Five homicides in two counties over the course of six hours: that’s the type of case that gets the attention of the Complex Crime Unit at the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
A Santa Fe jury convicted Damian Herrera, 26, of four of those 2017 murders last April in Santa Fe. (He awaits trial for an alleged fifth murder in Taos County.) District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies credits the unit, which she created after taking office at the beginning of 2021, with securing those convictions.
Murders, crimes against children and white-collar financial cases can drag on—often for years. So during a brainstorming session, the group at the DA’s office decided it would be more efficient to dedicate extra resources to large, evidence-heavy and emotionally taxing cases.
“When I first started here, we were sort of operating in a kind of seat-of-our-pants way of getting ready for trial,” Carmack-Altwies tells SFR. “Sometimes different pieces of discovery, of evidence or trial prep, were all sitting in different people’s hands. It just didn’t make sense for these huge cases, because that makes it so much easier for things to get lost, overlooked or forgotten about.”
Today, the unit includes a senior support staff, a certified crime scene technician and information technology specialist. A rotating cast of attorneys who have all other duties take the legal lead on cases for the team, the budget for which comes from the DA’s office general fund. The state approved a request in the 2023 fiscal year budget for an additional support staff position.
In the last year, the team had nine homicide cases that ended in guilty pleas or murder convictions, according to figures provided by the DA’s office. Prosecutors dropped one case because of discovery issues, and they lost another after witnesses changed their statements.
“That is amazing, especially when you add in COVID protocols and the fact that things were slowing down,” Carmack-Altwies says, adding that the team took 10 murder cases to trial in one year. The team is “part of the reason we don’t have a backlog in the First Judicial District like other districts do.”
Most recently, the unit handled the Estevan Montoya case, which ended in a first-degree murder conviction after a two-week trial in May for Montoya’s killing of Fedonta “JB” White. At least 10% of the office’s 50 support staff and 18 attorneys spent time on the case, she reports.
Dan Marlowe, Montoya’s lawyer, is working on an appeal. He tells SFR it was likely his last case, as he plans to retire, and that he wasn’t aware of the special unit and didn’t notice a difference in the proceedings.
“I don’t know what their idea of a complex case is, but that’s not my idea of a complex case,” Marlowe says. “As a prosecutor, I wouldn’t have any problem with it. The chips are kind of stacked against [the defense] to begin with.”
The pretrial witness list for the Montoya trial included about 70 names, while the prosecutors—Chief Deputy DA Jennifer Padgett Macias and Blake Nichols—called 30 to the stand. Carmack-Altwies called it “our biggest win to date and our biggest strike for justice.”
“In front of the courtroom, we had two of our best attorneys on it, but behind the courtroom they were set up in two different offices in the courthouse,” she tells SFR.
Three people on the complex crime team worked continuously on the case, while a separate victim advocate team was present for the entire trial to help coordinate with witnesses and White’s family.
The group effort, Padgett Macias says, has allowed the prosecutors to focus on trials and make good impressions in front of juries.
Not every case has worked out for the team. For instance, last year a Santa Fe County jury found a man accused of shooting a tourist on Airport Road in 2018 not guilty, after the defendant’s companions who originally implicated him in the crime testified a different person had pulled the trigger.
“There were a number of teenagers together on Airport Road when the victim was shot and killed and they all kind of went different directions,” Padgett Macias says. “I think the defense successfully were able to riddle the case with reasonable doubt about maybe it was someone else.”
In another case, prosecutors dropped charges against Mario Anchondo in the 2020 shooting death of Ivan Perez. Prosecutors say the Santa Fe Police Department’s case file was missing around 30 pieces of evidence, forcing the DA’s office to let go of the case.
Anchondo was later arrested on drug- and firearm-related charges.
“So the good news that comes out of that is that if the evidence does ever come out, we’ve saved that case from a not guilty or a dismissal at trial,” Carmack-Altwies says. “That was, in my eyes, another success coming out of our Complex Crime Unit, because they realized before we got to trial, ‘We don’t have enough.’”
The state could refile charges against Anchondo, although Jennifer Burrill, an attorney in the public defenders office, says cases shouldn’t be brought in the first place until prosecutors have enough evidence. Still, if forming a complex crime unit means greater sharing of information and less time litigating discovery issues, she’s all for it.
“I think prioritizing the cases that are most important to protect the community is a big role [of] the district attorney…focusing on those that they think will really drastically increase the safety of the community,” Burrill says.
The team has 19 active cases in Santa Fe and 11 in Rio Arriba County.
“I’m an attorney,” Assistant District Attorney Tony Long says. “I can put things together, but I don’t have that time and that level of organization to do what the team does.”