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Tragic crime reveals gaping holes in NM systems

The death of 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia in Nambé is a community tragedy.

Somehow, no one was there for a kid who seemingly fell off the map. He had not been enrolled at a school for nearly two semesters. The adults in his life – his mother and her boyfriend – were regulars in the criminal court system.

According to sheriff’s office reports, based on accounts from household members, Jeremiah was abused and tortured by the boyfriend, Thomas Ferguson, 42, to the point the boy had to use a cane or a wheelchair to get around.

On Nov. 26, Ferguson – while the mother Tracy Pena, 35, was in jail – beat Jeremiah to death, the reports say. That gruesome scene apparently was witnessed by Pena’s other child, a daughter less than a year younger than Jeremiah, and Ferguson’s own son, age 19. The family group later stuck the body in a plastic container and buried Jeremiah in a rural area not far from the Nambé house where the homicide took place.

The tragedy uncovered some holes in New Mexico’s child protection systems.

Jeremiah was pulled out of West Las Vegas schools last year and the adults in his life told officials at that school district that he would be enrolled in Santa Fe. SFPS says it started the process, but never completed it. There apparently was no process in place that, in these circumstances, raised a red flag or the question, “Where is Jeremiah?”

Pena, the mother, had given up her children twice in past. The Children, Youth and Families Department says it was involved in 2011 when the kids were placed with grandparents. But her run-ins with the law continued – she’s been booked in jail 22 times since 2009 for non-violent offenses like shoplifting, probation violations and missing court hearings, as well as a couple of drug-related offenses. Judges twice ordered her to drug rehab programs, but the court record suggests she probably didn’t comply.

When Jeremiah was killed, Pena was in jail. Her latest case started with alleged shoplifting and got worse when, police say, she popped a baggy of cocaine in her mouth when being questioned. That became a tampering with evidence charge.

Again, no red flags were raised. Despite Pena’s past interactions with CYFD and court documents saying she once gave up her children to relatives because, she wrote, she was causing “distruction” in her children’s lives, alarms didn’t sound when she was sentenced to probation, ordered to a rehab program, was back in jail on a “failure to appear’ charge and was charged with violating probation, the last two events coinciding with when Jeremiah was killed.

Then there’s Ferguson. He’s now been accused of four beatings in New Mexico – all of them girlfriends or family or household members – and has also faced charges in Texas. His modus operandi seems to be to associate with women with their own personal problems before beating someone up and threatening them if they say anything, according to court records and other documents.

In 2014, he faced very serious charges, including rape, kidnapping and aggravated battery, after he was accused of holding a longtime girlfriend for several days and sexually assaulting her. But prosecutors say their case was weakened when the woman changed her story. In 2015, Ferguson got a plea deal on lesser charges that got him off with a suspended sentence and the about 16 months he spent in jail awaiting resolution of the case.

While he was serving probation after that, Ferguson was accused of beating up another woman, in Rio Rancho. There was a criminal complaint filed in the case, and state Probation and Parole was involved. But the state court system’s online records don’t show any criminal charge was ever filed. And when the matter came before District Court Judge T. Glenn Ellington, Ferguson was allowed to stay free on probation instead of going back to jail or being forced to serve the more than seven years in prison he could have been made to serve if his original sentence was unsuspended.

The circumstances suggest that, once again, the female victim of Ferguson’s alleged abuse wasn’t going to be a good witness – she told a probation officer he’d threatened to beat her kids if “they got involved” and that she feared retaliation.

But the case raises questions about just how much slack should be cut for a man who has faced repeated accusations of similar violent, abusive behavior, good witness or no.

The sad and messy chronicle of Ferguson’s and Pena’s records needs some attention. Pena is a prime candidate for some serious counseling and treatment. If Ferguson is as violent and prone to anger as the record appears to indicate, harsher sentences for the crimes he’s accused of probably wouldn’t have made him stop and think about beating up the people closest to him. But, somehow, the schools, the courts, CYFD and the people who know people like Jeremiah and his dysfunctional guardians need to do more.

In the computer age, cross-checking various public records should raise a red flag when a young boy like Jeremiah might be in danger.

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