It was time to do something, time to think outside the criminal justice box, time to come up with some way, any way, to hold open the possibility that the predator who had raped at least a dozen Albuquerque women would someday be held accountable for his crimes.
It was time, because time was running out.
“We had 14 days,” anti-sexual violence and domestic violence specialist Elena Giacci recalls of that somber, stressed discussion with prosecutors 12 years ago, about what to do about the unidentified monster who had terrorized Albuquerque from 1991 to 2000 before the statute of limitations ran out on some of the charges.
Back then, the monster had no name, not even the nickname Ether Man that he would eventually come to be called for his way of sedating his victims with a chemical-soaked cloth held to their mouths and noses before he brutalized them.
But they had his DNA.
What happened next created legal history in New Mexico and kept alive the hope that one day the Ether Man would be identified, captured and locked away forever.
Twelve years since that meeting in April 2000, it has all come to pass.
Robert Howard Bruce, a man authorities speculate could have raped as many as a hundred women in at least four states and overseas, was sentenced Nov. 6 in Albuquerque to 156 years after pleading guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual penetration, nine counts of aggravated burglary and one of aggravated battery; he also pleaded no contest to an additional criminal sexual penetration charge.
Bruce, 50, is already serving a 64-year sentence in Colorado for trying to blow up the police officer who had arrested him in 2007 on a peeping Tom charge in Pueblo.
That charge allowed authorities to obtain Bruce’s DNA, and that DNA linked him to several of the Albuquerque cases and the meeting in April 2000 with Giacci, then-deputy district attorney Julie Altwies, then-chief deputy district attorney Pete Dinelli and then-district attorney Jeff Romero.
“As I recall, Julie walked in one day and said, ‘We’ve got DNA on this guy, we don’t know who he is or where he’s at. He’s terrorized Albuquerque for a number of years, and now the statute of limitations is ticking,’ ” said Dinelli, now in private practice. “And so one of the things we talked about was, what if we just indicted his DNA? Does it pass constitutional muster? How would it be viewed by the general public? Would it be seen as grandstanding? Would it be seen as a slight to law enforcement because no suspect had been identified?”
Indicting the DNA of an unknown suspect had never been done before in New Mexico, though interestingly it’s believed the idea originated in a conversation between two out-of-state prosecutors attending a 1999 felon DNA conference in New Mexico.
Altwies, now a Metro Court judge, believed the concept could work in Albuquerque.
According to New Mexico criminal procedure, a defendant can be identified in a court pleading “by any name or description by which he can be identified with a reasonable certainty.”
DNA was a pretty reasonable certainty.
Altwies wanted to be the one to bring the case before a grand jury. Dinelli’s job was to get then-state District Judge Albert S. “Pat” Murdoch, in charge of grand juries at the time, on board so that Altwies could proceed.
Romero, as district attorney, gave the go-ahead.
“These were the unsung heroes in this case,” said Giacci, then the Prevention of Violence Against Women coordinator at the Albuquerque Rape Crisis Center. “I remember sitting around the table with these people and thinking, oh, my God, this was unheard-of. My being there was to remind them of the victims in these cases, but I didn’t have to. They got it. They weren’t going to forget the victims. They were saying, let’s go for it, let’s not let these women down, let’s not let this city down. It was very brave.”
It worked. On April 19, 2000, a Bernalillo County grand jury indicted defendant “John Doe” on 44 counts.
It took nine more years to put a name to the indictment; three more for the plea and sentencing.
Because of what prosecutors did that day, because of the tireless work of law enforcement agents across several states, because of the bravery of his victims, Bruce won’t live enough years to be a free man ever again.
Finally: On March 2, I wrote about the wife of Ether Man. At the time, she told me she was still saddled with her marriage, because she could not afford to pay an attorney to file for divorce.
After the column was published, attorney Nann Winter of Stelzner, Winter, Warburton, Flores, Sanchez and Dawes offered to help with the divorce pro bono. Thanks to Winter’s generosity and compassion, the divorce was filed and is final.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal