Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
During this week’s gubernatorial debate, a Roswell murder case emerged as the latest flashpoint in New Mexico’s reckoning with high violent crime rates.
Republican Mark Ronchetti accused Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration of releasing Christopher Beltran early from prison twice, before he shot and killed his ex-girlfriend in June 2021.
“This is the kind of story we see too often across New Mexico because we have a soft on crime approach and a ‘catch and release’ approach,” Ronchetti said, adding the problem was not with New Mexico law enforcement officers.
The morning after the debate, a political committee affiliated with the Republican Governors Association launched a TV ad highlighting the case.
But Lujan Grisham responded by criticizing Ronchetti for politicizing the case, while also pointing the finger at Roswell area District Attorney Dianna Luce, a Republican, and a state judge for not pursuing gun-related charges against Beltran that could have kept Beltran behind bars for longer.
“What’s shocking is my opponent’s description of facts that are fact-less,” Lujan Grisham said during the Wednesday evening debate hosted by KOAT-TV, along with KKOB Radio and the Journal.
The state Democratic Party has also entered the fray by accusing Ronchetti of lying about the Beltran case.
So who’s really to blame?
Court records show Beltran was released from the Penitentiary of New Mexico outside Santa Fe on Sept. 28, 2020 – just 12 days before his scheduled parole date – under an executive order issued by Lujan Grisham during the COVID-19 pandemic that allowed inmates to be released early from prison if they met certain qualifying criteria.
Beltran absconded from parole on Oct. 6 – just days after being released – and was arrested and subsequently imprisoned until the end of his parole sentence on June 22, 2021.
Six days after his sentence ended, Beltran’s ex-girlfriend Domonique Gonzales, 34, was found shot to death at the front door of her grandfather’s home in Roswell, according to court records. Multiple witnesses, video footage and other evidence led police to charge Beltran with murder.
On Sept. 29 of this year, Beltran pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and faces up to 12 years in prison, according to court documents.
That sequence of events is not in dispute, but the reasons for Beltran’s release have been hotly disputed.
Dispute with DA
District Attorney Luce, a staunch critic of Lujan Grisham’s executive order and other crime-related policies, told the Journal the governor’s administration “clearly miscalculated” when it came to awarding Beltran good time to reduce his sentence after he absconded from parole.
“Simple math makes it clear that Beltran was released from prison months early,” said Luce, who added that Beltran should not have been eligible for a reduced sentence since he was recorded making threatening phone calls while behind bars.
In response, a Corrections Department spokeswoman said Friday the agency was not aware of threatening phone calls being made by Beltran before his release.
Agency spokeswoman Carmelina Hart also said Beltran did not earn any good time reductions for periods of time he was held in segregation while imprisoned, but said he ultimately got his sentence reduced by nearly five months under agency good time guidelines.
Meanwhile, the Lujan Grisham administration has cited the fact Beltran was previously charged in April 2019 with being a felon in possession of a firearm while on probation in an auto theft case.
That charge was dismissed by Luce’s office after Beltran’s defense attorney filed a motion to suppress evidence due to illegal search and seizure by Roswell police.
Corrections Department spokeswoman Hart said if Beltran had been convicted on the firearm charge he wouldn’t have been eligible for early release under Lujan Grisham’s executive order – which made those charged with a “firearm enhancement” ineligible to qualify for the program.
A conviction also could have put Beltran behind bars for up to 18 months.
Instead, Beltran’s probation was revoked in January 2020 due to multiple violations including the gun charge and failed drug tests, according to court records. He was sentenced to 2½ years behind bars with 442 days credit for time served – but only ended up serving about nine months during that prison stint.
Luce said her office has “an ethical responsibility to not go forward on a case in which we believe constitutional rights were violated,” but did not elaborate on the reasons the charge was dismissed. She also said her office used the initial charge, combined with failed drug tests, to have Beltran’s probation revoked.
With Election Day approaching, Ronchetti has sought to make crime a top issue in his attempt to oust Lujan Grisham.
Specifically, the GOP nominee and former television meteorologist has targeted the Lujan Grisham executive order that authorized more than 700 inmates to be released early from prison due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The executive order was issued in April 2020 and rescinded last month, though a Lujan Grisham spokeswoman said the decision was not related to Ronchetti’s criticism.
The ad released this week by a political committee affiliated with the RGA targets the policy, even though the murder Beltran is accused of did not occur during the time period after Beltran was first released from prison under the executive order as the ad implies.
“Michelle Lujan Grisham is failing to keep us safe,” the ad’s narrator says.
Previously, Ronchetti released a separate campaign ad that focused on a different individual released under the early release order. That individual, Omar Manzanilla, was one of numerous targets in a gang- and drug-related investigation that led to a recent high-profile FBI drug raid in Albuquerque.
But, like Beltran, Manzanilla is not accused of committing any crimes during the time period between when he was released early under the order and when he had been scheduled for release.
The governor has countered the crime criticism – New Mexico had the nation’s second-highest rate of violent crime in 2020 – by touting recent pay raises for State Police officers and efforts to expand law enforcement recruitment and retention programs. She has also cited legislation she signed into law this year that, among other things, increased the criminal penalty for some gun-related offenses.
Meanwhile, the Governor’s Office said Friday that former state Probation and Parole Division Director Cisco McSorley, a former state senator, resigned from his job in late August due to health reasons.
Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said state Finance and Administration Secretary Debbie Romero has been helping ensure some of the division’s budget-related obligations are met, but said a search is underway for a permanent successor.