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Homicide numbers high despite pandemic

Officers investigate a shooting that left a baby dead and several people injured at a Southeast Albuquerque apartment complex in May. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

Thomas Gonzales

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Michelle Phillips had just left work on Jan. 5, 2020, when her phone rang.

A woman frantically told her that her son Thomas Gonzales had been shot outside his home. Before Phillips could ask any questions, someone grabbed the phone, said, “Your son is dead,” and hung up.

Someone in a passing vehicle had opened fire on Gonzales – shooting him multiple times – after an argument broke out.

“I was so numb for so long with so much pain and grief. That hasn’t eased,” Phillips told the Journal on Thursday. “… I have to pray every morning to get up and face the day. It’s as fresh today as the day it happened.”

Gonzales, a 34-year-old father, was the first person killed in Albuquerque in 2020, but far from the last. The year ended with 76 homicides in the city limits, falling just shy of the record high of 80 in 2019. The 76 homicides in 2020 was the second-highest count in recent history.

That decline dropped the homicide rate from 14.64 per 100,000 people in 2019 to about 13.5 in 2020.

Despite the slight dip, interim Police Chief Harold Medina deemed the number of homicides in 2020 “way too high” during a Dec. 13 briefing.

Medina’s words echoed those of local leaders and past chiefs over the past three years as homicides reached new heights.

Although Albuquerque homicides have typically dominated news cycles over that time, in 2020 they were largely overshadowed as the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the country. Although the virus affected New Mexicans in almost every way imaginable, it didn’t change the homicide picture much.

APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said violent crime in Albuquerque remained “steady” during the pandemic while homicides increased in other cities across the nation.

“In that regard, we’re in better shape,” he added.

Milwaukee, with around 24,000 more people, had a staggering 95% increase with 190 homicides in 2020 for a rate of 32 per 100,000 people.

Baltimore, on the other hand, a city with around 30,000 more people and that’s known for its high murder rate, actually had a 4% decrease in 2020, with 335 homicides for a rate of around 57 per 100,000 people.

El Paso, a city with about 120,000 more people than Albuquerque, also saw a drop – after a 2019 surge that included 22 people killed in the Walmart mass shooting – with 25 homicides in 2020 for a rate of 3.6 per 100,000 people.

The highest homicide rate in Albuquerque’s recent history was 16.6, in 1996. At that time, the city had 140,000 fewer people and 70 slayings.

Odds and ends

Gonzales’ slaying is one of dozens that remain unsolved.

“I don’t know anything more today than I knew at the time that my son was shot and killed,” Phillips said, adding that there’s a “big lack of communication” with those on the case.

Soon after the slaying, Phillips said, the detectives assured her the homicide would be put on Crime Stoppers. That didn’t happen until nine months later, on Sept. 8.

When she checked APD’s unsolved homicide webpage, her son’s name wasn’t on it, and the page hadn’t been updated since 2018. The page no longer exists.

“I’m not saying the APD isn’t trying, but I believe there is a hell of a lot more they could be doing,” she said.

Phillips said she left dozens of messages and emails with the detective and sergeant – many of which were not returned. Those that were returned, she said, gave zero updates and little hope.

Phillips said she thinks homicides are “a dime a dozen” in Albuquerque and cases are handled on a priority basis. She said, like many other unsolved cases, her son’s death doesn’t seem to be a priority for APD.

“My every waking moment was trying to find out who killed my son, that’s all I think about – that these people are walking the streets,” she said.

Gallegos, the police spokesman, had no updates on the case.

That unsolved case joins numerous others over the years.

The retired 89-year-old University of New Mexico professor found beaten to death in his home blocks from the university in August 2019. The quadruple slaying of a family cut down by gunfire in a South Valley mobile home park in September 2019. A man shot to death inside his apartment in July 2019 in what police suspect was a possible revenge killing after he was mistaken for a homicide suspect.

The list goes on.

Albuquerque police and arson investigators look over a burned vehicle that was discovered with the bodies of two men inside in September in a West Side neighborhood. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Of the 76 homicides in 2020, 29 cases – or 38% – have had an arrest, charges filed or been cleared in some way.

Some of these cases are murder-suicides, have multiple suspects or involve multiple victims.

Gun violence continued to rise in 2020, with at least 54, or 71%, of the homicides coming when a trigger was pulled. In 2019, it was 66%.

In one case, one man stabbed another who then shot him in retaliation – both men died. In another case, a man who fatally shot his wife in a shopping center was killed by detectives hours later during a confrontation.

The youngest victim was an infant who was delivered prematurely and died after a pregnant teen was shot when a 15-year-old allegedly opened fire at a Northeast Albuquerque apartment complex.

The oldest victim, 69-year-old Leroy Jaramillo, died in a West Side neighborhood and was later found to have been beaten.

“The person of interest has been identified, and detectives are piecing this event together,” Gallegos said.

The total number of homicides for the year could decline if some cases are determined to be accidents, suicides or justifiable homicides.

There were six justifiable homicides in 2020, up from four in 2019.

In one case a man allegedly attacked an auto shop employee on the West Side after being asked to wear a mask and was fatally shot. In another, a man was allegedly breaking into a car outside Effing Bar when he was shot and killed by security officers.

Interim Police Chief Harold Medina

‘We struggle with investigations’

Medina said APD is making changes to be more proactive, including beefing up the leadership of the homicide unit, adding two new detectives and transferring older cases to the Cold Case Unit to lighten the load.

Medina appointed Dennis Tafoya – who previously served as homicide sergeant – and Lt. Hollie Anderson to the Criminal Investigations Division.

Homicide Sgt. Rick Ingram said they are adding two detectives, so there are 12, and a second lieutenant, David Fox, to the unit.

Ingram said each detective can get up to 10 cases each year although some veteran detectives have more than 20 in their case-load, built up over previous years.

Police spokeswoman Rebecca Atkins said some cases that are up to four years old will be sent to the Cold Case Unit where they will get a “fresh set of eyes” from the three detectives there.

But Medina said it’s not just about more manpower and spreading the work around.

“One thing we’ve learned over the past few years is we struggle with investigations as a department,” he said, adding that they want to start a detective academy and make it a requirement for all officers.

Last year the department came under fire after a homicide detective wrongfully charged and jailed a high school student based on a Facebook photo of a murder suspect. APD is being sued in the matter.

Medina said they hope to have the academy running by midyear but, beyond that, details are scarce, and APD could not say how many hours the academy would be or who would run it.

Medina said the detectives are “working hard” to give families “closure.”

“We will not quit, we will continue to look at these cases … get resolution to these individuals and get them answers,” he said.

Meanwhile, Michelle Phillips is still waiting.

“I don’t want to live the rest of my life not knowing who killed my son,” she said.

Phillips described Gonzales, one of three siblings, as a “beautiful person” who loved his son, now 12, “so dearly.” She said Gonzales was a master chef, wrote music and idolized NBA star Kobe Bryant.

“The absence without him here, my heart is just shattered in a zillion pieces, and every day I try to put it back together, there are those slivers in there that just keep cutting me,” she said. “Finding justice won’t bring him back, but it will give me peace to know that those people will never be able to take another life again.”

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