stapleton's legislative actions, the nonprofits she directs and checks from Robotics that were made out to a restaurant she owns and a business account she opened under “S. Williams and Associates."

Body Of Woman Swept Away In Albuquerque Arroyo Is Recovered - Associated Press

Crews recovered the body of an unidentified woman who was swept away by floodwaters in an arroyo in northeast Albuquerque, authorities said Wednesday.

Albuquerque Fire Rescue officials said the body was found at a washout.

They said two people — a man and a woman — were spotted in the arroyo after heavy rain hit the area Tuesday evening.

One person safely got out of the arroyo near Interstate 25 before the search was stopped by darkness and resumed Wednesday morning.

Crews had been tied to railings along the arroyo as they searched for any sign of the second missing person coming through the raging water.

Officials said they were looking for a woman reportedly wearing a green jumpsuit with a black backpack.

The backpack was later found, but not the woman.

Last week, three men died after being swept away in arroyos following a flash flood. Their bodies were later recovered.


Experts: New Mexico In For Hotter, Drier Weather In 50 Years - Theresa Davis, Albuquerque Journal

Scientists say New Mexico temperatures will likely continue to climb over the next 50 years — a change with major consequences for regional water supplies and landscapes.

Nelia Dunbar, director of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, serves on the eight-member advisory panel crafting a “leap-ahead climate analysis” for the Interstate Stream Commission of what water supplies could look like in 2070.

“The question is not so much will (temperatures) increase, but by how much,” Dunbar said during a recent video update on the state’s long-term water plan.

New Mexico models show that annual average statewide temperatures could rise between 5 and 7 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 50 years. Models considered two different rising-emissions scenarios, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

Experts have been warning state lawmakers and others that a warmer climate could impact nearly every aspect of New Mexico’s water and land.

Dunbar listed likely impacts, including:

  • Decreased aquifer recharge, more common and hotter drought periods, earlier winter runoff, greater groundwater demands and stress on plant life.
  • Dry vegetation and catastrophic wildfires that could affect runoff and floodplain ecosystems.
  • Warmer streams and rivers that could mean changing oxygen levels, which can disturb fish habitat.

State law requires that the Office of the State Engineer update a water plan every five years.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tasked the agency with creating a 50-year water plan with proposed adaptation strategies.

The advisory panel compiled climate and water data and projections into an 11-chapter report that is under review by other New Mexico and Arizona scientists.

Dunbar said the “science-based foundation” will help inform the water plan, and should be publicly available by the end of August.

The team found precipitation changes more difficult to predict than temperature, but concluded that New Mexico could see gradual declines in streamflow and snowpack as the state becomes more arid.

Temperature changes may not be uniform across the Land of Enchantment.

“The bottom line is that the northwest part of the state in the San Juan Basin area may experience the highest temperature increases over the next 50 years, whereas the Bootheel, the southwest part of the state, will experience some of the lower temperature increases,” Dunbar said.

New Mexico water planners can learn from tribes, acequia communities and municipalities that have adapted over the past 20 years of drought, said ISC Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen.

“They’ve experienced lots of disturbance without losing their essential character or becoming something else,” Schmidt-Petersen said.

The ISC estimates the 50-year water plan will be finalized by April 2022.

Water policy proposals will include local, state and federal recommendations.

This story has been correct to show that the models considered two different rising-emissions scenarios.

  Bob Odenkirk Collapses On 'Better Call Saul' Set - Andrew Dalton, Associated Press

“Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk collapsed on the show's New Mexico set on Tuesday and had to be hospitalized.

Crew members called an ambulance that took the 58-year-old actor to a hospital, where he remained Tuesday night, a person close to Odenkirk who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter told The Associated Press.

It was not immediately clear what caused the collapse, or how long Odenkirk might be hospitalized.

“Better Call Saul,” the spin-off prequel to “Breaking Bad,” has been shooting its sixth and final season, which is set to air on AMC next year.

Like “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” is set in and mostly shot in Albuquerque.

An email sent to a representative of AMC seeking more information or comment was not immediately returned.

Odenkirk has been nominated for four Emmys for playing the title character, a down-on-his-luck lawyer named Jimmy McGill who becomes increasingly corrupt and adopts the pseudonym Saul Goodman.

Before the “Saul” role, which he also played on “Breaking Bad,” Odenkirk was best known for “Mr. Show With Bob and David,” the sketch comedy series he co-created with David Cross that originally aired on HBO from 1995 to 1998.

He has won two Emmys, for his writing on “The Ben Stiller Show” and on “Saturday Night Live.”

He has also appeared on HBO's “The Larry Sanders Show” and in the films “The Post,” “Little Women” and “Nobody.”

Albuquerque Homicides Leave Families Heartbroken, Frustrated - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Laura Brown wipes tears from her face as she confronts the reality that her 6-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter will never see their father again.

Alicia Otero misses her son's smile, his knack for making her laugh, and his insatiable appetite for hot wings and barbecue sauce.

Mary Candelaria replays her son's music videos every day, the sound of his voice providing some solace.

They are among the families devastated by Albuquerque's relentless rash of killings. For many, it's a rollercoaster of disbelief, anger, sadness and frustration — especially for those wanting answers and justice. 

The city is having one of its deadliest years in memory. The homicide tally for the first seven months of 2021 is about to eclipse the record of 80 set in 2019.

While other cities around the U.S. also are seeing significant increases this year, Albuquerque has a history with violent crime. Concern grew in 2017 after three years of skyrocketing homicides and a record-setting year. 

Experts warned that the city either had a growing problem or was encountering a new norm. In 2019, that record was broken.

With the numbers still rising, officials acknowledge that doing what they've always done isn't enough.

"The criminal justice system is broken," Police Chief Harold Medina said in a recent statement. "Our officers make arrests every day, but system-wide, we don't have the answers to break the cycles. If we are truly going to have an impact on violent crime, we have to come together and take responsibility for changes we can all make to more effectively fight crime."

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, a Democrat running for reelection, has been criticized for his handling of the city's crime problems. He ousted the previous police chief last fall and recently announced an initiative to bring together leaders in the criminal justice system to come up with ideas that can be acted on quickly.

"We know that things have to be better," he said after the group's first meeting.

But many families feel unsupported. They see few consequences for those repeatedly committing violent crimes. Some have escaped to the suburbs searching for a greater sense of security while others wish they could. 

Mark Solano was among the first people killed in Albuquerque in 2021. Just a week after his 37th birthday, he was driving down historic Route 66 when he was fatally shot by another motorist. No arrests have been made.

Brown, the mother of his children, said Solano worked in food delivery, sometimes long hours. Yet, he never missed a chance to come over for dinner and visit with his son, Markus.

When she got the call the morning after Solano was killed, she screamed and cried.

"It woke up our son and I really didn't even know what to say for days," she said.

His mother, Yolanda Solano, said she feels like her heart was ripped out and she's still in a fog. 

"It seems like every day I turn on the news and there's another homicide, and it's not fair for the families who are suffering through it," she said.

Her grandkids will grow up without their father, and she misses him, too. There will be no more salsa-making competitions and no more calls to rehash the Denver Broncos game.

Candelaria's son, Adrian Anaya, has been dead almost five years, with no arrests. The 28-year-old rap artist and father of three had just finished filming his latest video when he and a friend were gunned down that evening in Albuquerque's South Valley. The suspect — identified by police as Eric Ferrer — was soon added to New Mexico's most wanted list of violent fugitives.

"The guy had so much on his record. He should have been in jail a long time ago," Candelaria said, adding that Ferrer was out on bond in an unrelated case at the time of the shooting.

Candelaria knows what the other families are in for. Part of the frustration, she said, is not enough detectives and overwhelming caseloads. She has been calling detectives and talking to prosecutors regularly in hopes of keeping her son's case from slipping to the bottom of the growing pile.

When Anaya was about 11, Candelaria remembers coming home to hear singing. He had stolen his sister's karaoke machine. It was the beginning of his musical aspirations. 

Even though he was grown and out of the house, Candelaria said she would text him nightly: "Good night. I love you." He would always message back.

Now, she's left with his videos, music recordings and the stories his friends tell about him helping others.

"All the time, people will just be like, 'He was amazing, he would give you the shirt off his back,'" she said. "Lots of things like that. He just wanted to take care of people. Even me."

It's been five months since Alicia Otero's son, 24-year-old Elias Otero, was fatally shot outside his home.

"We cried there on the street corner, my whole family, all day," Otero said. "Just watching my son in the street in the sun all day under that sheet. It was just hard."

The moments replay themselves and there are tears every day.

She said her son was just beginning his life — he had his own house and was planning to get married.

Thinking about what kind of man her son was, Otero began to smile, then laughed before telling a story that ended with more laughter. She said her son always made people laugh — on purpose or otherwise — from the time he missed the chair and fell at his graduation ceremony to when he stumbled into a hole while hunting and scared away the elk.

Her tearful message to other parents: "Tell them you love them every day and take lots of pictures because you just never know. That's all you're going to have left in the end. Love them. And protect them."

2 More People Swept Away In Albuquerque Arroyo, 1 Rescued - Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Rescue crews continued searching for one of two people believed to have been swept away in an arroyo in northeast Albuquerque on Tuesday evening. 

After heavy rain hit the area, the Albuquerque Fire Rescue unit was called out to search for two people who were spotted around 5 p.m. in an arroyo near Interstate 25.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that it was initially believed that three people had been swept away but Albuquerque Fire Rescue Lt. Tom Ruiz said that was due to an inaccurate report to dispatch. 

Ruiz told the Journal that the Albuquerque police were able to assist one of the two victims of the flash flood out of the arroyo. Later that evening, the rescue effort shifted to the washout where they searched for the other person’s body by boat. 

The National Weather Service had issued a flash flood warning for Bernalillo County shortly before the people were spotted.

Last week, three people died after being swept away in arroyos following a flash flood in Albuquerque. Their bodies were later recovered. Ruiz had called those fatalities the deadliest flooding event in Albuquerque in recent memory. 

Public Defender's Office Settles Sexual Harassment Claims - Associated Press

Two lawsuits accusing an investigator in the state public defender's office of sexual harassment have been settled.

The Law Offices of the Public Defender agreed to pay $345,000 to resolve the lawsuits filed in 2019, the Albuquerque Journal reported. Neither the office nor the investigator admitted liability as part of the settlements.

The agency has locations around the state. The investigator used to work in the Las Cruces office.

Laura Schauer Ives, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said Monday that her clients are hopeful the culture in the public defender's office will change and others will be spared from similar treatment, including retaliation for reporting harassment.

"They were struggling with a very serious problem with repeat sexual harassment that went unaddressed," she told the Journal.

Under the settlement reached this month, the public defender's office agreed to follow up on sexual harassment complaints and agreed to certain procedures for interviewing employees in future investigations.

"We area always looking to learn lessons so we can ensure professional and supportive working conditions in our offices," chief public defender Bennett Baur said.

The investigator who was accused said the public defender's office decided to settle the cases, and he denied the allegations in the lawsuits, according to a statement from his attorney.

In November, the public defender's office settled another lawsuit that included claims of sexual harassment and unfair pay. The office paid out $750,000 to resolve it.

Proposal Would Have Commission Set Salaries For Legislators - Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

New Mexico voters may be asked whether to have the State Ethics Commission review and set salaries for state legislators.

State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto on Monday presented a proposed constitutional amendment to a legislative committee in advance of next year's 30-day legislative session, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

New Mexico is the only state where lawmakers receive no salary for their work, though taxpayers pay for travel expenses and an allowance for meals and lodging when the Legislature is in session. Many lawmakers also have access to public pension benefits.

The proposal is subject to voter approval. It would have the commission review and establish salaries for legislators every two years and also set the salaries of all elected officers of the executive and judicial branches.

Ivey-Soto said providing lawmakers with a salary would allow more people to serve in the Legislature.

Bob Odenkirk Collapses On 'Better Call Saul' Set - By Andrew Dalton AP Entertainment Writer

"Better Call Saul" star Bob Odenkirk collapsed on the show's New Mexico set on Tuesday and had to be hospitalized. 

Crew members called an ambulance that took the 58-year-old actor to a hospital, where he remained Tuesday night, a person close to Odenkirk who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter told The Associated Press.

It was not immediately clear what caused the collapse, or how long Odenkirk might be hospitalized. 

"Better Call Saul," the spin-off prequel to "Breaking Bad," has been shooting its sixth and final season, which is set to air on AMC next year. 

Like "Breaking Bad," "Better Call Saul" is set in and mostly shot in Albuquerque. 

An email sent to a representative of AMC seeking more information or comment was not immediately returned. 

Odenkirk has been nominated for four Emmys for playing the title character, a down-on-his-luck lawyer named Jimmy McGill who becomes increasingly corrupt and adopts the pseudonym Saul Goodman.

Michael McKean, Odenkirk's co-star who played his brother on the show, was among many wishing Odenkirk well on social media. 

"Sending huge love to our @mrbobodenkirk," McKean tweeted. "You got this, brother." 

Odenkirk's hospitalization was first reported by TMZ. 

Before the "Saul" role, which he also played on "Breaking Bad," Odenkirk was best known for "Mr. Show With Bob and David," the sketch comedy series he co-created with David Cross that originally aired on HBO from 1995 to 1998. 

He has won two Emmys, for his writing on "The Ben Stiller Show" and on "Saturday Night Live." 

He has also appeared on HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show" and in the films "The Post," "Little Women" and "Nobody."

Bandelier Boasts Bountiful Wildflower Bloom, Thanks To Rain - Associated Press

A bountiful wildflower bloom at Bandelier National Monument is drawing some early risers who want to avoid the midday crowds, and the visitors center is responding to accommodate them.

Starting Sunday, the visitor center will open a half-hour earlier at 8:30 a.m. Acting Superintendent Dennis Milligan said that will give staff more time to hand out information on trails and safety.

The Southwest has been inundated with rain during the monsoon season, bolstering wildflowers. Mariposa lilies, harebells and shooting stars are abundant along trails like the Cerro Grande and Alamo Boundary at Bandelier.

Monument officials say the massive wildflower bloom should last for several more weeks. They say visitors should feel free to photograph the flowers but don't pick them so others can enjoy the view.

Visitation to the monument that features canyons and ancient cliff dwellings dropped drastically during the pandemic. Officials said they're now seeing a 157% increase in visitation since 2019.