For about two years, the New Mexico Department of Corrections has conducted public tours of its closed Old Main facility at the state penitentiary south of Santa Fe, site of the nation’s bloodiest prison riot in 1980.
Now, a former inmate – a convicted murderer – wants permission for a more extensive and invasive tour. He and his lawyer say they need to get into Old Main and the other, active units of the Penitentiary of New Mexico to look for buried or hidden evidence.
In recent court documents, former inmate Samuel P. Chavez is making sensational allegations of buried ledgers and harvesting prisoners’ body parts that read like the script for the Robert Redford film “Brubaker,” the dramatized re-telling of a 1967 Arkansas prison scandal involving unmarked prisoner burials, torture, sexual assault and contaminated food. One court filing even mentions the movie.
Chavez, known as a jailhouse lawyer who was an inmate representative working with attorneys monitoring prison conditions when the state Department of Corrections was operated under federal oversight for many years after the riot, alleges that he buried air-tight containers of evidence of poisoning and torture on himself and other inmates at the prison.
Chavez was paroled four years ago after serving about 24 years, most of it at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, for his conviction in a 1988 Las Cruces killing.
A recent Chavez court motion maintains that, while holding inmate jobs at the state prison south of Santa Fe as a meat cutter, safety and sanitation clerk, and maintenance assistant, he buried “documentation, toxins and other substances the defendants (prison officials) introduced into inmates’ food and water throughout the PNM complex,” as well as “memoranda, handwritten directives and makeshift ledgers showing revenues from sales of prisoners’ body organs and blood; as in ‘Brubaker.'”
To prove his claims, Chavez’s attorney is seeking a judge’s order for permission to dig up, search for and take video or photographs of the evidence he says is underneath or stowed in the 1950s-era Old Main Facility at the state pen and other, still-active prison units at the penitentiary.
The state since 2012 has offered tours of Old Main where visitors can learn about the deadly 1980 riot there when at least 33 inmates died.
The recent court filings are part of a lawsuit filed in 2007 by Chavez himself, without a lawyer and while he was still in prison, that maintained his civil rights had been violated by mistreatment. The suit named then-Gov. Bill Richardson, the Department of Corrections, and a host of corrections and prison officials as defendants. Chavez is now represented by El Paso attorney Francisco Macias.
Chavez has won against Corrections before. In 2003, former state District Judge Michael Vigil found that Chavez had been held illegally in restrictive “administrative segregation” for seven years despite a clean record in prison and that the evidence tended to show prison officials were motivated by “discomfort” with jailhouse lawyers.
Vigil also noted the “adversarial relationship” Chavez had with prison officials as an inmate representative in monitoring the federal court Duran Consent Decree that governed post-riot prison operations in New Mexico through 1998. The judge wrote that confidential information about a 1996 prison disturbance that he reviewed did not support accusations that Chavez was a security threat.
Credible or ‘crazy’?
The current Corrections Department leadership and a former state director of prisons are dismissive of Chavez’s recent, dramatic allegations. But an attorney who knows him and represented prisoners after the 1980 riot said he’d found Chavez to be credible.
Santa Fe lawyer Mark Donatelli was director from 1980-83 of the New Mexico Prison Riot Defense Office that the state created to represent prisoners suspected of and charged with crimes related to the riot. He interviewed hundreds of witnesses in the course of that job, and later worked on and continued to represent prisoner interests under the Duran Consent Decree until it was lifted.
Donatelli said this week he always found Chavez “to be credible in my dealings with him” as an inmate representative during the Duran litigation.
But he said he’d “never heard even a rumor” of the kinds of allegations Chavez is now making in state District Court. “Nothing like that ever surfaced,” said Donatelli.
According to Chavez’s recent court filings, also preserved in air-tight containers that were buried in Old Main’s “outside yard” during Chavez’s incarceration are “samples of toxins and substances … that will show medical torture and attempts to take plaintiff’s (Chavez’s) life by the defendants.” There’s also a reference to “a dank, rigid monolith” said to have been used to torture Chavez that supposedly can still be found.
A Chavez motion also alleges that former director of adult prisons Elmer Bustos, who retired in 2006 and is now a Santa Fe real estate agent, allegedly suspected that Chavez had the evidence now outlined in the court filings and asked him about it.
For his own safety, the motion states, Chavez denied knowing what Bustos was talking about. Bustos allegedly said “that if he found out that plaintiff (Chavez) had this evidence, he would put him in solitary confinement and find a way to kill him,” according to the motion.
“I never threatened him or any other inmate,” Bustos said in an interview this week. He called the allegations “outrageous,” adding, “It’s crazy” and that Chavez “is somewhat delusional.”
But Bustos acknowledged that Chavez also was an articulate, intelligent inmate who was well spoken in English and Spanish, and had a flair for writing. “That guy was highly intellectual,” he said.
In 1992, Chavez was accused of an escape attempt when a tunnel about 9 feet down and going about 28 feet horizontally was found underneath his cell.
But Chavez, in another legal victory, was acquitted in a 1993 jury trial when public defenders Val Whitley and T. Glenn Ellington, now a state District Court judge, argued the tunnel dated from the 1980 riot. They said Chavez, as a resident jailhouse lawyer, generally was not in his cell during the day.
The Old Main facility, which has the look of the “big house” cell blocks in old movies and has been used in films in recent years, was closed in 1998. A motion filed by Macias asks for permission to search its basement, boiler room, crawl spaces under cell blocks, and numerous other locations inside and outside the building.
DOC spokeswoman Alex Tomlin said this week that she has been all through Old Main and there is “no indication that anyone has discovered any kind of compromise in the foundation. We do not believe any of these allegations are true.”
Closed hearing sought
In an Oct . 23 filing, Chavez attorney Macías asked for a court hearing, out of the presence of anyone representing the Corrections Department defendants, on his motion to dig for evidence at the pen. Macías wrote of his fear that “the defendants would likely locate and destroy evidence prior to inspection.”
The case is assigned to state District Court Judge Jennifer Attrep, serving a temporary tenure on the bench that will end soon, but no hearing on Macias’ motion has been set.
Chavez, now 55, is helping the Macías law firm on his case, said Daniel Lopez, a paralegal for the firm. Lopez wouldn’t get into specifics, but he added that “there are corroborating witnesses” and “numerous other pieces of evidence.”
Albuquerque attorney Sean Olivas, representing the Corrections Department defendants, wrote in a court response that Chavez’s proposal to inspect and dig at the state pen is “overly broad.”
He “wishes to inspect and videotape the entirety of the penitentiary – literally every cell in the penitentiary, crawl spaces under cell blocks, boiler rooms, secured transportation areas, administrative offices, all health and recreation areas, and the interior and exterior fence lines” and perhaps other areas as well, the defense response says.
The state says safety and security implications outweigh the need for the searching that Chavez wants, Olivas wrote, although Corrections is willing to allow him to go through Old Main “to the extent that such inspection is in accord with the safety limitations” of the public tours.
Chavez murder case
Chavez was convicted of second-degree murder and other charges in June 1988 in the shotgun death of his friend Roy Mintz and sentenced to 47 years.
A firefighter investigating smoke found Chavez outside his Mesilla home burning Mintz’s body in a U-Haul trailer, the Journal reported at the time. Chavez then allegedly extinguished the fire, and threw the body in his truck and fled, but crashed a few miles away.
Investigators said he stole three vehicles at gunpoint, took a hostage who later escaped, and avoided a roadblock and a border guard’s pistol shot as he fled from El Paso into Mexico.
Chavez was arrested by Mexican police a few days later and returned to the U.S. Chavez was carrying a sawed-off shotgun, a 9mm pistol and two knives when arrested, Mexican police said. He denied killing Mintz.
Chavez was released from prison on Jan. 28, 2012, and his parole expired in January of this year.