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Two days after dismissing the charges, prosecutors relaunched a murder case against a man accused of causing a fatal crash as he led deputies on a chase in August 2018.
The driver of the second vehicle, 66-year-old Robert Chavez, died of his injuries several days later. But it would be months before Jesus Zapata-Beltran was indicted on charges including first-degree felony murder – a count used when a person is killed during the commission of certain felony crimes.
Meanwhile, Chavez’s estate is suing Bernalillo County in a wrongful death suit, and it appears the county has already offered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars – but negotiations are ongoing.
The initial criminal case against Zapata-Beltran was dismissed Dec. 18, about six weeks before the trial was set to begin. Defense attorney Douglas Wilber told the Journal on Monday that the state dismissed the case not long after he sought to bar testimony from a medical investigator, partly because he had not been provided with certain medical documents.
Prosecutors wrote in the dismissal document that additional investigation was needed. At a pretrial detention hearing Tuesday, prosecutor Penny Gilbert said the state received additional medical records and realized it would need to review them and add witnesses.
The case was refiled on Dec. 20.
On Tuesday, a district judge said she had concerns about the way the case had been prosecuted, but she determined that Zapata-Beltran has shown he won’t abide by court-ordered conditions of release and opted to detain him pending trial.
In a motion seeking detention, prosecutors wrote that when Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office deputies tried to stop the defendant, who was driving a stolen Hyundai on Aug. 6, 2018, Zapata-Beltran fled “at a high rate of speed” and Albuquerque police eventually joined the chase. The Hyundai collided with a van near Broadway and Cesar Chavez, injuring Chavez, who had been running errands.
Gilbert said Zapata-Beltran admitted stealing the vehicle and fleeing and had been on conditions of release in an unrelated case at the time of the crash.
“He is self-admittedly, for lack of a better word, a car thief. He constantly has possession of stolen vehicles, and his intent is to not get caught,” she said. “He admits himself that he will flee from police if they try to pull him over.”
As Zapata-Beltran’s case is going through the system, the state Supreme Court is considering whether aggravated fleeing is among the crimes that can be used as a predicate felony in a felony murder case. A state district judge dismissed a felony murder charge against Elexus Groves, who was charged in a wreck that killed a mother and her teen daughter, and the state appealed. It is not clear when the high court will issue its ruling on that case.
Zapata-Beltran has also been charged with depraved-mind murder and vehicular homicide as alternative counts to felony murder.
Meanwhile, the chase and crash are the subject of an ongoing wrongful death lawsuit against Bernalillo County.
Documents recently filed in the case indicate the county had offered to pay $1,050,000 to resolve claims by Chavez’s estate, along with “claims of a couple of other parties who suffered very minor injuries,” plaintiffs said.
But the county has since walked that back and is now offering Chavez’s estate $637,000.
“County defendants changed their position regarding settling potential claims from other parties involved in the collision who have yet to file a lawsuit,” attorneys for the county wrote in a response. “County defendants did not change their position regarding settling with plaintiff and offered plaintiff the maximum recovery available to her under the law.”
Sam Bregman, who is representing Chavez’s estate, has asked the court to enforce the original agreement.
“It’s bad enough that their deputies contributed to the death of Mr. Chavez,” Bregman said. “But then it gets even worse when they go and basically tell his widow that ‘We’re going to pay you a certain amount of money’ and then, ‘Never mind; we decided not to.’ I mean, it’s behavior that is unexplainable.”
Luis Robles, who is representing the county and deputies involved in the chase, said the county has offered the maximum amount the plaintiff is entitled to under the state’s Tort Claims Act. In an interview Monday, Bregman disputed that assertion. A hearing on the issue is set for Jan. 22.