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Part 1: Armed and Dangerous

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

It happens every day in Albuquerque. Actually, on average, it happens more than five times a day.

Somebody with a gun or knife commits an armed robbery. It might be a fast food restaurant, a coffee shop or a kid delivering pizza. Or the victim might be somebody just walking through a grocery store parking lot or into a cellphone store.

Reported armed robberies in Albuquerque have more than doubled since 2010. We are on track for about 2,000 of them this year. In the last few months, at least five people have been killed in armed robberies or attempted armed robberies.

APD Commander Paul Szych

In the words of Albuquerque Police Department Commander Paul Szych: “We are literally in a fight for the City of Albuquerque.”

A combination of factors

The armed robbery explosion has been fueled by a combination of factors: massive influx of methamphetamine and heroin from Mexico, not enough cops, weak laws and new criminal justice system rules that placed a high priority on cutting the jail population and reducing the number of cases on judges’ dockets.

While there is debate over the relative impact of those factors, there is no question more employees and sometimes customers are looking down the barrel of a gun pointed at them by somebody demanding money.

Last December, at least three different “crews” of armed robbers were hitting Albuquerque restaurants, cellular phone stores and other businesses at least once every two days, sometimes every day, throughout the city.

“We’ve seen crews commit as many as six armed robberies in one day,” said Szych, who heads APD’s Criminal Investigations Division.

Instead of the traditional late night robberies of convenience stores, the robbery crews focused on iconic quick service restaurants – McDonald’s, Subway, Starbucks, Blake’s Lotaburger, KFC, Twister’s, Taco Bell, Jack in the Box and others.

And restaurants weren’t the only targets.

Detectives have chased armed robbers who specialize in holding up pizza delivery drivers at gunpoint, shoppers entering or leaving stores and people using ATMs, as well as gas stations and convenience stories.

The increase has frustrated police, outraged many in the business community, become a political football and shows no signs of slowing down.

Over the last seven years, armed robberies more than doubled in Albuquerque from a low of 940 in 2010 to more than 1,957 in 2016.

And we are on pace to match or exceed last year’s number.

The city hasn’t had that many armed robberies since 1996, when 1,998 of them were reported to the FBI’s compilation of crimes statistics from across the country.

In the mid-1990s, Albuquerque and the nation saw a dramatic increase in the availability of cheap and pure methamphetamine manufactured in so-called “Super Labs” in California and other parts of the country. The illegal drug was blamed for increased crime rates around the country.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was able to severely restrict access to chemicals – often found in industrial manufacturing – that were used to make methamphetamine. Those changes made the drug scarce and expensive, and crime rates started a long, steady fall in Albuquerque and nationwide.

In the last few years, Albuquerque and other parts of the country have experienced another dramatic increase in the availability of cheap and pure methamphetamine made in Mexico using chemicals from Asia.

Between 2011 and 2013, the armed robbery numbers were gradually increasing, but between 2013 and 2014, they increased by more than 30 percent; from 2014 to 2015 they increased more than 22 percent – and they increased another 16 percent last year.

Law enforcement believe crime numbers will continue to rise.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez

“We’re hitting the high water mark again,” District Attorney Raúl Torrez said. “We know the situation is bad for violent crime. Murders are the highest they have been in 20 years.”

“It is the most consequential issue facing the state,” Torrez said.

While the percentage or per-capita number of crimes in the mid-1990s was higher, because Albuquerque’s population was lower, there comes a point where the number of crimes makes the city unsafe – or causes residents to feel unsafe.

“It is simply unacceptable for residents of this city to feel unsafe,” Szych said.

Many of the armed robbers arrested have long criminal histories and addiction to heroin and/or methamphetamine.

Those drugs are cheap and easily available throughout Albuquerque, and police believe many robbers, like car thieves and burglars, steal to pay for their addictions.

“For many of these people, they live a criminal lifestyle,” Szych said. “Crime is their job.”

CMO and judges

Another key target of criticism by police and prosecutors has been a Case Management Order implemented in Bernalillo County in early 2015 that put strict time limits on prosecutors turning over evidence and meeting defense lawyer requests for information.

Yet another is the reluctance of many District Court judges to hold some allegedly dangerous defendants without bond pending trial – which they are now empowered to do under a new amendment to the state Constitution.

“There is a lack of risk for the people committing armed robberies and a maximum reward,” Szych said. “We have violent offenders being released back into the community within 24 or 48 hours of their arrest. It only encourages them.

“The way the system is set up, we’re helping shape the next generation of violent criminals.”

At the time the Case Management Order was put into effect by the state Supreme Court, the Metropolitan Detention Center was overcrowded and prisoners were languishing for months or years awaiting trial as both prosecutors and defense lawyers asked for delays.

Judges were reluctant to force the lawyers – who play a big part in evaluating them for retention elections – to meet deadlines. Police were often happy just to have somebody off the street – even if the defendant was simply awaiting trial.

In short, many of the players were OK with that system – even though the Supreme Court made it clear that defendants were being deprived of their constitutional right to a speedy trial.

Torrez was recently in a well-publicized fight with state District Court judges and defense attorneys after his office issued a report criticizing judges for their interpretation of the CMO court rules to favor defendants, and he accused defense attorneys of “gaming” the system.

Judges responded with their own report, showing that Torrez’s office was dismissing more cases voluntarily than judges were. Torrez shot back that in many cases his office moved to dismiss the cases because his prosecutors knew the court would.

During a more recent interview, Torrez toned the rhetoric down, saying, “The entire criminal justice system is not properly resourced at every stage of the system.”

Key figures in three crews accused in dozens of armed robberies

The number of participants in the three crews involved in a slew of armed robberies in December ranged from two to five.

None of the three key figures in those armed robbery crews – Robert “Sir Loco” Billie, 33; Paul Salas, 46; or Gilbert Zambrano Lovato, 38 – fits the catch and release profile that upsets police.

But they were clearly wreaking havoc.

Billie and Salas had criminal histories. Both were absconded from probation and/or parole – Salas out of Arizona where he was wanted for failure to register as a sex offender and Billie in New Mexico where he was wanted for violating his probation for a child abuse conviction.

Lovato, based on his criminal history, appears to have been a low-level drug dealer and user.

The three men and their accomplices were operating independently of one another.

Gilbert Zambrano Lovato

Lovato was shot and killed by police in January when he pointed what turned out to be a BB pistol at police officers after he fled officers trying to arrest him in connection with a series of armed robberies.

Police identified Lovato through video of the car he was using in his armed robbery spree.

When questioned by police, his accomplice admitted being Lovato’s driver during the armed robberies. She kept a diary of which armed robberies she was involved in and was subsequently charged for 17 armed robberies.

Robert ‘Sir Loco’ Billie

Billie was on parole and probation after a 2012 conviction of child abuse with no great bodily harm. Until April 2016, he was apparently fulfilling conditions of his release – attending counseling, working at the Road Runner Food Bank – when he fell off the radar of state Probation and Parole officers last year.

When police moved in to arrest Billie at a motel for several armed robberies, he initially managed to escape by pointing a pistol at police officers. A long car chase ensued, and Billie was finally arrested when officers forced his car off the road.

During interviews with police, after being given his Miranda warnings, Billie confessed to more than 70 armed robberies.

He was later indicted on 10 counts of armed robbery, 26 counts of aggravated assault, and numerous other charges.

He is being held without bond after a detention hearing in front of District Judge Charles Brown.

Paul Salas

Salas’ arrest in a parking garage was the least eventful of the three. But his travel through the court system has given police and prosecutors some heartburn.

Salas was arrested in March after robbing at gunpoint a Verizon store of cash, cellphones and a GPS device. Police used the GPS to track Salas’ getaway and arrested him at a parking garage, where he dumped the cellphones and tracking device after realizing police were on his tail.

Salas cooperated with detectives, and in a lengthy interview confirmed his involvement in 47 armed robberies.

District Judge Stan Whitaker denied a prosecution request that Salas be held without bail.

Whitaker said the state would need to offer clear and convincing evidence to support pretrial detention, and that included calling police witnesses.

District Attorney Torrez objected to Whitaker’s ruling in which bail was set at $100,000 cash-only.

Torrez appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing that Whitaker and other judges in Bernalillo County were requiring prosecutors to call witnesses and essentially put on “mini-trials” when considering whether to have a suspect detained pending trial.

About two thirds of the district attorney’s requests for pretrial detention had been denied in March when Torrez petitioned the court.

Local defense attorneys blasted Torrez’s petition as a waste of resources and an “outrageous” attempt to keep people in jail based on nothing but a police report.

While the Supreme Court declined to issue strict guidelines on pretrial detention, Torrez won a partial victory since the justices did say that witnesses would not normally be required.

Before the Supreme Court could rule in the Salas case, the FBI and U.S. Attorney stepped in and charged Salas with the robbery of the Verizon store under the federal Hobbs Act. Under federal law, he faces a much tougher prison sentence.

“We couldn’t get Paul Salas detained without bond, and for that reason we asked the FBI and the U.S. Attorney to look at his case,” Torrez said.

A federal magistrate judge ordered Salas held without bond.

He was later indicted by a federal grand jury for three armed robberies and using a gun in all three. He was also indicted for failing to register as a sex offender.

“It became clear,” Torrez said, “we’re not very successful at getting people like this detained without bond at the state level.”

PART TWO: What can be done to stem Albuquerque’s tide of armed robberies?