Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

2022 IN REVIEW: New Mexico’s Top 10 stories

COVID-19 is still with us. Just when we think we’ve got it whipped, it comes back at us in a different guise. It’s still sneaky dangerous.

But for the first time since it emerged in New Mexico in March 2020, the pandemic did not make the annual list of top stories in the state. That would be great if it were not for the fact that the virus was edged off the list by more distressing news.

In 2022, New Mexico not only experienced the worst wildfire in its history, but its two most destructive wildfires ever. It was during a fire-suppression mission that a helicopter crashed, killing three members of the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and a county firefighter.

A shooting spree targeting Muslim men spread terror through that segment of Albuquerque’s population, and a bizarre gunfight on the University of New Mexico campus resulted in the death of a UNM student and the wounding of a New Mexico State basketball player.

It probably comes as no surprise that for the second consecutive year, Albuquerque set a record for the number of homicides.

On the other hand, state voters approved a constitutional amendment that will increase funding for early childhood education, and the legal sale of recreational cannabis, which started on April 1, will add millions in tax revenue to the state’s coffers.

Here’s hoping for a happier new year.

New Mexico’s Top 10 Stories

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire burns south of Las Vegas on May 7, 2022. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

 

Devastating wildfires

New Mexico suffered through a soul-shaking wildfire season in 2022, chalking up both the state’s largest and second-largest fires.

Sign up for our free Daily Headlines newsletter

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire alone burned a record 341,471 acres in San Miguel, Mora and Torrance counties between April 6 and Aug. 21. The merged fires, both of which started as Forest Service burns, destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, displaced thousands of New Mexicans, threatened the water supply of Las Vegas, New Mexico, and led to flash flooding that was responsible for four deaths and damage to public and private property.

Two people died in the McBride Fire, which burned 6,159 acres near Ruidoso in Lincoln County between April 12 and May 7. The fire was caused by a tree falling on a power line.

Human cause was responsible for the Black Fire that burned in the Black Range in Sierra and Catron counties between May 13 and late July, chewing through 325,133 acres, second only to the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak blaze in area affected.

The federal government took full responsibility for the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak inferno. President Joe Biden visited Santa Fe in June for a briefing on the wildfires, and federal relief funds of $3.95 billion have been allocated to aid victims.

Firefighters from Santa Fe County La Cienega District pay homage to the four victims of a helicopter crash as a motorcade carries their bodies south on I-25. The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office helicopter plunged to the ground in July after battling a fire near Las Vegas, N.M. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Tragic helicopter crash

In what is the deadliest incident involving law enforcement in the state’s history and among the deadliest involving first responders, three members of the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and a Bernalillo County firefighter were killed in a helicopter crash in July near Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Undersheriff Larry Koren, 55, the helicopter pilot; Lt. Fred Beers III, 51; Deputy Michael Levison, 30; and fire rescue specialist Matthew King, 44, were returning to Albuquerque after helping fight a fire in the Las Vegas area when the helicopter plunged to the ground. The crash is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, but no cause has yet been made public.

The crash victims were memorialized as heroes who died doing what they loved. Thousands attended their funerals.

The brother of Aftab Hussein sprinkles dirt over Hussein’s grave during services at Albuquerque’s Fairview Memorial Park in August. Hussein was one of four members of Albuquerque’s Muslim community who were shot and killed between November 2021 and August 2022. Muhammad Syed, also a member of the city’s Muslim community, has been arrested and charged with three of the killings. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

Muslim men killed

Much of Albuquerque’s Muslim community was cloaked in fear during a series of shootings that left four Muslim men dead and focused national and international attention on the city.

On Aug. 9, a member of the local Muslim community, Muhammad Syed, 52, from Afghanistan, was arrested as the result of investigations into the shooting deaths of Aftab Hussein, 41, on July 26; Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, on Aug. 1 and Naeem Hussain, 25, on Aug. 5.

Syed has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of those men and is also considered a suspect in the shooting death of Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, on Nov. 7, 2021. Syed remains in custody, but no trial date has been set.

Shaheen Syed, Muhmmad Syed’s 21-year-old son, was also arrested Aug. 9 as part of the shootings investigation. Shaheen has not been charged in any of the killings, but as part of a plea deal he agreed to plead guilty to providing false information while purchasing a firearm.

Law enforcement officers work the scene of a shooting on the University of New Mexico campus on Nov. 19. The shoot out left a UNM student dead, a New Mexico State basketball player wounded and three persons facing criminal charges. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

UNM campus shootout

The unsettling events related here sound like scenes in a low-budget movie script, but, according to police reports, they really happened.

In the early morning hours of Nov. 19, the day of an eagerly awaited basketball game between the New Mexico State Aggies and the University of New Mexico Lobos, several UNM students lured New Mexico State basketball player Mike Peake, 21, onto the UNM campus. The encounter resulted in a shootout that left UNM student Brandon Travis, 19, dead, Peake wounded in the leg, three others facing criminal charges and an ongoing police investigation into the actions of NMSU basketball coaches and other Aggie basketball players following the shooting.

Police said the UNM students hatched the plot to ambush Peake to get revenge for Travis who had been beaten up during a fight involving Peake and others at the Lobos-Aggies football game in Las Cruces in October. Travis, Jonathan Smith, 19, and Eli-sha Upshaw, 19, persuaded UNM student Mya Hill, who had been texting with Peake, to arrange a meeting on campus with the NMSU basketball player. The deadly altercation occurred when Peake arrived on campus at 3 a.m. Travis shot Peake in the leg and Peake returned fire, killing Travis.

A police report says that following the shootout , Peake met with three NMSU teammates and put his gun and tablet into the trunk of a yellow Camaro.

Charges against Upshaw and Smith include aggravated battery, conspiracy to commit aggravated battery and tampering with evidence. Hill, 17, is charged with aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery.

Peake has been suspended from the NMSU basketball team indefinitely. The Nov. 19 Lobos-Aggies basketball game was canceled as was a subsequent game between the teams in Las Cruces, and police are still trying to determine who on the NMSU coaching staff and team knew what when and what they did.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham celebrates on Nov. 8 after defeating Republican candidate Mark Ronchetti. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Lujan Grisham reelected

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, championing abortion access and pointing to legislative accomplishments that include tax cuts, gun control and teacher pay raises, defeated Republican candidate and former TV meteorologist Mark Ronchetti to earn a second term.

In her victory speech, Lujan Grisham promised four more years of rebuilding and fighting for students and educators. Her administration has supported tuition-free college for in-state students, expanded preschool, no-pay daycare and enhanced health care subsidies for low-income residents.

During the height of the pandemic, Lujan Grisham focused on promoting COVID-19 vaccinations, especially in Native American communities. But the governor had to overcome critics who attacked her vigorous public health restrictions for businesses and year-long suspension of classroom learning during that time.

Lujan Grisham’s campaign was supported by visits to the state by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in October.

Democrats also triumphed in other statewide races. Maggie Toulouse Oliver and Stephanie Garcia Richard won reelections to the posts of secretary of state and land commissioner, respectively, and Raúl Torrez was elected attorney general.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in state politics this year came in February when House Speaker Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat, announced he would not seek reelection, thus giving up the powerful speaker’s post he had held since 2017. State Democrats have nominated Javier Martinez, an Albuquerque Democrat, to replace Egolf as speaker. The full House will vote for speaker on the first day of 2023 Legislative session.

Albuquerque police investigate a fatal shooting on Montaño near Rio Grande on Dec. 3. For the second consecutive year, Albuquerque set a record for homicides. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Another homicide record

For the second consecutive year, Albuquerque experienced a record high for homicides in the city. As of Dec. 30, 121 people had been killed, eclipsing 2021’s high of 114. Last year’s number had originally been announced as 117, but was reduced when three of the killings were later ruled justifiable homicide.

This year, 69 people were killed from May through September. During that period, the lowest monthly total of killings was 10 in July.

Prior to this year and 2021, Albuquerque’s high mark for homicides was 81 in 2019.

The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office has recorded 19 homicides this year, the agency’s highest count in recent memory. BCSO reported 11 homicides in 2021.

Fabian Gonzales looks toward his attorneys while on trial for his role in the death of 10-year-old Victoria Martens. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

Fabian Gonzales convicted

In October, 2nd Judicial District Judge Cindy Leos sentenced Fabian Gonzales to 37½ years in prison for his role in one of Albuquerque’s most shocking crimes, the 2016 strangulation and dismemberment of 10-year-old Victoria Martens in her mother’s Northwest Albuquerque apartment.

In August, jurors found Gonzales guilty of child abuse resulting in death, seven counts of tampering with evidence and conspiracy.

Gonzales was dating Michelle Martens, Victoria’s mother, at the time the child was killed. On Aug. 23, Gonzales and Michelle Martens left Victoria alone in the Martens’ apartment with Gonzales’ cousin, Jessica Kelley.

Judge Leos said Gonzales knew Kelley was using methamphetamine, was feeling increasingly paranoid and had a propensity for violence.

“If it were not for Mr. Gonzales, there is no question in my mind that Victoria Martens would still be alive,” Leos said. “He was the conduit for her death, and clearly the jury agreed with that.”

In 2019, Kelley pleaded no contest to six felony charges and has been sentenced to 44 years in prison. In 2018 Michelle Martens pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death. Martens was sentenced recently to 12 years, less more than six years for time already served.

Micah McCoy and his son Hezekiah Liu McCoy, join with Early Childhood Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky, left, and others to celebrate the passage of a state constitutional amendment that will increase funding for early childhood education. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Kitty up for kids

In November, New Mexico voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that will hike spending for early childhood education — prenatal to age 5 — by about $140 million in 2023.

The amendment increases the annual distribution from the permanent school fund by 1.25 percentage points to 6.25 % for educational purposes. State legislators had debated the change for more than 10 years before putting the amendment on a ballot for voters to decide.

Supporters, noting that New Mexico is falling behind in areas such as home visits, said the amendment increases access to early childhood education services by providing a more stable funding stream.

Steve Sanderson of Española is the first in line on April 1 to purchase cannabis from Nicolette Garcia at R. Greenleaf Organics in Santa Fe. April 1 was the initial day of legal retail sales of recreational cannabis in New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Smokin’

A bill legalizing the adult use of recreational marijuana in New Mexico was signed into law in April 2021, but regulated sales of weed did not begin until April 1 this year. By 8 p.m. that day, about 28,000 customers had paid $1.8 million for recreational cannabis products. During the first week of legal retail sales, $6.1 million was spent statewide on recreational cannabis and total sales through November amount to $186.1 million. Figures show that as of the end of October, the tax return to the state on recreational cannabis is $18.6 million.

A sign in the Navajo language hangs on a fence surrounding the San Juan Generating Station west of Farmington. The coal-fired power plant closed in September after 50 years in operation. (Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press)

San Juan shutdown

San Juan Generating Station, a coal-fired operation west of Farmington, shut down in September after 50 years of producing power for the Public Service Company of New Mexico and other local and regional utilities. Demolition of the station, a victim of coal-generating costs that exceed the declining price for renewable energy, could begin in the spring.

San Juan, which opened in 1973, once had four operating units, but was down to one when it ceased operations on Sept. 30. Two units were closed in December 2017 and a third on June 30. The power plant, which employed 300 people five years ago, had only about 100 workers when it closed.

Pandemic-caused supply problems have delayed construction of the four solar plants that will replace San Juan, requiring PNM to seek alternative electric supplies to make up for a projected 450-megawatt shortfall in summer 2023.

Other big stories in 2022

Daring tram rescue: A rescue effort, as icy as it was dicey, kicked off 2022. Two Sandia Peak tram cars got hung up late on New Year’s Eve when icy weather caused tram cables to tangle. One tram car carried the tram operator and 19 employees of Sandia Peak’s Ten 3 restaurant, and the other was occupied by a single tramway employee on his way up to the peak. The passengers in both cars spent a frigid night dangling at an elevation of 8,750 feet.

Before dawn on New Year’s Day, Benny Abruzzo, owner of the tramway, the Sandia Peak Ski Area and Ten 3, and Paul Johnson, manager of the ski area, started hiking up to the tramway’s No. 2 tower, which was near the car with 20 occupants. They climbed the tower, and Abruzzo stepped onto the tram car roof and opened the roof hatch.

Abruzzo’s son, Ben, and mountain guide John Kear joined Benny Abruzzo and Johnson at the stranded car, and the men, using a rope and harness, started lowering the trapped passengers one at a time to the ground 65 feet below. Later, the car with the single passenger was inched back to the No. 2 tower, enabling that person’s rescue.

The tram passengers were ferried from the side of the mountain to the parking lot at the base of the Sandias in a Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office helicopter piloted by Undersheriff Larry Koren. In July, Koren and three others would be killed when that helicopter crashed while returning to Albuquerque from a fire-fighting mission near Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Detention center deaths: A 41-year-old woman who died Nov. 30 while detoxing from drugs or alcohol at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center was the 18th person to die in MDC custody since the beginning of 2020. Several died while withdrawing from drugs or alcohol, others took their own lives or died as a result of medical conditions. Four people died in MDC custody in 2022 alone, two by suicide and two while detoxing.

In August, a medical care expert reported that the MDC medical team is not appropriately assessing or managing inmate withdrawal symptoms and that the process for getting sick inmates medical attention is neither reliable nor adequate.

Coronado Park closed: In August, the city closed Coronado Park, which had for years been a haven for the homeless. As many as 120 people had camped each night in the park near Third Street and Interstate 40.

Critics attacked the city for closing the park without a plan for dealing with the people displaced by the action. But Mayor Tim Keller and other city officials said in July that crime — including drug abuse and human trafficking — and the overall condition of the property made the move necessary.

The city said outreach efforts had resulted in reducing the park population to between 30 and 40 by the time it was closed on Aug. 17. Albuquerque Police Department and State Police officers are patrolling the area to keep people out of the park.

It has not been determined what use will be made of the park property down the line.

State revenue windfall: Fueled by an oil-production boom and an uptick in consumer spending, New Mexico’s revenue surged to record-high levels this year, paving the way for state lawmakers to authorize three rounds of tax rebates that amounted to as much as $1,500 per household for state families.

In addition, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed legislation that boosted starting teacher pay in New Mexico to $50,000 and provided higher pay tiers for more experienced educators.

And things look good for the immediate future. Estimates indicate that lawmakers will have $3.6 billion in new money — revenue in excess of current spending levels — to work with in the budget year that starts in July 2023. That might mean approval of more rebates and other tax relief measures during the 60-day legislative session that starts Jan. 17.

Members of the Albuquerque Journal staff contributed to this report.

Comments are closed.