Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

The turbulent year 2021 in New Mexico in review

Copyright © 2021

We all hoped 2021 would be a better year, the year we beat the pandemic and things got back to normal.

It didn’t turn out that way. Things are rather normal. Many of us are back at work, restaurants and schools are open again.

But COVID-19 is still with us. Vaccines have been a boon in the fight against the virus, but it continues to take its toll as nearly 6,000 new Mexicans were killed.

The tenacity of the pandemic makes it one of the top 10 stories of the year. Some of the others are downright unsettling, or maybe even more so. Albuquerque set a year-old record for homicides. One involved the shooting of a 13-year-old boy by another 13-year-old boy.

A shooting on a New Mexico film set drew unwanted international attention to the state’s film industry, while five people were killed in a tragic hot air balloon crash and a state police officer was shot dead during a traffic stop.

But not all of the top stories were tragic.

New Mexico MP Deb Haaland became the first Native American woman to be appointed to a cabinet post. How’s that for some highlights.

THE TOP 10 STORIES FROM NEUMEXICO

Balloon Crash Kills Five: Deadliest balloon crash in New Mexico occurred on 26th Albuquerque Police and Albuquerque Public Schools; his wife, Mary Martinez, 59; Georgia O’Keeffe Elementary School Assistant Susan Montoya, 65; and her husband John Montoya 61.

Teachers and colleagues had paid in to buy the balloon ride as a gift for Susan Montoya, who was about to move to another school. A toxicology report later found that pilot Meleski had marijuana and cocaine in his system when the crash occurred.

Recreational Cannabis Use Legalized: On April 12, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a law legalizing adult use of recreational cannabis, and an accompanying law promising to erase some cannabis-related convictions from the records of thousands of New Mexicans. The cannabis laws were passed during a two-day special session that Lujan Grisham convened in March after failing to get approval during the regular session.

Financial forecasts predicted the new law would give the state $ 20 million in revenue by 2023.

Murder on the film set: New Mexico’s bustling film industry took a tragic turn on October 21 when 63-year-old actor Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, 42, and wounded film director Joel Souza, 48 on the Bonanza film set Creek Ranch near Santa Fe. It was later discovered that the propeller cannon was loaded with a live cartridge.

The incident occurred during the filming of a western titled “Rust” and sparked a deluge of demands for improved security measures on film sets. No charges have been made in the case, but the investigation is ongoing.

Haaland First Native American Cabinet Member: US MP Deb Haaland, D.-NM, was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior on March 15, making her the first Native American woman to serve in a president’s cabinet. Haaland called this moment “the culmination of so many sacrifices made by my ancestors”.

Haaland is a member of Laguna Pueblo and a former tribal administrator of San Felipe Pueblo, who was elected in 2018, the 1st was confirmed by a narrow majority.

Albuquerque sets a record for homicides: In early August, Albuquerque had already hit its record of 81 alleged homicides in a single year. This record was set in 2019. But there were five months left in 2021. There’s one day left this year, the record now stands at 116. Albuquerque is one of the cities big and small to see homicides rising year-on-year. The circumstances of the Albuquerque murders in 2021 vary widely, but Albuquerque police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said in August that by then, there had been significantly more domestic violence and drug-related murders.

The pandemic is taking a dismal toll: The number of COVID-19 deaths in New Mexico topped 5,000 on October 25, and as of year-end the state has 5,855 COVID-19 deaths. The pandemic hit the state in March 2020, but vaccines weren’t readily available to adults until the spring of this year. At this point in time, more than 3,000 New Mexicans had succumbed to the virus. Around 76% of state adults are now fully vaccinated, as are 57% of 12 to 17 year olds and 16% of children aged 5 to 11 years. Schools and shops reopened earlier this year as more and more people were vaccinated. However, wearing masks indoors is still required, and although vaccines have reduced the death toll for a while, newer variants of the virus have increased the death toll again.

State Police Officer Killed: Omar Cueva, the target of a federal drug stab, shot and killed State Police officer Darian Jarrott, 28, on February 4 after Jarrott Cueva stopped on Interstate 10 east of Deming for a traffic violation. Authorities then pursued Cueva, 39, in a car chase that ended with the shooting of Cueva in Las Cruces.

In June, Jarrott’s widow filed a lawsuit alleging state police and homeland security investigations caused Jarrott to stop traffic without assistance, protective gear or knowledge that Cueva was a dangerous person. Sam Bregman, the widow’s attorney, said Homeland Security hoped Cueva could be arrested for a traffic violation to protect the identity of a confidential informant.

Unity rises into space: Spaceport America in southern New Mexico was the launch site for a groundbreaking probe into space on July 11th when Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, two pilots and three other crew members lifted the Unity passenger rocket ship nearly 84 miles drove over the earth. It was the first time that a company founder of a spaceship raced into space on his own rocket with a crew. Unity took off from Spaceport America at 8:40 a.m., connected to the mother ship Eve, freed itself 45 minutes later and got into the story. It then slid to a safe landing on the spaceport runway at around 9:40 a.m. “Nothing can prepare you for this,” said Branson of the experience that included three minutes of floating in the weightlessness of the Unity cabin.

Stapleton faces extortion charges: Sheryl Williams Stapleton, Majority Leader in the New Mexico House of Representatives, resigned from the House of Representatives in late July shortly after search warrants were served on her home to look for evidence that she was more than $ 950,000 for had directed professional education in Albuquerque public schools to businesses and charities in which it had an interest. She was then charged with 26 state offenses, including extortion, money laundering, and soliciting or receiving bribes. Until she was released on August 31, Stapleton was the APS coordinator and director of vocational and technical education. The Albuquerque Democrat represented District 19 east of the University of New Mexico since 1994.

School shootout: On August 13, just three days into the school year, 13-year-old Washington Middle School student Juan Saucedo Jr. reportedly shot and killed his classmate Bennie Hargrove, also 13, at the school near park and 13th SW. Hargrove stepped in when he saw Saucedo harass friends, and police say Saucedo used the gun to shoot Hargrove multiple times. “He stood up for a friend and tried to de-escalate a violent confrontation between classmates,” Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said of Hargrove.

Saucedo has been charged with murder and illegally carrying a deadly weapon on school premises.

MORE GREAT STORIES IN 2021
Fentanyl became more common on the streets of Albuquerque, with drug seizures happening at record speed and overdoses increasing.

• In December, the state regulatory commission voted against a planned merger between PNM Resources and Connecticut-based energy giant Avangrid, accepting the conclusions of a PRC hearing examiner that the risk to New Mexico consumers outweighs the potential benefits of the deal.

• Albuquerque Police Department announced this summer that investigators have identified three suspects unsolved murders of young women over 30 years old. Paul Apodaca, 53, was arrested by University of New Mexico police and confessed to three decades of murders, according to police. He is said to have confessed to having killed Althea Oakeley, 21, in June 1988; 13-year-old Stella Gonzales in September 1988; and 18-year-old Kaitlyn Arquette, daughter of author Lois Duncan, in July 1989. Police believe he may have been motivated by an aversion to women, but his lawyer argues the cases are not so straight forward.

• Tim Keller, the Democratic Mayor of Albuquerque, achieved another four-year term by defeating Sheriff Manuel Gonzales and talk radio host Eddy Aragon in a fierce campaign while Democrat Melanie Stansbury was elected to the US House of Representatives after her special election. But also more conservative candidates sat in Local elections. Albuquerque City Council slipped a bit to the right this year, with Republicans getting an extra seat to get a Democratic majority in the Chamber, which now stands at 5-4. The Albuquerque Public Schools Education Committee also saw an upheaval this year, with business-backed candidates winning three out of four seats for the election.

Housing prices skyrocketed in the greater Albuquerque area in 2021. In November, the median sales price for a single family home was $ 310,000 in a month, more than 20% higher than the previous year. New Mexicans are also seeing rising costs for goods and services, and employers are struggling to find workers – both national trends that emerged during the pandemic.

• A security guard reported a bad smell from a pickup truck parked at the Albuquerque International Sunport in March, leading police to four bodies, two of which were at least partially dismembered. The police arrested Sean Lannon on suspicion murder. His ex-wife was among the victims.

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