SANTA FE – Steven Gallegos of Pojoaque pleaded guilty Monday to the January 2011 beating death of 3-year-old Leland Valdez, a case that sent shock waves through New Mexico’s child protection system.
In a plea agreement that averted a trial, Gallegos, 24, is to be sentenced to 21 years in prison – 18 years for child abuse resulting in death and three years for a second charge of child abuse not resulting in death.
A prosecutor said one reason the state was willing to enter into a plea deal instead going to trial is that a new state pathology report found Leland’s manner of death “was best classified as undetermined,” meaning pathologists couldn’t say whether his death was caused by someone else.
The original report from the Office of the Medical Investigator – by a pathologist who has since moved to another state – had found that the manner of death was homicide. In both the original and the new reports, Leland’s cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma.
The 21-year sentence is not enough for Leland’s father, Andrew Valdez, who said life behind bars would be appropriate for Gallegos.
Angela Valdez, the boy’s stepmother, agreed. “It was definitely not enough time,” she said. “He (Gallegos) never let Leland live. We never got to see him go to kindergarten, we never got to play with him in the park with our other kids, he never got to live the rest of his life, and I think it’s a very unfair ruling that he gets to see life after 40.”
But Andrew Valdez did say after the plea hearing that he was “kind of happy it’s all coming to an end.” Gallegos “took something away from me that I am never going to get back. It’s hard, it’s very hard.”
Deputy District Attorney Tim Williams said the new pathology report would provide a “reasonable doubt” opening for the defense at trial. He referred to the high-profile Florida case of Casey Anthony, who was acquitted in the death of her child.
Formal sentencing for Gallegos will take place July 29 in state District Court. Two other charges of child abuse not resulting in death in Gallegos’s original indictment were dismissed.
Leland Valdez died on Jan. 26, 2011, at University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, two days after he was airlifted there after treatment in Santa Fe for body and head injuries. Gallegos and the boy’s mother, Tabetha Van Holtz, claimed he had fallen off a kitchen chair and started “having seizures and convulsions.” But Leland’s injuries were inconsistent with that version of events and his body was also covered with evidence of prior injuries, a hospital doctor told authorities.
Van Holtz, 25, who was the girlfriend of Gallegos, pleaded guilty to two child abuse counts in March and has not yet been sentenced.
Leland’s death provoked controversy beyond its tragic details. About five months before the boy was killed, both the Children, Youth and Families Department and the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office had investigated a report by Leland’s father that the boy had been abused while in Van Holtz’s custody. But no action resulted from the dad’s report.
When Leland died, Gov. Susana Martinez was in her first month in office and got personally involved in the case. One CYFD supervisor was fired and a second employee received a 15-day suspension. The sheriff’s office, now facing a civil suit filed by the father, also admitted mishandling the case.