It started as a peaceful prayer and protest, in the park across from the Albuquerque Museum, calling for the removal of the statue of conquistador Juan de Oñate from his perch as part of the sculpture “La Jornada.”
But by the time the night was over, violence erupted and a protester was shot. And the man accused of opening fire — reportedly as demonstrators advanced and the victim was about to hit him with a skateboard — was taken into custody.
Steven Ray Baca, a 31-year-old former City Council candidate, is charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. He was booked into the Metropolitan Detention Center early Tuesday. His lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
Police say 39-year-old Scott Williams was shot several times in the torso and was in critical but stable condition at University of New Mexico Hospital.
In a statement through their attorney, Laura Schauer Ives, Williams’ family said he has “devoted his life to seeking equality and justice.”
“When Steven Baca repeatedly attacked peaceful protesters in Albuquerque last night, Scott took bullets for the community he cares about,” the family wrote in a statement. “While he did, the Albuquerque Police Department hid behind the Albuquerque Museum, refused to respond to multiple requests for help, and only sent officers in once shots were fired.”
In response to questions about APD’s response, Cmdr. Art Sanchez said that as tensions rose between armed men and protesters, officers had to “evaluate” the situation and decide whether sending in police would “escalate” things. He said that the response team deployed once Baca used pepper spray but that it didn’t arrive until minutes after the shooting.
Baca, the son of a former Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy, ran for the District 2 City Council seat last year. He was sharply critical of the current city leadership and existing federal settlement agreements that impose restrictions on law enforcement and called local officials “complete wimps when it comes to fighting crime.”
He lost in the six-way race.
Baca does not have any criminal history in New Mexico, according to online court records.
He apparently attended the peaceful protest and vigil, across from the Albuquerque Museum on Mountain near Rio Grande, and then migrated with demonstrators over to the statue of Oñate. Protesters reported seeing him talking to the New Mexico Civil Guard, a self-described civilian militia, but the group has said he is not one of their own. The militiamen appeared to be at the protest to protect the statue, and they intervened as protesters tried to remove it with a pickax and chain.
Video obtained by the Journal shows a large crowd gathering and chanting in the street as a man who appears to be Baca tries to push protesters away.
Then Baca can be seen moving through the crowd and violently throwing a woman to the ground.
That’s when the other protesters began to advance on him.
None of those details about the fight were included in the complaint, which the mayor and police defended as preliminary. They said that all information will be handed over to the District Attorney’s Office and that the investigation is being turned over to New Mexico State Police.
“We think it’s in the best interest, in terms of fairness and transparency and to make sure it’s unbiased, that it be done by an independent,” APD Chief Michael Geier said. “APD is in the middle of this. We just don’t want any controversy and want to make sure it’s done right.”
According to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court, a detective viewed video from a bystander that appeared to show Baca trying “to protect the statue from the protesters.”
“Steven was similarly recorded, leaving the area of the statue toward the street interacting with the crowd,” the detective wrote in the complaint. “However, his specific type of interaction with the crowd is unknown at this time.”
An undercover police detective stationed in the area saw several protesters pursue Baca as he backed away from them, “utilizing pepper spray to douse the oncoming crowd.”
According to the complaint, several protesters “appeared to maliciously pursue” Baca, struck him with a longboard and tackled him to the ground.
“A second male is observed holding the end of the longboard with two hands and swinging it toward the area of Steven’s head and upper body,” the detective wrote in the complaint. “At this time, a series of gunshots are heard, and the longboard is dropped to the ground. Steven is recorded as holding a black-colored semi-automatic handgun and firing several shots.”
Williams, who police said had hit Baca with the longboard, was struck several times in the torso.
“After discharging the weapon, Steven is seen manipulating the firearm before placing it on the ground, sitting away from the gun and utilizing his own personal cell phone,” the detective wrote in the complaint. “The video recording did not depict any physical injuries on Steven’s person sustained from the longboard strikes.”
Albuquerque Police Department tactical units arrived and took Baca and several men who appeared to be members of the civil guard into custody.
The District Attorney’s Office is looking for more information about the events leading up to the woman being shoved to the ground before the shooting. They ask that the woman or any witnesses “to any of the events leading up to and including the shooting” contact them.
Journal staff writer Matthew Reisen contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Baca was the son of a former deputy, not a retired deputy.