Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Driver who accelerated into a demonstration identified as 2018 candidate for NM governor • Source New Mexico

Video shows a large truck with tinted windows slowly creeping into an entrance of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque where around 40 demonstrators wave Palestinian flags as they protest a scheduled speech by an Israeli official. 

Some people run toward the vehicle and attempt to block it. Almost immediately, the truck accelerates into the crowd and breaks through onto the private property.

By all accounts, no one was seriously injured, but since that March 25 evening, demonstrators have been trying to figure out who drove the big pickup truck that at least six eyewitnesses say could have hurt or killed someone.

Turns out, it was Jeff Apodaca, a New Mexico politician with a lifelong orbit around the governor’s office, first as a child when his father served one term starting in 1975, and later as an adult where his pitch to voters ended in a Democratic Party primary loss to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in 2018. 

This election cycle, he has founded and is president of The New Mexico Project, a nonprofit corporation spending money on legislative races. Last week, Apodaca and the group were sued by the State Ethics Commission to disclose where the money’s coming from that they spend on influencing Roundhouse races.

The group has been running radio and Facebook ads in support of “pro-moderate” and “pro-business” candidates who “are going to help us bring more doctors, better health care here, that are going to bring more business, and be business friendly,” Apodaca explained in April to TJ Trout on KKOB News Radio less than a month after the protest.

Over the course of six weeks, Source New Mexico conducted separate interviews with 11 eyewitnesses, and reviewed videos and photographs to independently verify a community-led investigation into the incident.

The reporting culminated in sharing the findings with and asking for a response from Apodaca, who then admitted to being behind the wheel of the black truck at the March protest.

The Albuquerque Police Department was there that night and prepared a riot squad, but never sent it in, according to spokesperson Gilbert Gallegos.

Still at the scene about six minutes after the incident, witness Bill Tiwald called 911, described the truck to the dispatcher and told them someone was “not allowing him to take a picture of the vehicle,” according to the call log obtained through a public records request.

Tiwald said just before calling 911, he walked toward where he saw the truck go, and a security guard told him to stop, “had his hand on his gun,” but did not draw it.

Police called Tiwald back later, and he told them there weren’t any injuries, and he would not be filing a report at the nearby substation, the log shows.

We’re still waiting for APD to hand over any written reports by police officers about the incident. No criminal charges have been filed at this time against Apodaca, protesters or anyone else present at the event.

John Gutierrez showed up at the protest to volunteer as a medic and said Apodaca’s truck pushed him 20 feet up the driveway outside the Jewish Community Center (JCC). He said he’s shocked that he returned home to Santa Fe without any major injuries to himself or others.

“They could have easily killed or mutilated somebody,” he said. “It is almost so, so lucky that not a single person ended up underneath that vehicle.”

In a written response to questions on May 24, Apodaca confirmed he drove the truck and said he felt threatened when he saw a group of three protesters attack his truck.

“The incident at the JCC was a result of unwarranted aggression towards me and my property on private property,” he said. “I uphold the First Amendment right to peaceful protest and denounce any form of violence. I believe in supporting all faiths and their rights, and I advocate for peaceful coexistence between different communities.”

Apodaca said he’s been a member of the center since 2010, and went there after work that day for his routine workout, “solely for exercise purposes,” unaware of the event happening inside.

Although he said he wasn’t at the center for the speech that night by Livia Link-Raviv, consul general of Israel to the Southwest U.S., he did share his views on the international policies between the countries.

A flyer for the protest against Livia Link-Raviv’s speech at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque on March 25. (Courtesy photo)

“I stand by my support for American-Israeli policies and the rights of both nations to defend themselves. I am deeply saddened by the ongoing conflicts in the region and pray for the well-being of all affected parties,” he said.

It is not clear that any of those views motivated his actions outside the JCC.

Apodaca didn’t open his window or get out to interact with the protesters, Gutierrez said. The response last week is the first time Apodaca said anything publicly about the incident that happened more than two months ago.

“Their first choice of action was violence,” Gutierrez said.

Witnesses describe truck accelerating into crowd

Tanya Hyde, an organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace Albuquerque, helped bring a safety team and legal observers to the protest of a speech by Link-Raviv.

Hyde and Bill Tiwald, a member of the local chapter of Veterans for Peace, said they saw the truck drive through the crowd and shared their experiences before Apodaca responded.

“My perception would be that they were aggravated at the picketers, that it was purposeful,” Hyde said of the driver’s actions.

Hyde said what started as protesters reading the names of dead Palestinian children from Gaza became 40 people marching back and forth across the main driveway off of Wyoming Boulevard at the front of the JCC, with the goal of preventing drivers from reaching the speech.

About 45 minutes to an hour before the talk was supposed to start, Hyde and another witness said most drivers trying to reach the JCC slowly turned away once they saw the march.

At that point, drivers heading into the community center were deterred only at that entrance, Hyde said. Protesters hadn’t blockaded other driveways until later, she said.

Video shows Apodaca’s truck arrive just before 5:27 p.m. The truck turns east into the JCC entrance where people are seen marching on the sidewalk back and forth in front. 

The vehicle “was not going to give way to the marchers,” Hyde said. Apodoca inched the truck up the curb ramp into the entrance little by little, she said, until he was right in the middle of all the protesters, “then he stepped on the accelerator.”

Video shows the truck blaring its horn and accelerating, pushing back two protesters, including one who stood in front of the truck and pushed against it. The truck continued up the driveway, stopping and starting again, pushing more people. Another protester hit the truck with a flag.

Source New Mexico reviewed and verified the original video, which was first published on X (Twitter) in April.

Tiwald said he participated in the protest and witnessed the incident from the driver’s side of Apodaca’s truck, where he said he saw it strike Bob Anderson, the president of their local Veterans For Peace chapter. 

“I thought the guy was going to run over us,” Anderson said. “I thought I was a goner for a moment there.”

Anderson said the truck’s left front fender hit him, pushing but not injuring him.

Gutierrez said he was facing away, standing in a circle with other medics when he heard screaming, turned around and saw the truck “pushing through the crowd.”

Before the truck reaches the circle of medics, the video shows someone looking away from it, unaware of what’s behind them, before other protesters pull them out of the way.

“The vehicle basically would come through, and then stop, and then leap forward, like a huge leap, and then basically throw people out of the way,” Gutierrez said.

After Gutierrez saw the truck do this twice, he moved toward it, and stood right in front of the bumper. He said the driver kept “jumping” at him with the truck, pushing him back about 20 feet, while he was hitting the hood with the palms of his hands, “trying to get the person to stop.”

Civil rights attorney and Palestinian rights advocate Jeff Haas said Gutierrez was trying to protect others from being hurt.

Gutierrez said he jumped out of the truck’s way, and the driver drove into the parking lot and out of sight. Another street medic who witnessed the incident said protesters tried to chase after the truck, but private security for the JCC turned them away.

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In Apodaca’s version of events, as he reached the JCC, he encountered the protest near the main entrance and passed through “without incident” and didn’t contact police afterwards because he “did not want to burden APD with minor damages.”

He said he then drove onto JCC property when, “Suddenly, a woman and two men jumped in front of my truck.”

“They started attacking my truck with various objects as I drove through the premises,” he said.

“As I drove up to the building JCC security approached to see if I was OK, who witnessed the entire altercation,” Apodaca said. The Jewish Community Center has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Apodaca said a group of three people tried to open his truck’s door, and then damaged the truck’s window with a handgun.

He said one man, “hit my window twice with the butt of a gun, apparently trying to break it and drag me from my vehicle. As he hit my window with what I now recognize as a 9 mm weapon, I feared for my safety.”

Apodaca did not provide evidence, descriptions of the attacker, or respond to additional questions about whether he documented this encounter. No one else interviewed for this story mentioned a firearm.

“No one reported seeing a gun,” civil rights lawyer Haas said, “nor did Mr. Apodaca ever make this claim until six weeks later, after he was confronted as the owner of the truck because legal observers at the scene took down his license plate.”

Apodaca said he is “now considering legal action to address the assault and damages caused by the protestors.”

“It is crucial to differentiate between peaceful protestors and agitators who incite violence against innocent citizens,” he said.

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