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Operation Legend prosecution underway in Albuquerque

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Merna Brostoff raises her sign in protest against Operation Legend at a rally in Kit Carson Park Thursday morning. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is prosecuting what appears to be its first Operation Legend case in Albuquerque – charging a defendant with being a felon in possession of a firearm during an incident last month.

Carlos Trevon Morris, 44, was arrested by federal officers on Tuesday. But the incident, a homicide, happened more than a month ago and federal agents have been investigating it for weeks.

In response to questions about what makes the case part of Operation Legend, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico said the main goal is to get guns out of the hands of convicted felons and others who are prohibited from having them. Last week, on July 22, Attorney General William Barr and President Donald Trump announced more than 25 federal officers are coming to Albuquerque as part of the operation, which is also being conducted in Kansas City, Missouri, and Chicago.

“We evaluate cases for Operation Legend on a case-by case basis,” Scott Howell, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office wrote in an email. “We look at a defendant’s actions and criminal history in making the decision to include the case as part of Operation Legend. This particular case was referred for federal prosecution by the (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), following a referral to ATF by the Albuquerque Police Department homicide unit. Although the alleged crime occurred more than one month ago, this defendant was not facing any state charges at the time of his arrest on these federal charges.”

About one hundred people showed up to give their support for the “No to Operation Legend” protest held at Kit Carson Park on Thursday morning. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Meanwhile, local politicians and activists have continued to express concern about the operation and the impact it could have on the community. Although Department of Justice officials have said Operation Legend will combat violent crime and gun violence, many in the community – including Mayor Tim Keller – have cautioned that it could be a bait-and-switch and protesters could be targeted like they have been in other cities.

West of Downtown Albuquerque Thursday morning, nearly 100 protesters, mostly middle-aged, gathered at Kit Carson Park to speak out against the operation.

While crime remains high in the city, it does not appear to have spiked in the past couple of years. APD data provided to the FBI shows property crime decreased and violent crime remained steady – increasing 1% – between 2018 and 2019. There were a record number of homicides – 80 – in 2019, but so far there have been fewer this year compared to last year.

Suspect or victim?

The case that led to Morris being charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm began around 9:20 p.m. June 25, when APD officers were called to an apartment complex on the 1200 block of Ortiz SE for reports of a shooting. According to a criminal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court of New Mexico, when they arrived they saw a man, later identified as Morris, trying to put a body into the front passenger seat of an older model Honda.

Teryn Kurtz, 48, was dead.

And Morris had been shot in the wrist. He was handcuffed and when officers patted him down they found a handgun in his pocket, according to the complaint. He was arrested and taken to the hospital. An APD spokesman said the homicide investigation is ongoing.

Stephen Taylor, Morris’s attorney, pointed out that the homicide happened over a month ago and no state charges – like murder – have been filed.

“My client was injured, apparently there was a gunshot injury,” Taylor said. “It’s possible that he was a victim in the case.”

According to the complaint, Kurtz was partially undressed and a trail of blood led from an apartment to the car. Officers said they found a bottle of bleach next to the car and inside the apartment was more bleach, as well as methamphetamine and marijuana on the coffee table.

According to the criminal complaint, on July 16 a homicide detective contacted a special agent with the ATF to tell him Morris is a convicted felon. The special agent, who joined the ATF in September after being with APD for 12 years, went to APD’s evidence lab five days later to look at the gun. On July 24, he submitted the criminal complaint charging Morris with being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Morris had previously pleaded guilty or no contest to four drug trafficking by distribution cases over the past 23 years as well as aggravated assault on a household member with a deadly weapon in a 2009 case, according to online court records. He was on probation until January, when he received an unsatisfactory discharge.

Taylor, Morris’s attorney, had not known the case was being prosecuted under Operation Legend until he was told by the Journal.

Howell said the designation of the case as part the operation will not change the way agents conduct follow-up investigation. He said bringing additional agents to Albuquerque under the operation should be able to increase federal prosecutions, which he said are an effort to reduce gun and dangerous crimes.

“This case exemplifies the goals and aims of Operation Legend: to make Albuquerque a safer place to live by reducing gun violence,” said John Anderson, the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico, according to a news release.

Community speaks out

Community members, faith leaders, activists and elected officials continue to speak out against the tactics federal officers have deployed against protesters in other cities, warning that the Operation Legend is politically-motivated and contending that it will negatively impact people of color.

At the rally at Kit Carson Park, demonstrators held signs saying “No Operation Legend” and “feds go home.” One woman held a sign that said “Storm-troopers out, good trouble in,” an apparent reference to Sen. Martin Heinrich’s statements condemning the operation and tactics used in Portland as well as a reference to Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader whose funeral was held in Atlanta Thursday.

Jim Harvey, executive director of the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, also referenced Lewis and said the community will continue to resist and engage in nonviolent protest.

“We’re going to educate our government and let them know we’re not going to lie down and take this,” Harvey said. “We don’t want them here and we know why they’re here. They’re here because Trump needs a photo op. They’re here because this is a Democratic-led city. They’re here because this city is filled with progressive thinkers. They’re here because we’re determined to play our role to see to it” that Trump isn’t reelected.

The Rev. Erica Lea-Simka, with the Albuquerque Mennonite Church, said more than 50 local faith leaders from many traditions have signed a letter and sent it to city councilors speaking out against the militarization of police and federal agencies in the streets.

“We urge elected officials to use communal funds, especially taxpayer money, for wise investments in education, health care, and other public good, rather than funding intimidating groups wielding weapons, or otherwise accommodating such groups,” the letter states.

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