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Officer’s decision on underwear questioned

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Among the most disturbing testimony during the three-day detention hearing for James Stewart and Teri Sanchez was a teacher’s statement regarding how an Albuquerque police officer dealt with a piece of clothing the teacher had removed from her 7-year-old student and saved for investigators.

On Nov. 14, 2017, officials say the girl came to school unkempt and smelling of urine and when her teacher helped her change into clean clothes she saw the girl had blood on the crotch of her underwear.

But, the teacher testified in the hearing Monday, when a police officer came to the school the following day he said they could not use the underwear as evidence and threw the clothing in the dumpster.

She said the officer told her the underwear had not been kept in a secure location and that “they’re going to have a field day if this ever went to court.”

On Tuesday, Albuquerque police failed to answer repeated requests for interviews or information about that officer’s actions. They previously had said that the child never mentioned possible sexual abuse when interviewed by officers, but their reports never mentioned the fact that an officer had been shown the underwear and decided to toss it.

A safehouse forensic interview was not done at the time despite the teacher’s report and the apparent evidence. The teacher described the underwear by saying “half of the crotch area would be saturated” in blood.

On Monday, the Children, Youth and Families Department Secretary Monique Jacobson faulted her own people for not insisting on a safehouse forensic interview when they were told about the underwear. She said police usually take the lead in setting up such an interview. But since APD did not follow through, her staff should have.

CYFD released the results of its investigation Monday that found fault with some of its employees for failing to follow all procedures.

In a printed statement, Mayor Tim Keller said, “It is clear the system failed this little girl. At APD we are conducting a review of the case and will pursue accountability measures when the review is completed. In addition, many of the policies in this area are several years old and I expect to be correcting them as part of this process.”

Incident troubling

For the elementary school teachers and staff who repeatedly called APD and CYFD with concerns about the 7-year-old girl who agents say was trafficked for sex, the incident in November was particularly troubling.

At the detention hearing for Stewart and Sanchez, both charged with crimes against the 7-year-old, school officials have made it clear that they don’t believe APD and CYFD did enough to help the girl and her two brothers earlier.

On Tuesday, APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said he would get back to the Journal but had not done so by deadline.

APD also has failed to answer questions emailed last week about the case, including questions about whether APD should have set up a safehouse forensic interview to investigate the November incident.

Gallegos responded in a statement last week that “the Crimes Against Children Unit were fully engaged and determined they could not pursue a criminal investigation without disclosures of abuse.”

It remains unclear whether a CACU detective talked to the school officials who found the bloody underwear or whether detectives were involved in the decision to throw them out.

An incident report filed in the case recounts the actions of the uniformed officer who conducted a welfare check and talked to school officials. The report says the officer was told about the underwear, but does not mention the fact that the teacher saved it or that an officer tossed it.

According to the report on Nov. 15, a uniformed APD officer and a CYFD investigator went to the Ambassador Inn on Candelaria for a welfare check because of the teacher’s concerns, including the fact that the girl and her 8-year-old brother had not shown up at school that day.

“School staff stated they were concerned for the children’s well being and also stated a staff member of the school noticed blood on the girl’s underwear yesterday after she had an accident at school,” the officer wrote in the report.

The officer then details an interview with the teacher in which he says the teacher told him she did not ask the girl how the blood got on her underwear. That is the only mention of the underwear in the report.

There is no mention in the report of whether the officer asked the child, Stewart or Sanchez about the underwear.

When asked about whether the Attorney General’s Office thinks APD had acted properly, spokesman James Hallinan wrote in an emailed statement that it would be inappropriate to comment beyond the specific facts in the case that are public record.

But, he said, “It is critical in all investigations involving crimes against children that any law enforcement agency act quickly and follow strict protocols to collect evidence, preserve statements and conduct safe house interviews and physical examinations where warranted.”