Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
After her brother was killed in August 2018, Marisol Fraire started a routine. Every Friday, shortly after she woke up, she would text the homicide detective assigned to the case and ask if there were any updates.
Fraire’s younger brother, 25-year-old Gerard Fraire, had been shot as he was riding in the passenger seat of a friend’s car Downtown on a busy Sunday night.
Several people were out in the street at the time and videos of his body and the scene were shared widely on Facebook – that’s how the family found out about his death. At the time, the Albuquerque Police Department urged people to come forward and Fraire said they told her the case was “very solvable.”
As the weeks and months went on, Fraire said, Detective Jose Lucero stopped responding to her.
There were no updates, although Fraire never stopped trying to get answers. She called the mayor’s office until she got a meeting with a lieutenant who, she said, again assured her the case was very solvable.
Then, earlier this year, after she reached out to an APD victim advocate, a deputy commander met with her and her family and gave them some upsetting news.
Lucero had left the homicide unit a year earlier and then left the department. An APD spokesman said Lucero went to the Internal Affairs Professional Standards division in January 2021 and retired in November.
“It felt like my stomach dropped,” said Fraire, who spoke with the Journal alongside her mother. Fraire, who works in sales Downtown, said she avoids passing by the scene where her brother was killed about half a mile from her office.
“It’s just like he’s another case on somebody’s desk that’s been filed away,” she said.
“I see why people do an eye for an eye because it’s just like people are getting away with murder left and right.”
The Fraires are not the only grieving family who feel like their case has been forgotten.
In the city, clearance rates for homicides have declined over recent years and analysts with the Legislative Finance Committee have pointed to an “accountability gap” – as violent crime rose, arrests and convictions remained flat or dropped – as a factor continuing to push violent crime up.
Over the summer APD conducted an audit on open investigations and, according to a memo provided to the Journal, uncovered the “startling fact” that there were 85 cases assigned to detectives who were no longer in the homicide unit. Among the 12 detectives listed, several had more than 10 unsolved cases and one had 16.
Kyle Hartsock who was brought on as deputy commander of the Criminal Investigations Division to help APD address problems like this, said the cases were inactive and “not being worked.”
He said they range as far back as 2014, but the majority are from 2016 to 2020. “We operated under this idea that (the detectives) were still going to do it,” Hartsock said, although he added that the detectives weren’t being pushed to complete cases after they left the homicide unit. “And to the defense of the detectives, they have met the families, and they literally want to solve the case. … They want to keep it because they feel like they’re the only ones that can solve it. But the practice didn’t play out that way. They have other responsibilities, other duties.”
When a detective is working on a case, the investigative documents are kept in a brown accordion folder. When the detectives left the unit, they would take that folder with them, meaning the case files are spread throughout the police department.
As for whether any had been lost? “Every time we’ve checked, we have found them,” Hartsock said.
Now, when a detective wants to transfer to another position, the move will not be allowed until the detective’s cases are completed and submitted to the unit’s leadership, according to the memo on outstanding homicide case management.
A completed case does not necessarily have to be solved, Hartsock said, it just means that all leads have been followed up on. Once there are no more so-called door knobs to try, then the case should be transferred to the cold case unit.
Hartsock said they also realized detectives had for the most part stopped referring cases to the cold case unit.
After identifying the 85 cases that were no longer being worked, the Criminal Investigations Division set up a schedule to bring the detectives back to the homicide unit for a period of 30 days at a time during which they will be tasked with working a case until there are no more leads.
The transfers started in November.
Although Hartsock said he didn’t know off the top of his head if the detectives had solved any of the cases, some of them might have been closed because an autopsy revealed the death was a suicide, accident or overdose instead of a homicide.
“Then let’s look at other ones where we might have a suspect already identified. I use the football analogy, like it’s on the 2-yard line, let’s go and run that ball,” he said. “If it’s a crazy ‘whodunit’? Well, let’s get it up to a point that we can transfer it to cold case.”
One of the detectives coming back to the unit in a couple of weeks is Sarah Kastendieck, who transferred to Internal Affairs Professional Standards in December 2020. And one of the cases she will return to is the fatal shooting of 24-year-old Antonio “Tony” Gomez in October 2018.
Sergio Gomez said his son – an outgoing kid who got along with everyone but wasn’t afraid to stand up for himself – was skateboarding with his girlfriend’s cousin near San Pedro and Gibson when they got into a confrontation with some people, possibly about money. The confrontation resulted in Antonio Gomez being shot.
Sergio Gomez has some theories. He said he later learned his son had been jumped and about $135 was stolen from him a week before his death. He had a wrench in his pocket – suggesting maybe he was going to try to fight to get his money back.
“You tend to say to yourself, ‘Man, maybe I shouldn’t have been that way and taught him to stand up for himself because then he would still be alive,'” he said. “He would have walked away from that, said, ‘If they rob me who cares.’ Instead, he said, ‘I’m going to go and get what’s rightfully mine.'”
Sergio Gomez said he told Kastendieck about the robbery and she told him she’d pursue it. Kastendieck declined to comment for this story.
Hartsock – who was a detective with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and a special agent in charge with the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office – said issues like the inactive cases are part of the reason he was hired by APD in April 2021.
He said when he was at the DA’s Office, prosecutors would get calls from frustrated families and ask him to help APD investigate.
Another change he’s instituted since joining APD is directing detectives to meet with their supervisor and write up a report after 60 days on a case summarizing where they are, who they’ve talked to and the status of lab testing and cell phone data extraction.
This creates more accountability to track the pace a case is moving so it doesn’t languish. It also allows a case to be easily transferred to another detective.
Hartsock said the department is recognizing there have been times when – due to a detective’s transfer or just a lack of urgency – an action is not taken that could solve a case. He’s trying to fix that.
“It’s frustrating for the families, but we’re not going to hide from it either,” he said. “(We are) looking at the new cases to say ‘we can’t ever get back here again, right? And here’s how we’re going to make sure we don’t get back here.'”
Together Hartsock and Terry Huertaz, APD’s victim liaison manager, have met with more than 40 families.
Huertaz was a longtime executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving before she joined APD as a civilian over the summer.
She said lately she’s been calling family members to make sure the department has current contact information or connecting them with investigators when they reach out to her – like Fraire did.
“I also believe that a lot of these families just did have one connection with one person in this division and now there’s an opportunity for them to be connected to multiple people,” Huertaz said. “So this way if they can’t get ahold of their detective, they can get ahold of me.”
Won’t stop trying
In November when Lucero was told he was going to have to return to the homicide unit for a month, he decided to retire, Hartsock said. Lucero did not respond to requests for an interview through a union attorney.
His cases are getting divvied up to other detectives, although officials are trying not to overburden those already in the unit so they can take on new cases as they arise.
The department has not yet reassigned Fraire’s case. Marisol remembers her brother – a year and four months younger than her – as funny with a great laugh despite the tendency for him to look serious or mean while deep in thought. He left behind four children.”The last day before he passed he went and got them all school supplies,” she said.
“It was going to be my niece’s first day of kindergarten that next week. He went and got her backpack, her shoes, her clothes.” She said the night her brother died he was on his way to pick up his girlfriend, and she believes he was set up. She thinks she knows who killed him, someone who grew up in the same circle as her and her brother, but she’s not feeling hopeful that APD will solve the case. “I don’t feel like we’re going to see anything come out of it,” Fraire said. “So many things they had three years ago are not around anymore.”
As for Hartsock, he said he understands why Fraire and other families might be skeptical, but he does believe the processes the unit is putting in place are helping.
“As, hopefully, homicides slow down and staffing goes up we are going to effectively deal with these cases systematically,” he said. “None of them close, none have statute limitations on them. Our biggest fear, of course, is that we don’t want anyone to repeat crimes. But in terms of getting justice for these families, we’re not going to ever close these cases or stop trying.”