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Teen dies in Santa Fe juvenile detention center

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

In early September, Tanya Chavez brought her then-9-month-old grandson to the Santa Fe County Youth Development Program – a juvenile detention center – to visit her son, the baby’s father.


Nathaniel Valenzuela, 17 (courtesy of Tanya Chavez)

Nathaniel Valenzuela, 17, was one of very few juveniles in federal custody in New Mexico after being arrested on charges of intent to distribute fentanyl and unlawful possession of a handgun. He made headlines in June – shortly after his arrest – because of photos he had posted on social media of himself with drugs and a variety of guns.

But on the day he saw his son at the juvenile detention center, he was worried about his impending transfer to an adult facility after he would turn 18 in 2½ weeks.

Chavez said Valenzuela pleaded with her to let him hold his child. She said no, worried that the family would lose its visiting privileges.

“I told him, you have to count your blessings and at least we get to see you,” she said. “I said no and I regret that now. I should have let him hold his son. You never know what’s going to happen one minute to the next.”

Three days after that visit, Valenzuela was dead.

A spokesman for the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office said the incident is still under investigation.

For two months, authorities have not said much, refusing to discuss the circumstances around Valenzuela’s death. They said they were unable to talk about the matter due to privacy protections outlined in the Children’s Code.

But incident reports released to the Journal last week in response to an Inspection of Public Records Act request show deputies were called to the detention center around 4:38 p.m. on Sept. 6 because a “juvenile being housed at the facility was found hanging in his cell.”

“At that point, we were all unsure how long Nathaniel had been unresponsive,” a deputy wrote in the report, after arriving at the scene.

A nurse, Santa Fe Police Department officers and Santa Fe Fire Department personnel tried to revive Valenzuela – performing chest compressions and shocking him with an automated external defibrillator (AED) – but it was too late.

He was pronounced dead at 5:12 p.m.

Now, Chavez is trying to learn more about what happened to her son. She and Valenzuela’s father have hired a lawyer and are waiting for the death certificate.

“I know there’s nothing in this world that I can do to bring my child back, but if something could be prevented in the facility to where there is better supervision …,” Chavez said, her words trailing off. “You take an oath that you’re going to protect these children and watch them; nothing of the sort should happen, no one – child or adult – no one should have to pass away in a facility.”

In federal custody

A search warrant affidavit filed in federal court last summer laid out the case against Valenzuela: a confidential informant contacted the FBI to say that Valenzuela was posting photos and videos on Snapchat – a social media messaging application – of “multiple assault weapons and large quantities of fentanyl-laced pills or tablets for sale.”

The source then set up a “controlled buy” with Valenzuela and was able to purchase several “little blue pills” that later tested positive for fentanyl, according to the affidavit. And when authorities searched a home linked to Valenzuela, they seized about 60 suspected fentanyl pills and a loaded AR-15 pistol, ammunition and other firearms parts.

Shortly after Valenzuela’s arrest, the District Attorney, the special agent in charge of the local FBI office and the New Mexico State Police chief held a news conference about the case, describing Valenzuela as an example of the “repeat violent offenders who are engaged in trafficking firearms and drugs” who will be targeted by their violent crimes task force.

The case was referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Valenzuela was taken into federal custody.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez issued a statement late Wednesday saying that too many juveniles are victims of violent crime and his office is working with federal law enforcement to prosecute “individuals like Mr. Valenzuela.”

Growing up in the South Valley, Valenzuela attended Ernie Pyle Middle School before bouncing around and ending up at a charter school in Southeast Albuquerque. His mother, who is going to school for social work while she works as a manager at a local Pizza Hut, said her youngest son loved rapping, bowhunting with his father and working on cars.

“He was just so full of life,” Chavez said. “Yes he had his issues, we know he had gotten into whatever at the end, but that doesn’t define the person that he was.”

Sealed case

Federal cases involving juveniles are sealed from the public.

And Santa Fe County, citing the state’s Children’s Code, denied the Journal’s request for records pertaining to where Valenzuela was booked, how often corrections officers were scheduled to check on him and all memos or documents pertaining to his stay at the facility.

Carmelina Hart, a spokeswoman for the county manager’s office, also cited the Children’s Code and could not answer whether Valenzuela was under any specific conditions or whether anyone has been disciplined in connection to his death.

Hart did say that housing procedures are the same regardless of whether a juvenile is in federal or state custody.

“Juveniles in Federal custody are held in the general population,” she wrote in an email.

Hart said that, on average, the Santa Fe Youth Development Program houses seven residents. Two others at the facility were also in federal custody at the time of Valenzuela’s death.

Ryan Villa, the lawyer hired by Valenzuela’s family, said he’s investigating the circumstances surrounding his death.

“Regardless of what that investigation uncovers, it seems clear his death was unnecessary and likely avoidable,” Villa said.

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