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‘Is it really worth someone’s life?’

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

When Ivory Lynch ran down 33-year-old Ronnie Fernandez with his car in 2017, he says he was just trying to do the right thing and stop the danger – as he was taught in the military.

“Every night, I dream of a different way this could’ve happened, every night, I see myself die,” he said.

But Fernandez died and Lynch found himself charged with second-degree murder, facing the prospect of 15 years behind bars. Police say Fernandez had just robbed Lynch and tried to shoot him with his own revolver – which misfired.

As Lynch watched Fernandez run down the alleyway with a loaded gun, he chose to take matters into his own hands. Stop the danger.

“I didn’t have no choice. … The one thing I begged God to please keep me away from is the one thing that I was driven to do,” Lynch said, his voice shaking.

Police investigate after Ivory Lynch struck and killed a robbery suspect with his car in September 2017. (Matthew Reisen/Albuquerque Journal)

There’s no shortage of people losing patience and taking the law into their own hands in Albuquerque these days. Among the incidents that have played out in recent months: Shoppers pinning down thieves. Homeowners holding burglars at gunpoint. A woman who followed her stolen car and fired at it in front of officers. And a Little Caesars employee shooting a fleeing armed robber.

Second Judicial District Attorney spokesman Michael Patrick said prosecutors look at incidents like these on a case-by-case basis. Whether you’ll end up behind bars boils down to specifics.

“Each instance would be based on its own merits and weighed against state law,” he said. “Prosecutors would never want a member of our community to put themselves in a dangerous situation.”

Although local authorities do not keep track of such incidents, the outcomes of some of these cases have been well-documented. For those who do try to apprehend or stop criminals, it can end tragically – jail time, life disruptions and even death.

Like in the case of William McKinley, who was stabbed to death the day after Christmas 2016 when he confronted two men breaking into his truck in Four Hills.

Deputy Chief Harold Medina, with the Albuquerque Police Department, urges people to consider one question before jumping to action: Is it really worth someone’s life?

“We understand there are times you have no choice, but we’re concerned if you put yourself into that situation where you’re escalating a situation,” Medina said. “Even the person trying to do the right thing can end up being killed.”

Medina also warned that there is a line at which it goes from self defense – protecting yourself or others – to committing a crime yourself.

Albuquerque has seen record levels of crime in the past several years, ranking high nationwide in violent and property crime – particularly auto theft. Although statistics show crime has dropped recently, the issue continues to be a major concern.

Medina understands the urge to act.

“In recent years, there’s become a frustration in the community. And people feel the only way they’re going to get justice is if they intervene,” he said, adding that there is a lack of confidence in APD and the criminal justice system as a whole.

“We understand your frustration at times, but dial 911. Let the police get out there.”

Recent cases

Christopher Pino, 53, who these days is also known as inmate No. 85747, paid a steep price for taking matters into his own hands.

Once a successful real estate agent, Pino was sued, imprisoned and had his life upended due to a split-second decision in 2017 that cost Daniel Arballo, 31, his life.

Late morning on April 30, a neighbor called Pino to tell him someone was burglarizing one of his properties, a historic church near Carlisle and Central.

When Pino showed up in his red Hummer, he saw Arballo and another man in an adjacent alley, carrying a radio. Believing the radio was his, Pino struck Arballo with his Hummer and fatally injured him.

He tried to hit the other man and threatened him with a shovel before driving off as a crowd formed in the street. One witness told police Pino yelled at the two men, “I’m going to kill you; you stole from me.” Officers found no evidence that the church had been broken into, and it’s unclear whether the radio belonged to Pino.

Afterward, Pino told police he was tired of people breaking into the church and he only wanted to knock the men down until officers arrived. Pino said he didn’t want to kill or hurt anyone and wanted them arrested to “send a message” to leave the church alone.

But it was Pino who ended up in cuffs, charged with first-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

A wrongful death lawsuit was leveled against Pino within weeks of the charges.

Eventually, he pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. During his sentencing hearing, friends said Pino’s decision that day started with an “enormous amount of events that led up to a person finally cracking.”

Pino told the judge he wished he could trade places with Arballo.

Arballo’s father, George Nelson, conceded that his son was not on the path he hoped he would be on, but said he didn’t deserve to die.

Taking action

There have been several high-profile cases of individuals taking the law into their own hands in recent months.

Last March, Little Caesars employee Isaiah Baca shot an alleged armed robber as he fled the South Valley store. On March 7, police say, Justin Brewer, 27, walked into the Little Caesars off Rio Bravo wearing a mask and robbed the cashier at gunpoint.

As Brewer fled, Baca – still wearing his apron – ran into the parking lot and shot him. Brewer dropped the $9 he allegedly stole and got into a getaway car before showing up outside a northeast Albuquerque motel. Brewer survived.

Baca said he was suspended from work, never heard back from his employer, and had to get another job to support his daughter.

Then, in April, a woman found herself in cuffs after allegedly shooting at her car, which had been stolen. On April 5, Amber Trujillo called 911 and said she was following her stolen car through southeast Albuquerque. A dispatcher told Trujillo to stop following. Trujillo ignored the dispatcher, and responding officers said they watched as Trujillo shot at the car.

Trujillo was taken into custody, but later released.

Police went on to chase the stolen car – driven by Pedro Escalante, 26 – and shot Escalante themselves after he brandished a gun during a foot chase. The 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office is still deciding whether Baca or Trujillo will be charged.

‘I wish … ‘

As for Ivory Lynch, he can’t forget the sound.

“To hear a loaded revolver misfire – 2 feet behind your head – is enough to make anybody want to (expletive) themselves,” he said.

Ivory Lynch in his military uniform. He served in Iraq and Kuwait.

A veteran, with tours in Iraq and Kuwait and who also lived through Hurricane Katrina, Lynch said he never had post-traumatic stress disorder until that September night. After Fernandez tried to shoot him with his own gun, Lynch ran down his attacker in his car – killing him.

Lynch spent six days in jail and, in November of last year, went on trial, where a prosecutor argued that Lynch “repeatedly did the wrong thing, and he continued to do that after the immediacy of any danger (was) over.” Prosecutor Neal Speer noted that Lynch didn’t immediately call 911, seek help from anyone or attempt to de-escalate the situation.

“Ivory took a bad situation and he made it worse,” Speer told jurors, during his opening statement six months ago. “In fact, he made it much worse. I suspect that all of you have heard the phrase ‘two wrongs don’t make a right.’ ”

Lynch was acquitted of second-degree murder charges, and a jury couldn’t reach a verdict on the voluntary manslaughter charge.

Rather than face another trial, Lynch pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 18 months probation. If he stays out of trouble during that period, the manslaughter conviction won’t remain on his record.

In November 2017, Lynch was ticketed for broken headlights and no insurance in the same car he was driving when he killed Fernandez. At the time, the victim’s mother and father each sent a letter to the judge, asking for help in “taking this man off the streets.”

“He will stand before you with the same citations as given when he took the law into his own hands and ran over my one and only son,” Eric Fernandez wrote.

“We keep hearing Albuquerque is going to get tough on crime, but it seems to be getting worse. What has happened to our justice system?”

Lynch still believes he did what he had to do. But he now carries that day with him, and the fact that he took a life.

He often thinks of the family of the man he killed, and what they must be going through. Most of all, he wishes he had met Fernandez under different circumstances.

“I wish I would’ve known him,” Lynch said. “I wish I would’ve been given that opportunity.”