Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Markus Williams stepped across the grass at Tiguex Park clutching a wicker basket. The 4-year-old, joined by dozens of other children, scanned for Easter eggs. The scent of popcorn wafted from a stand where fresh snow cones were being doled out.
A bevy of prizes, from bicycles to action figures, were stacked against the stage – ready for those who collected the most eggs, although everyone got something.
The scene had all the trappings of an Easter celebration, but those gathered were brought together by something else, each had lost someone to a homicide.
For Williams, it was his cousin Jonathan Garza, a 30-year-old father shot to death in Downtown Albuquerque.
The April 9 event was put on by New Mexico Crusaders for Justice, a Facebook group started a year ago by two mothers who lost sons to gun violence. The group has swelled to several hundred members who use it as a port in the storm – many who feel forgotten by investigators or lost in a topsy-turvy criminal justice system.
Founders Alicia Otero and Sally Sanchez said there’s no manual for dealing with such tragedies.
“They feel lost, they want to be heard,” Otero said of families like Garza’s. “They reach out to us and if they don’t know about us, we reach out to them.”
Sanchez’s eyes welled up when she spoke of her son Antonio Jaramillo, more than a year after his death. She stuck close to Otero.
“She knows exactly what I’m going through. My friends, they don’t understand my grief and sometimes it’s like, they’re tired of hearing me,” she said. “I always want to talk about my son, but she understands that. So to be with other families who are going through exactly what we’re going through, it helps.”
These women have learned, over the years, to lean on each other after they fell between the cracks of a system that they say wasn’t built around victim support – particularly those whose cases, like Jaramillo’s, remain unsolved.
Albuquerque Police Department officials acknowledge those failures and say they have turned over a new leaf, bolstering communication with families and making sure they know the resources available to them.
On Monday, the beginning of Crime Victims’ Rights Week, the department unveiled a new website dedicated to victims called “Always Remembered.”
The page will feature links to homicides with case details, victim photos and testimonials from the families. The site, which was created to also generate leads, will include a tab where anyone can submit tips on the case.
On Wednesday, the department will hold an open forum to discuss issues facing loved ones of homicide victims where community members can ask questions, raise concerns and engage in discussion.
Terry Huertaz, APD’s victim liaison manager, said every family has different needs but there is a common thread among them.
“They’re trying to manage the trauma and just find a sense of a new reality that they have to live through now,” she said. “And that’s a very difficult thing to process.”
Huertaz said they can offer assistance in a variety of ways.
That includes navigating the criminal justice system, applying for funeral cost assistance and seeking therapy. She said some people prefer peer support, groups like Crusaders for Justice, over professional help.
“That’s why we see so many groups organically come together and really lean on each other during such a traumatic time in their lives,” Huertaz said. In some cases, relatives are “so distraught” they need crisis intervention.
No matter what the need, she said, they have her number.
“It’s important that they know that there’s someone there that’s going to answer that phone, and I will answer my phone when they call,” Huertaz said.
APD Deputy Cmdr. Kyle Hartsock described the previous system – which left the “very basics of communication” up to individual detectives – as “a bad plan.”
“It’s inconsistent for the victims’ families, it caused a lot of frustration for them and the detectives because neither knew what was expected of the other,” Hartsock said. He said APD’s detective academy now includes a lesson on interacting with victims and families.
He said another issue is that prosecutors, who have 15 victim advocates, are only required to involve families after an arrest is made, leaving families of unsolved cases in the lurch.
Hartsock said APD has filled that void and mandated that Huertaz reach out to families within 48 hours of a new case. Since he took the helm, they have met with dozens of families from past cases, even when they don’t have “the greatest case update.”
Hartsock said they listen to their concerns and allow them to “share their feelings on it.”
“A lot of times, they just want to know that we care still, that we remember the names of their sons and daughters,” Hartsock said.
Huertaz added, “Even if we have to give them bad news, they would rather have that than no news; you cannot not communicate. We have to stay on top of that, that’s what we’re building now.”
Sanchez and Otero still hold some animosity for the way things were handled before, but the mothers believe APD is making more of an effort now, particularly by solving more homicide cases.
And for those families struck by tragedy, they will be there. Whether it’s a shoulder to cry on or an Easter egg hunt on a sunny day.
“I think one of the biggest issues is that we have forgotten about community and being here for each other,” she said. “And if we can start bringing that back, and bringing some joy to the family, then we’re crusaders and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Rebecca Garza sits at a table with relatives as the mothers hand out prizes after the hunt. When her nephew was fatally shot Feb. 19, she said they were lost.
“We didn’t know where to go when all this stuff happened. We didn’t know who to reach out to,” Garza said, her shirt emblazoned with her nephew’s grinning face.
She said all police have told the family is that “they’re investigating.”
“We don’t know where we’re at right now. It’s been two months almost,” Garza said. “We’re just hoping that we get justice for him, he didn’t deserve this.”
Josette Otero, mother of Kyle Martinez, said they hear that same refrain all the time. But that’s the important part, she said, being heard.
“There’s a lot of people now that are being the voices, which they weren’t before – now they know that they have somebody and they’re not alone,” she said, her son’s smile memorialized on her tattooed shoulder.
Otero continued, “We’re all doing this together – we’re here for the kids. We’re here for the siblings. We’re here for the cousins, the grandmas.”