Three teenagers, two of them clad in gray T-shirts and dark blue pants given to them at the juvenile detention center, appeared before a judge Monday to face murder charges in the beating deaths of two homeless Navajo men – a savage attack that shocked Albuquerque, New Mexico and the nation.
The two victims, who had not been identified late Monday, were beaten so brutally with a cinder block and a pole that they were unrecognizable.
But a homeless man named Emerson Roanhorse, 62, waiting at a bus stop Monday near the vacant lot in northwest Albuquerque where the beating occurred, said he knew the slain men as “Coyboy” and “Yazzie.”
Roanhorse said both were Navajo, like him. He had been drinking with the two men Friday night and had slept in a corner of the vacant lot, and he saw part of the attack before running away. He said he saw the boys hit one of the homeless men with what looked like a bat.
“The man was just sleeping. Can you hit a man like that? A homeless man? I don’t like it,” an emotional Roanhorse said. He said the boys were cowards.
Alex Rios, 18, Nathaniel Carrillo, 16, and Gilbert Tafoya, 15, are likely to be tried as adults and all could face life in prison. They are charged with two open counts of murder, tampering with evidence, three counts of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and robbery, according to court documents. Bail was set at $5 million for each of them.
Tafoya told police Saturday that the three teens had attacked 50 homeless people in recent months, according to a criminal complaint.
At least two of the three suspects had dropped out of school before high school, education officials said.
A first-degree murder conviction carries a life sentence, and offenders aren’t eligible for parole until they serve at least 30 years.
A 15-, 16- or 17-year-old convicted of first-degree murder would receive the same punishment as an adult convicted of first-degree murder, said Kayla Anderson, a spokeswoman for the district attorney. Minors convicted of second-degree murder or lesser charges can be sentenced differently from adults.
During their first appearance in Metropolitan Court on Monday, Judge Linda Rogers set the bail for the three defendants at $5 million, calling them a threat to a “specific” part of the community, referring to homeless people.
Police have reached out to homeless people and advocacy groups seeking information on other crimes the teens may have committed, but police hadn’t found evidence about previous attacks by Monday evening, APD spokesman Simon Drobik said.
Rios appeared in court via a video monitor from jail. Tafoya and Carrillo were in the courtroom.
Several family members or friends of Carrillo and Tafoya gasped when the bond was announced, and they cried and quickly left the courtroom after the short hearing. They declined to talk to reporters. Attorneys for the defendants also declined to comment.
The teens told police they went out after a party looking for people to beat up because Tafoya was upset he and his longtime girlfriend had just broke up, according to the criminal complaint.
The men’s bodies were found Saturday morning. Police said they haven’t been able to identify them because their injuries were so severe. Drobik said police will release the names of the deceased as soon as the Office of the Medical Investigator confirms the information.
Carrillo and Tafoya live in a home with their father just north of where the beatings took place. Police found a driver’s license in the home that belonged to Allison Gorman. Witnesses told police one of the victims was called “Al,” according to the complaint.
A third man was attacked as well, but police said he was able to flee before being seriously injured.
“It really sucks to find your brother dead,” he said, although it was unclear whether he had any blood relationship to the victims.
He told KOAT-TV that he saw a total of five attackers.
He added he can’t understand why anyone would attack them.
“We didn’t do anything. We just drink and sleep,” he said.
Roanhorse also said two other youths may have been involved, but Drobik said police investigated the case for 18 straight hours over the weekend and that investigators are confident they have charged everyone involved.
“There’s no missing, secret people,” he said.
All three of the teenagers were former Albuquerque Public Schools students.
Rios transferred from Atrisco Heritage High School in March to a non-APS school, APS spokesman Rigo Chavez said. He was in the 10th grade.
Carrillo finished the eighth grade at Jefferson Middle School in May 2012 and did not enroll in high school. Tafoya was suspended from John Adams Middle in February 2013. He never returned to school after his suspension, Chavez said.
David Candelaria, 27, who lives two blocks from where the killing occurred, said he knew Tafoya pretty well from hanging around the neighborhood. He said he doesn’t believe the 15-year-old could have murdered someone.
“I didn’t think they had the heart to (murder),” Candelaria said. “They’re not capable of that. I don’t believe that.”
He said he thinks the teenagers might have tried to rob or beat up the homeless men, and the situation escalated and got out of control.
A woman named Diane who claimed to be Carrillo’s aunt called 770 KKOB on Monday and said her grandnephew was a troubled child who lived with various family members and at one time attempted suicide.
“I was in total shock, but actually it didn’t surprise me,” she said of learning her grandnephew was accused of the heinous deaths. “I say he needs to be locked up. Because this won’t stop if he’s just going to follow his friends.
Tafoya’s only juvenile arrest was on a marijuana possession charge in 2013. Carrillo had a prior arrest for negligent arson, according to juvenile court records.
Albuquerque police on Monday refused to release any police reports connected to Carrillo or Tafoya.
Rios had no violent felony arrests prior to this weekend, according to a state court website. He was interviewed by police in an aggravated battery case in January 2013 and in May 2013 during a rape investigation, according to police records, but it’s not clear if charges were ever filed in those cases.