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BCSO has been silent about this year’s homicides

Deputies investigate a homicide in July 2020 in Southwest Albuquerque. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

It was around 3 a.m. on a Sunday in February, deputies say, when three vehicles pulled into an empty Albertsons parking lot in the South Valley. Four men got out and began talking before gunfire erupted, leaving Jose Garcia dead and another man shot in the head and arm.

The deadly shooting was one of two homicides on Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office turf this year – the agency just hadn’t told the public about either of them until this week.

Joseph Montiel, a BCSO spokesman, said there have been two homicides investigated by BCSO in 2021: the Feb. 21 death of 21-year-old Garcia and the Jan. 16 death of 30-year-old Yahaira Rodriguez.

He said Rodriguez was found somewhere in the Pajarito Mesa, a sprawling area southwest of the city, by deputies who were dispatched to a “down and out.” Also, Montiel said, the December 2020 death of Francine Gonzales, 36, on the West Side was ruled a homicide after an autopsy in late March.

In previous years, including 2020, the agency regularly sent out email and Twitter alerts when BCSO detectives opened a homicide investigation. They gave details on the incident and solicited tips from the public.

Up until this week, the department had been silent on the 2021 cases. The agency has, however, ramped up email and Twitter notifications for warrant roundup operations and “repeat offender” arrests – often criticizing the actions of courts for previously releasing the suspects.

Last year, BCSO’s crime statistics were not included in the annual FBI report because the agency didn’t meet the March deadline to report them, and they couldn’t be certified in time.

Montiel said he and Jayme Fuller – whose official title is sheriff transparency and public information coordinator – are not always told about homicides, or other incidents, until reporters ask about them and they confirm them with supervisors.

BCSO’s handling of its two most recent homicides is in stark contrast to its counterpart, the Albuquerque Police Department, which investigates many more homicides but alerts the public and media within hours.

“We choose transparency because it’s the right thing to do, even when it is hard. When law enforcement agencies hide information, the public’s trust is eroded,” APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said. “That’s why we provide timely and accurate information about homicide investigations, just as we have embraced body-worn cameras for our officers for several years and release records related to internal investigations.”

In February one of BCSO’s own former public relations consultants criticized APD for its lack of notification several hours after two homicides, even though APD had sent out alerts for both before the end of the day.

James Hallinan, who was hired by BCSO last July as a contractor to “provide transparency measures,” tweeted, “Sources tell me there were two murders today in Albuquerque that @MayorKeller & @ABQPoliceChief haven’t told you about. One this morning & one tonight … How’s that for transparency??”

Before Fuller came on board, BCSO sought applicants for a transparency and public information coordinator “in an effort to continue professional, transparent and timely communication with our community.”

In a May 2018 Journal candidate questionnaire for his reelection, Sheriff Manuel Gonzales said “providing high level transparency and accountability” was first on his list of “most important action(s)” in his career with BCSO.

“Empowering deputies has enhanced our community outreach and improved communication with citizens,” he said.

Since his reelection, Gonzales – who is contemplating a run for mayor of Albuquerque this year – has regularly emphasized a tough on crime approach in news releases, briefings and interviews but doesn’t often talk about transparency.

“Our community is living in fear as violent crime rises. We need to reform our justice system to keep our streets safe and protect the law-abiding majority,” Gonzales said in a statement in a March email spotlighting the release of a repeat offender.

While the Sheriff’s Office didn’t notify the media or public about Garcia’s homicide more than six weeks ago, it did issue a news release announcing an arrest in the homicide.

“We were asked not to release information about this incident at the time as to not compromise this investigation and to ensure the safety of witnesses,” Montiel said.

It is unclear why Rodriguez’s death, a month earlier, was also never reported.

In Garcia’s death, BCSO sent out a release five days after Kristopher Gonzalez, 27, was booked into the Metropolitan Detention Center on an open count of murder, three counts of aggravated assault and one count of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

According to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court:

Deputies responded around 3 a.m. to the 1600 block of Rio Bravo SW, near Isleta, and found Garcia fatally shot in the Albertsons grocery store parking lot. Another man showed up at the hospital with a gunshot wound to the head sustained in the same incident.

At the scene, Garcia’s friend told deputies the shooting was sparked by a broken windshield.

The man said his ex-girlfriend had recently broken a woman’s windshield because she thought he was cheating on her. He told deputies the woman threatened to get her brother, Gonzalez, involved, and Gonzalez then stole his and his roommate’s belongings and demanded $1,000 to fix the windshield.

The man said Garcia, acting as “mediator,” drove Gonzalez to meet the roommates at Albertsons to trade their belongings for the cash. He told deputies the exchange got “heated” when his roommate and Garcia saw that Gonzalez had not brought their belongings.

Kristopher Gonzalez (MDC)

The man said Gonzalez then opened fire on his roommate – striking him in the head – and the roommate’s vehicle, and fatally shot Garcia. He told deputies everyone drove off and he began administering CPR to Garcia until authorities arrived.

Both the friend and his roommate picked Gonzalez out of a lineup, with the roommate saying he was “1,000%” certain that’s who shot him in the head.

In Garcia’s death, BCSO sent out a release five days after Kristopher Gonzalez, 27, was booked into the Metropolitan Detention Center on an open count of murder, three counts of aggravated assault and one count of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

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