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Plea deal rejected in 2011 fatal child abuse case

SANTA FE, N.M. — An on-again, off-again plea agreement in the death of a three-year-old Pojoaque boy fell apart on Friday when the defendant refused to plead guilty to a charge of negligent abuse of a child, the lesser of the two most serious charges against him.

Steven Gallegos appeared in state District Court in Santa Fe on Friday but rejected a plea deal on charges he faces for the January 2011 death of three-year-old Leland Valdez of Pojoaque. His trial is now scheduled for July. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Steven Gallegos appeared in state District Court in Santa Fe on Friday but rejected a plea deal on charges he faces for the January 2011 death of three-year-old Leland Valdez of Pojoaque. His trial is now scheduled for July. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Steven Gallegos rejected the plea deal, in which the maximum penalty would have been 18 years in prison, and will now go to trial, his attorney Dan Marlowe said following a short hearing in state District Court.

Gallegos is charged with three counts of negligent child abuse and one count of intentional child abuse resulting in death in the case of Leland Valdez, who authorities say was beaten to death in January 2011.

“Mr. Gallegos feels he is completely innocent of these charges, and he does not want to plead guilty to anything,” Marlowe said. “The plea fell apart because Mr. Gallegos does not feel he is guilty of this … and he wants his day in court.”

Little Leland’s death while he was in the care of Gallegos and the boy’s mother, Tabetha Van Holtz, set off legal and government controversies similar to those in the recent death of nine-year-old Omaree Varela in Albuquerque.

Both the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office and the state Children Youth and Families Department had previously investigated alleged abuse of Leland reported by his father while the boy was in Van Holtz’s custody in August 2010, just a few months before his death.

A sheriff’s deputy failed to pass on a report in that case to the District Attorney’s Office for possible charges until Leland had been killed. Sheriff Robert Garcia has acknowledged the mistake. A wrongful death lawsuit filed by Leland’s father Andrew Valdez against the county is pending.

CYFD also failed to substantiate abuse after the initial report by the father. One CYFD worker was fired and another was suspended in the wake of Leland’s death.

Leland’s stepmother said Friday the family wants the case to move forward.

“The DA told us he (Gallegos) had rejected the plea because he didn’t think it was fair,” said Angela Valdez. “He wants people to believe he didn’t do anything. We are outraged by how long the process has taken and how much the Valdez family has gone through.”

Defense attorney Marlowe said of Gallegos, “This is a courageous thing he is doing here, you have to prove your innocence … the public is hugely prejudiced against these type of charges from the very beginning.”

The trial is now set for the week of July 28. On the most serious charge of intentional child abuse resulting in death, Gallegos faces a potential sentence of 30 years in prison, tantamount to life in New Mexico if parole requests are denied, said Marlowe.

Tabetha Van Holtz, left, the mother of Leland Valdez, who was three years old when he died from what authorities say was child abuse while in her custody, appears in court in 2011 with defense attorney Jeff Buckles. Holtz, who was pregnant with another child at the time, is set to go on trial for charges in Leland’s death in March. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Tabetha Van Holtz, left, the mother of Leland Valdez, who was three years old when he died from what authorities say was child abuse while in her custody, appears in court in 2011 with defense attorney Jeff Buckles. Holtz, who was pregnant with another child at the time, is set to go on trial for charges in Leland’s death in March. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Van Holtz, Leland’s mom, is also charged with intentional child abuse resulting in death and with two counts of negligent child abuse, said Williams. Her case, which is severed from the Gallegos’ case, is set to go to trial in March.

Chair fall claimed

The boy died on Jan. 26, 2011, at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, two days after he was airlifted there after treatment in Santa Fe for severe body and head injuries.

Gallegos and Van Holtz said the boy fell off a kitchen chair and started “having seizures and convulsions,” according to a probable cause statement for their arrests. But the injuries were inconsistent with that version of events and his body was covered with old injuries, a hospital doctor told authorities.

The state Office of the Medical Investigator determined that the boy died of “blunt force injuries” and that his death was a homicide.

On Friday, Marlowe telephoned Dr. John Plunkett, a forensic psychologist who will testify for the defense, during a brief break in Gallegos’ hearing before District Judge Francis J. Mathew. Marlowe told the judge that Plunkett would be available for the July trial date.

Plunkett, of Hastings, Minn., an expert on shaken baby cases, was tried and acquitted in Oregon in 2005 of two misdemeanor counts of giving false testimony during a child abuse case that resulted in death.

Plunkett alleged the prosecution “wanted to take me out because I’ve been very vocal in the area of correctly understanding the mechanics of infant head injuries,” according to an American Bar Association Journal story.

But Michael Dugan, the district attorney on the Oregon case, told the publication, “The only agenda (we have) is when we have probable cause to believe somebody violated the law, they should be held accountable.”

Asked if Plunkett’s testimony could be troublesome as a result of the old charge, attorney Marlowe responded that it shouldn’t. “He got acquitted. He didn’t give false testimony,” Marlowe said.

Prosecutor Williams said, “I am aware of that,” when asked if he knew of the case against Plunkett.

“My concern is he is a widely known defense expert in child abuse cases,” said Williams. “He testifies 12 to 15 times a year in 30 plus states and has been doing that for a decade. It’s a lot of cases that he is hired by the defense. I will explore some of those issues with him in front of the jury.”

There is a “possibly perceived bias based on he testifies almost exclusively for defendants,” Williams said.

Leland Valdez died of “blunt force trauma,” according to the state Office of the Medical Investigator.

Leland Valdez died of “blunt force trauma,” according to the state Office of the Medical Investigator.

Governor involved

Within days of the Valdez boy’s death, Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor who was in her first month in the governor’s office, got personally involved in the case and said Children Youth and Families Department employees had been “protected” because of the flawed policies of the agency. She said she feared children were being put at risk.

CYFD supervisor Gabrielle James was fired over the Valdez case – her lawyer Friday said she is continuing with a court appeal of her dismissal – and another CYFD employee was suspended for 15 days.

While the governor has said in the recent case of Omaree Varela that the responsibility for the boy’s death lies squarely with the mother who allegedly kicked him to death, she has also ordered a full review of the CYFD’s actions in the Albuquerque case.

As in the Leland Valdez case, both CYFD and police had investigated prior reports of possible abuse of Omaree.

“Governor Martinez has dedicated her professional life to protecting children, and specialized in prosecuting child abuse and child homicide cases for 25 years,” spokesman Enrique Knell said Friday. “She is outraged anytime a child dies at the hands of those who are supposed to love them the most.

“In each of these cases, the governor has called for a full review of CYFD’s prior involvement with these families and, in each, she has strongly expressed that the perpetrators of these crimes be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

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