Paul Salas made a news splash when he was arrested by Albuquerque police earlier this year for an alleged armed crime wave that involved 47 armed robberies from October through March.
But it wasn’t just robbery detectives who were on his trail when he was busted. Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies who keep track of sex offenders were already looking for Salas after he failed to show up for his annual sex offender registration in the Phoenix area.
Sharing information, APD and BCSO were both tracking Salas when he hit a Verizon store, where he stole several iPhones and a tracking device that eventually led officers to him.
Salas is the sort of convicted sex offender, police say, that the registry was designed to help law enforcement and the public to keep under watch.
He was convicted in 2006 of two counts of attempted sexual conduct with a minor under 16 as a result of a plea bargain that dismissed more serious charges. As part of his sentence under Arizona law, Salas was to report to the local sheriff to be put on the sex offender registry for the rest of his life.
After he absconded in April 2016, Arizona detectives found that Salas had been corresponding with a female inmate in New Mexico, so they notified Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office Sex Offender Registry Team, or SORT.
Detectives from the registry team shared their leads – several local addresses – with robbery detectives.
Salas is now residing in the Metropolitan Detention Center, charged with 55 counts of armed robbery, two counts of robbery and other crimes, including kidnapping, child abuse, conspiracy and aggravated assault.
Prosecutors sought to hold him without bond, but District Judge Stan Whitaker refused that request and set a $100,000 cash bond. Salas is also charged with being a fugitive from Arizona, where his probation has been revoked and has another $100,000 cash bond in that case.
There are literally hundreds of sex offenders who leave one state for another each year.
Many move for personal reasons and abide by the sex offender registration laws in their new state of residence.
Others, like Salas, don’t.
No safe haven
New Mexico was once considered a safe haven for convicted sex offenders seeking to avoid registering with local sheriffs.
The original state law, passed in 1995, had few teeth for prosecutors and law enforcement but lots of loopholes for felons.
Federal laws were not much help.
But a lot has changed.
New Mexico toughened its sex offender registration laws in 2005 and 2013.
For instance, among the changes in the 2005 law was a law that allows offenders convicted of more serious sex crimes to be ordered by a District Judge to register for the rest of their lives. The previous cap was 20 years.
The 2013 changes required tighter reporting requirements – mandating updates with local sheriffs every 90 days.
As a result of the changes, the number of sex offenders in the state has more than doubled to 3,639 since 2005 and in Bernalillo County the number has tripled to almost 1,100. There are 62 people statewide for whom police are looking because they failed to register.
In Bernalillo County, the sheriff’s registry team makes home visits twice a year to make sure the offender is still living at that address.
Detectives say that once an offender is off probation or parole, their contact with the sex offender registration detectives may be the only law enforcement agency tracking their whereabouts.
Federal law enforcement involvement got a big boost in 2006 with the passage of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, also known as the Adam Walsh Protection and Safety Act.
It provided money to states to improve public access to sex offender registries, tried to standardize state laws across the country for registering sex offenders and made it a federal crime for offenders to cross state lines and not register if they were required to do so.
U.S. marshals offices around the country and in New Mexico routinely investigate cases with local law enforcement.
And in New Mexico such cases are routinely prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“New Mexico cannot be a safe haven for convicted sex offenders,” said Acting U.S. Attorney James Tierney.
And local prosecutors like Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez say they also take absconders seriously.
“It is the underlying crime that the public expects us to take very seriously,” he said.
Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Sgt. Harry Landis said in an interview that the registry aids law enforcement in many ways.
“There’s a report of an attempted abduction at a school bus stop by a man driving a white van,” Landis said. “We can put out a list of the convicted sex offenders in that area driving a white van.
“We know who they are. We know where they live,” Landis said. “And in New Mexico we see many sex offenders who are convicted of committing other violent crimes so that type of information is valuable to law enforcement.”
Tierney said, “Our families and friends need to know if convicted sex offenders live in their neighborhoods or work near their children’s schools so they can take protective measures.”
The sex offender registries are designed for online public access and are searchable by name, address, county or city and are available on the state Department of Public Safety.
Failure to register
Federal and state criminal cases against sex offenders who fail to register are fairly common in New Mexico.
n In 2014, Undrio Antwanne Roe, 45, moved to Hobbs from Louisiana where he was convicted in 1999 on state charges of sexually assaulting a minor.
Roe was arrested by deputy U.S. marshals and was sent to federal prison for a year and one day, with five years of supervised release and a requirement that he register when he gets back out of prison.
• â€ŠIn March, Kevin Gordon Scott, 60, pleaded guilty to failing to register as a sex offender in New Mexico after leaving Colorado. He was originally convicted in 1982 of rape and other sexual assault charges in Indiana and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. After he was paroled in Indiana, he moved to Colorado where he initially registered but fled to New Mexico.
Bernalillo County Sheriff’s detectives and deputy U.S. marshals tracked Scott down. He awaits sentencing in federal court.
• McQuade Quintana, 29 of Dulce, was sentenced in late 2015 to 22 months in federal prison and three years supervised release for railing to register. Quintana was convicted of aggravated sexual abuse of a child in January 2006. When he was released from prison, he registered in Bernalillo County but then moved to Rio Arriba County where he failed to register.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office places the highest priority on prosecuting SORNA (failure to register) cases involving sex offenders convicted of abusing children under the age of 12 years,” Tierney said. “These cases are a priority because of the potential danger convicted child sex offenders pose to communities in New Mexico, including our 22 Native American reservations, and are prosecuted as part of the office’s ‘worst of the worst’ anti-violence initiative.”
The bad news
But there are still holes in the system.
Despite the growth in the number of sex offenders registered in the state, New Mexico still lags behind states with small populations.
Nebraska for instance has more than 5,100 registered sex offenders.
Even though New Mexico lagged behind other states in expanding the use of the registry, the state’s numbers will continue to grow – fueled in part by nearly 1,300 convicted sex offenders now serving time in the state’s prison system. Many of them at some point will be released and required to register.
That will require more resources for local sheriffs to oversee the registered sex offenders in their counties or in the case of tribal lands, the appointed chief of police.
Some states have more criminal laws that require registration than New Mexico. For example, many states require registration for crimes involving prostitution, voyeurism and bestiality, while New Mexico does not.
And New Mexico is among the states that don’t require juvenile sex offenders to register.
Failing to register is a fourth-degree felony in New Mexico, which means it can lead to an 18-month prison sentence. Potential sentences in the federal system are much longer with up to 10 years for a first offense.
In New Mexico, district judges imposing a sentence have the discretion to lower the registration requirements, including length of time.
Some crimes in New Mexico require registration with law enforcement, but they are not on the public registry.
For example, a conviction for fourth-degree criminal sexual penetration can carry a 10-year registration requirement, but only with law enforcement.
But the public is allowed to see the registration of someone convicted of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact – considered a less serious offense – which carries a lifetime registration requirement.
Law enforcement and prosecutors just shrug their shoulders at the discrepancy. They don’t know why it exists in the law.
On the other hand, New Mexico takes a tough stand on absconders and will extradite people who fail to register and leave the state.