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Key witness in murder case faces new charges

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

When Arthur Lovato showed up with a .44 caliber revolver and a dead woman outside in the car, Kevin Rangel says he agreed to destroy the murder weapon.

Instead, after Lovato left his house that morning of Sept. 21, 2018, Rangel stashed the gun away to use as “insurance,” he later told authorities. A month later, Rangel turned the weapon over to New Mexico State Police. Then he became a key witness for the prosecution in Lovato’s murder case in Valencia County.

With a violent criminal history that dates back decades, Rangel was facing his own pending felony charges of aiding Lovato after the fatal shooting in 2018. He also faced charges in the “vicious beating” of the mother of his child in March 2020.

But after agreeing to testify against his friend, Rangel was released from jail last October by a Los Lunas judge and roamed the streets of Albuquerque on a GPS monitor, court records show.

His get-out-of-jail pass just ran out.

Kevin Rangel

Rangel, 42, is being held in federal custody on orders of a U.S. magistrate judge after his arrest June 7 by an FBI-led multi-agency task force. During the raid, agents seized six weapons, including a machine gun, 15,000 fentanyl pills, 12.5 pounds of heroin, 2.5 pounds of meth, 60 pounds of marijuana, $15,000 in cash and one ballistic vest, court records state.

While waiting to testify in the murder trial, Rangel led somewhat of a double life, federal and state court records show.

As a “concerned citizen,” he appeared at pretrial interviews with defense attorneys and prosecutors. During the same period, he allegedly trafficked fentanyl pills, heroin, and up to 100 pounds of methamphetamine a week.

In recent weeks Rangel was extremely paranoid, constantly armed and reportedly recruited a group of gang members to kidnap and murder someone he claimed robbed him of $50,000 and 18,000 fentanyl tablets, according to federal criminal complaint.

For now, Rangel is facing a single federal charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm – an offense that could keep him in prison for a minimum of 15 years.

And the firearm Rangel is charged with possessing? The .44 caliber alleged murder weapon he kept as “insurance.”

25 prior arrests

Rangel’s rap sheet dates back to when he was a teenager. It includes at least nine felony convictions and 25 prior arrests. With convictions that include drug trafficking, armed robbery and attempted murder, Rangel’s sometimes went by the name, “Wacko.”

But his attorney, Robert Aragon, described his client in state court records as a “concerned citizen” and a witness “to the horrendous crime that Arthur Lovato committed.”

Rita Jaramillo

Lovato’s ex-girlfriend, Rita Jaramillo, 49, of Los Lunas, was listed as a missing person after she was last seen by her daughter on Sept. 20, 2018, according to a report by “Dateline NBC.” On Sept. 23 of that year, her trailer home was set on fire.

For months, law enforcement searched for her body, which Lovato is now charged with hiding or destroying. Lovato has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Meanwhile, State Police investigators interviewed Rangel, who was on state probation at the time of her disappearance.

Court records state that Rangel claimed that Lovato, who was a friend, showed up at a home in Albuquerque where Rangel was staying. Lovato was driving Jaramillo’s car and Rangel contended he could see a partially covered woman’s body inside on the seat.

Rangel contends Lovato confessed to shooting her in the mouth and killing her, according to a federal criminal complaint.

Rangel told NMSP agents that Lovato had told him to destroy the gun, but Rangel said he kept it for insurance, “in case something ever came back on him.”

Arthur Lovato

He said he hadn’t been in town when Lovato burned down Rita’s trailer, but said Lovato told him he placed tires inside the residence and set them on fire, which ignited the entire trailer.

Rangel took State Police to a shed at a friend’s house in Albuquerque where agents recovered a .44 caliber revolver hidden in a toolbox.

More than six months later, Lovato, 61, was indicted on first-degree murder charges related to Jaramillo’s disappearance, along with tampering with evidence.

Rangel wasn’t charged until after he allegedly beat up the mother of his child in March 2020. He was charged with aggravated battery of a household member, child abuse and larceny.

Two months later, the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s office in Valencia County brought a separate case against Rangel, charging him with tampering with evidence by allegedly hiding cellphone records, bullet casings, a weapon, and giving aid to Lovato after the slaying.

At the time, the DA’s office in Valencia County asked that Rangel be held in jail without bond, contending in a May 2020 motion that “no release condition imposed on Defendant will reasonably protect the safety of any other person or the community.”

Assistant District Attorney Natalie Campbell, who no longer works for the office, wrote in her request for detention that in addition to the two pending sets of felony charges, Rangel has a criminal history that began as a juvenile at the age of 14. And her motion noted that he failed to abide by the rules of supervision and had tried to get the victim in the aggravated assault case not to testify against him.

District Judge James Lawrence Sanchez of Los Lunas in June ordered Rangel held in jail and continued the detention hearing to resume in the fall of 2020.

During the interim, court records show Rangel was transported from the Metropolitan Detention Center to meet with State Police and the prosecutors at the Valencia County DA’s office.

His detention hearing was set for last Oct. 13, but there’s no mention in court records of a hearing being held.

There is an order dated Oct. 19, in which Judge Sanchez denied the Valencia County prosecutors’ motion to detain. The judge cited the results of a pretrial assessment and Rangel’s financial resources. He placed Rangel on “house arrest” but allowed him to meet with his attorney. Travel was permitted “for out of town work.”

Officials with the DA’s office in Valencia County didn’t respond to Journal questions about the case last week.

Earlier this year, murder suspect Lovato’s lawyer, Michael Rosenfield, questioned whether Rangel got a deal to testify.

In a motion to compel him to answer defense questions, Rosenfield stated that it appeared the judge denied the state’s motion to detain Rangel “without conducting a hearing and seemingly with the State’s consent because counsel for the state approved the order.”

A partial transcript of one defense interview with Rangel was included in the motion.

“Was there an agreement between you and the state of New Mexico to be released on the aggravated battery charge in Valencia County in October 2020, as a result of his agreeing to cooperate with the state in the case against Lovato?” asked Rosenfield.

Rangel responded no.

“So your cooperation with the state in this case against Lovato had nothing to do with your being released from custody in Oct. 2020, is that what you’re saying,” Rosenfield said.

Rangel replied, “That’s what I’m saying … (Inaudible) dropped the ball.”

Rangel’s attorney, Robert Aragon, didn’t return a Journal request for comment last week.

But in court records he stated, “As a witness and concerned citizen, Kevin Lee Rangel has voluntarily agreed to testify against Arthur Lovato, for the state, without any consideration from the State.”

Armed with a gun

Rangel was still out of custody on June 7, when agents with a multi-agency task force and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office arrested him on the federal firearm charge after obtaining a warrant to search two Albuquerque homes.

“Over the past several weeks, members of the FBI task force and BCSO have been investigating Rangel based on his proclivity to firearm related violent crime, dedication to drug trafficking and association with area gangs,” a federal criminal complaint states.

In recent weeks, FBI and sheriff’s department sources reported that Rangel was armed with a handgun and AR-15, selling drugs, was extremely paranoid, and was “trying to exact revenge on a person who had robbed him of $50,000 and 18,000 fentanyl tablets,” the complaint alleges.

Moreover, a federal search warrant affidavit states that Rangel reportedly had recruited a group of gang members who included members of the Aryan Brotherhood and an outlaw motorcycle gang, to aid him in a plot to kidnap and murder the person responsible for robbing him.

Rangel is also alleged to have sold Fentanyl pills to a confidential informant. After he drove away, he travelled more than 100 mph on the freeway, dangerously weaving in traffic, the federal search warrant affidavit states.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico on June 9 cited Rangel’s criminal history and alleged involvement with Lovato in seeking his detention pending trial on the firearm charge.

“He is, without question, simply too dangerous to be released under any conditions,” the detention motion stated.

Rangel was “directed to destroy a firearm that was used as a murder weapon,” the motion stated. “He did not destroy it, and instead stashed it in a toolbox to use as ‘insurance’ one day. The ‘insurance’ scenario Defendant envisioned and planned for is likely different from the scenario he faces today, which is appearing before this court as a nine-time convicted felon charged with possession of a firearm that subjects him to mandatory minimum 15 years.”

The motion stated that Rangel admitted, “post-Miranda, that he was presently selling 100 pounds of methamphetamine per week in Albuquerque and is owed $1 million in drug debts.

“He explained that he carried a gun to all of his drug deals because in the past six months, he had been robbed three times, and he lost $100,000 in cash from those robberies. He routinely drove around with an AR-15.”

How the federal case against Rangel will impact the murder prosecution isn’t clear.

No trial date has been set in the murder case. Rangel’s aggravated assault case for the alleged beating of a household member is still pending in state court in Valencia County. But on June 7, the tampering with evidence charges against Rangel were dismissed after Valencia County prosecutors stated the case would be prosecuted by another agency.

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