Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
In the small northern New Mexico town of Wagon Mound on Friday night, Irene Romero backed out of a driveway and into the road.
She was taking her 9-year-old niece, Daniella Lopez, home – just up the block – after taking care of the girl while her parents were at work. Romero’s 21-year-old daughter, Shantelle Romero, and 4-year-old granddaughter Annalise Romero – who also lived nearby – went along for the ride.
That’s when, police say, a 22-year-old drunken driver speeding down N.M. 120 crashed into their car.
Romero, 42, and the two young girls were killed, according to New Mexico State Police, and her daughter sustained non-life-threatening injuries.
On Saturday, relatives said, Annalise’s parents had to go to Albuquerque to take their daughter off life support.
In a tearful interview, Irene Romero’s younger sister, Debbie Romero, said the whole family and the community are “entirely heartbroken.” Irene was the fourth of eight tight-knit siblings – one brother and seven sisters.
“We’re trying to understand and figure out how to move on in life without a good portion of our family … ” Debbie Romero said. “We were planning to go out for the Fourth. I miss her already – we all do.”
Jesse Joel Blanco, also from Wagon Mound, is charged with three counts of vehicular homicide while driving intoxicated, aggravated DWI causing great bodily harm, speeding and reckless driving. He was booked into the San Miguel County Detention Center.
His passenger, 20-year-old Dominic Armijo, is charged with tampering with evidence as police said he tried to hide the alcohol containers after the crash. He was taken to the hospital to be treated for non-life-threatening injuries.
No court documents on the case were available Saturday and it is unclear who the men’s attorneys will be.
Officer Ray Wilson, a State Police spokesman, said shortly before 10:45 p.m. officers were called to the crash on N.M. 120 and Aguilar Street.
Officers determined Blanco was driving a 2022 Toyota car west on N.M. 120 “at a high rate of speed” when he rear-ended Romero’s 2004 Saturn car as she backed out of a driveway.
“Ms. Romero and one of the children were pronounced deceased on the scene by the Office of the Medical Investigator,” Wilson said. “The other child was transported by ambulance to an area hospital, where she later died.”
Wilson said alcohol was a contributing factor in the crash and seat belt use is under investigation.
“With the July 4th holiday upon us, NMSP urges drivers not to drink and drive,” Wilson said. “Plan ahead so that you aren’t in a situation where you will drink and drive. Call a ride service, or designate a driver. Hundreds of lives could be saved every year if drivers would make the decision not to drink and drive.”
Blanco does not have a criminal history in New Mexico, according to online court records, but has been cited twice before for speeding.
Whole town reeling
The Romero family grew up in and around Wagon Mound – a small village of about 470 people along Interstate 25 north of Las Vegas – and multiple generations have attended school there.
“Me and Irene would take the kids to the school sprinklers,” Debbie Romero remembered. “Homey kind of stuff – small town stuff – we were always at the park. She loved going for a walk in the park and we would take all the neighborhood kids.”
Irene Romero used to be a certified nursing assistant but more recently was working as a cashier. She was excitedly planning her granddaughter Annalise’s upcoming birthday.
“She was funny and honest and always a jokester,” Debbie Romero said. “Like you wanted someone to laugh you would call her about just about everything. She was a caring person and always put others before her.”
Even at the age of 4, Annalise was known for being full of energy and a jokester like her grandmother.
“She was really smart and highly independent,” Debbie Romero said. “She could do it herself, she was a big girl. She liked to prank people … She was just something else.”
Nine-year-old Daniella Lopez – a twin named after her father – was quieter, Debbie Romero said.
“She was a good responsible kid who liked her dog,” Debbie Romero said.
She said the whole town is reeling from the tragedy and coming to terms with the loss.
“I think we all feel the same way, our whole entire family – the whole community for crying out loud,” Debbie Romero said. “(They) knew a lot of people, it’s a small town.”