New Mexico's turbulent 2021 in review - Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico’s turbulent 2021 in review

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

We all hoped that 2021 would be a better year, the year we kicked down the pandemic and things started to return to normal.

It didn’t exactly turn out that way. Things are closer to normal. Many of us are back in our workplaces, and restaurants and schools are open once more.

But COVID-19 is still with us. Vaccines have been a boon in the battle against the virus, but it continues to take its toll, having killed nearly 6,000 New Mexicans.

The pandemic’s persistence makes it one of the top 10 stories of the year. Some of the others are just about, or maybe even more, disturbing. Albuquerque set a single-year record for homicides. One of those involved the shooting of a 13-year-old boy by another 13-year-old boy.

A shooting death on a New Mexico movie set brought unwanted international attention to the state’s movie-making industry, while a tragic hot-air balloon crash killed five people and a State Police officer was shot to death during a traffic stop.

But not all the top stories were tragic.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico became the first Native American appointed to a Cabinet position, a Virgin Galactic rocket ship carrying six people roared from the New Mexico desert into space and the state legalized the recreational use of marijuana by adults. How’s that for some high points.


Balloon crash kills five: New Mexico’s deadliest balloon crash occurred on June 26 when a hot-air balloon crashed into power lines on Albuquerque’s West Side, killing pilot Nick Meleski, 62, and his four passengers, Martin Martinez, 62, a longtime officer with Albuquerque police and Albuquerque Public Schools; his wife, Mary Martinez, 59; Georgia O’Keeffe Elementary School assistant principal Susan Montoya, 65; and her husband, John Montoya 61.

Teachers and co-workers had chipped in to purchase the balloon ride as a gift for Susan Montoya, who was about to transfer to another school. A toxicology report later revealed that pilot Meleski had marijuana and cocaine in his system when the crash occurred.

Recreational pot use legalized: On April 12, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill legalizing the adult use of recreational cannabis, as well as a companion bill that promised to erase some cannabis-related possession convictions from the records of thousands of New Mexicans. The cannabis bills were passed during a two-day special session called by Lujan Grisham in March after they failed to win approval during the regular session.

Fiscal forecasts predicted the new law will result in $20 million in revenue for the state by 2023, but state GOP Chairman Steve Pearce warned of increased crime and more use of marijuana among minors.

Shooting death on movie set: New Mexico’s bustling film industry took a tragic turn on Oct. 21 when actor Alec Baldwin, 63, fired a prop gun that killed director of photography Halyna Hutchins, 42, and wounded film director Joel Souza, 48, on the Bonanza Creek Ranch movie set near Santa Fe. It was later determined that the prop gun was loaded with a live round.

The incident occurred during the filming of a Western titled “Rust,” and touched off a flurry of calls for enhanced safety measures on movie sets. No charges have been filed in the case, but the investigation continues.

Haaland first Native American Cabinet member: U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., was confirmed as Interior Secretary on March 15, making her the first Native American to serve as a member of a president’s Cabinet. Haaland called the moment “a culmination of so many of the sacrifices that my ancestors made.”

Haaland is a Laguna Pueblo member and former San Felipe Pueblo tribal administrator who was elected to represent the Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District in 2018. Haaland, a strong advocate of environmental causes, faced fierce opposition by Republicans and the oil and gas industry, and was confirmed by a narrow margin.

Albuquerque sets homicide record: By early August, Albuquerque had already matched its record of 81 suspected homicides in a single year. That record had been set in 2019. But there were still five months remaining in 2021. With one day still remaining this year, the record now stands at 116. Albuquerque is among cities large and small that have experienced increases in the number of homicides this year. Circumstances vary widely in Albuquerque’s homicides in 2021, but Albuquerque Police Department spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said in August that, up to that point, significantly more homicides had been related to domestic violence and drugs.

Pandemic takes grim toll: COVID-19 deaths in New Mexico surpassed 5,000 on Oct. 25 and, as the year comes to a close today, the number of state COVID-19 fatalities stands at 5,855. The pandemic invaded the state in March 2020, but vaccines were not readily available to adults until the spring of this year. By that time, more than 3,000 New Mexicans had already succumbed to the virus. Now, about 76% of state adults are fully vaccinated, as are 57% of those aged 12-17 and 16% of children aged 5-11. Schools and businesses began to reopen early in the year as more of the population received vaccinations. However, wearing masks indoors is still required and, although vaccines tamped down the number of deaths for a time, recent virus variants have sent the number of deaths spiraling upward once more.

State Police officer killed: Omar Cueva, the target of a federal drug sting, shot and killed State Police Officer Darian Jarrott, 28, on Feb. 4 after Jarrott stopped Cueva for a traffic violation on Interstate 10, east of Deming. Authorities then pursued Cueva, 39, in a car chase that ended with the shooting death of Cueva in Las Cruces.

In June, Jarrott’s widow filed a lawsuit, alleging that the State Police and Homeland Security Investigations had Jarrott make the traffic stop without any backup, protective gear or knowledge that Cueva was a dangerous individual. Sam Bregman, the attorney representing the widow, said Homeland Security hoped Cueva could be arrested on a traffic violation in order to protect the identity of a confidential informant.

Unity soars into space: Southern New Mexico’s Spaceport America was the launch site for a pioneering probe into space on July 11 when Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson, two pilots and three other crew members rode the passenger rocket ship Unity nearly 54 miles above Earth. It marked the first time a spaceship company founder had hurtled into space on his own rocket ship with a crew. Unity took off from Spaceport America at 8:40 a.m., attached to mothership Eve, broke free 45 minutes later and soared into history. It then glided to a safe landing on the spaceport runway at about 9:40 a.m. “Nothing can prepare you for it,” Branson said of the experience, which included three minutes of floating in the microgravity of Unity’s cabin.

Stapleton facing racketeering charges: New Mexico House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton resigned from the House in late July, shortly after search warrants were served on her home seeking evidence that she had routed more than $950,000 intended for vocational education at Albuquerque Public Schools to businesses and charities in which she had an interest. She was subsequently indicted on 26 state felony charges, including racketeering, money laundering and soliciting or receiving kickbacks. Until she was fired on Aug. 31, Stapleton was APS coordinator and director of Career and Technical Education. The Albuquerque Democrat had represented District 19, east of the University of New Mexico, since 1994.

School shooting: On Aug. 13, just three days into the school year, 13-year-old Washington Middle School student Juan Saucedo Jr. reportedly shot and killed fellow student Bennie Hargrove, also 13. According to investigators, Saucedo took a gun to the school near Park and 13th SW. Hargrove intervened when he saw Saucedo bullying friends and, police say, Saucedo used the gun to shoot Hargrove multiple times. “He stood up for a friend and tried to de-escalate a violent confrontation between classmates,” Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said of Hargrove.

Saucedo was charged with an open count of murder and unlawfully carrying of a deadly weapon on school premises.

Fentanyl became more prevalent on Albuquerque streets, with seizures of the drug happening at record pace and overdoses increasing.

• The state Public Regulation Commission voted in December against a proposed merger between PNM Resources and Connecticut-based energy giant Avangrid, accepting a PRC hearing examiner’s conclusions that the risk to New Mexico consumers outweighed potential benefits of the deal.

• Albuquerque police announced this summer that investigators had identified a suspect in three unsolved slayings of young women dating back more than 30 years. Paul Apodaca, 53, was arrested by University of New Mexico police and confessed to three decadesold murders, according to police. He allegedly confessed to killing Althea Oakeley, 21, in June 1988; 13-year-old Stella Gonzales in September 1988; and 18-year-old Kaitlyn Arquette, daughter of author Lois Duncan, in July 1989. Police believe he may have been motivated by a dislike for women, but his attorney argues that the cases aren’t that clear cut.

• Tim Keller, Albuquerque’s Democratic mayor, cruised to another four-year term by beating Sheriff Manuel Gonzales and talk radio host Eddy Aragon in what became a bruising, bitter campaign, while Democrat Melanie Stansbury was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives after winning a special election. But more conservative candidates also prevailed in local elections. Albuquerque’s city council lurched a little to the right this year, with Republicans gaining an extra seat to cut into the Democratic majority in the chamber, which is now at 5-4. Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education also saw a shake-up this year, with business-backed candidates winning three of four seats up for election.

Housing prices in the Albuquerque metro area skyrocketed in 2021. In November, the single-month median sales price for a single-family home was $310,000, more than 20% higher than the year before. New Mexicans are also seeing rising costs for goods and services, and employers have struggled to find workers – both nationwide trends that have emerged during the pandemic.

• A security officer’s report of a foul odor coming from a parked pickup truck at the Albuquerque International Sunport in March led police to four bodies, two of which were at least partially dismembered, in the truck. Police have arrested Sean Lannon on suspicion of murder. His ex-wife was among the victims.

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