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Whatever happened to …? Catching up with 2014’s top stories

SANTA FE, N.M. — What became of cancer patient Aja Riggs, active in the fight to legalize physician-assisted suicide in New Mexico?

Or Joe Sanchez, the first man in the country to undergo a life-saving new procedure to treat an emergency abdominal aortic rupture?

Or Tarainia McDaniels’ case against Planet Fitness for not allowing her to wear a head scarf?

Those were a few people who captured readers’ interest in Journal stories last year. As 2014 wound to a close, we caught up with those and several more. Here are their updates.

Homeless beating deaths

A trial date has been set for Alex Rios, one of the three Albuquerque teens who confessed to local police that in July, they used cinder blocks, fence pipes and other objects to beat to death two Native American homeless men who had been sleeping on mattresses in a field near Central and 60th NW.

Rios, 18 at the time, will be tried before a jury in District Court beginning March 16, with Judge Briana H. Zamora presiding, according to court records.

Rios has pleaded not guilty, and he remains in the city lock-up on $1 million bond. The two other teens, both under 18, are in the city’s juvenile detention center.

Jeff Buckels, a public defender representing one of them – Nathaniel Carrillo, 16 at the time – said he will appeal to the courts to try his client as a juvenile.

In New Mexico, an underage defendant (ages 15-17) in a murder case is automatically tried as an adult under an automatic transfer statute, he said.

“We’re about to file a challenge to the automatic transfer statute,” Buckels said in a December interview.

Michael A. Earnest, who represents third defendant Gilbert Tafoya, did not return calls seeking information about whether the same action was being pursued for his client.

Assisted suicide test case

Last January, a judge ruled that doctors cannot be prosecuted under New Mexico’s assisted suicide law for prescribing medications that would end the lives of competent terminally ill patients. That ruling is being appealed.

Aja Riggs reports that her uterine cancer is now in remission. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Aja Riggs reports that her uterine cancer is now in remission. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Aja Riggs, 51 and living in Santa Fe County, became the local face of the fight. A professional organizer who runs her own business, Riggs had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of uterine cancer in August 2011. She wanted to be able to end her life if she chose.

In a recent telephone interview, Riggs said she won’t be getting lethal meds anytime soon, as they can only be prescribed to those with six months or less to live.

“I have not received that diagnosis,” she said with relief and elation in her voice.

Quite the contrary: Riggs is in remission – which was unexpected – and loving it.

She was thrilled to report she’s been celebrating with what she calls her “No Regrets Remission Tour.” In a 20-year-old camper van, she’s driven to Joshua Tree National Park in California, the Everglades, and Yellowstone National Park.

And, since the ruling, she added: “I feel a greater sense of peace about the option being available … having the choice to say: ‘Enough is enough.'”

Same-sex marriages legal

In other legal news, marriages between same-sex couples in the state have continued to climb since August 2013, when the New Mexico Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling allowing them.

From August of last year through the middle of December, 2,018 same-sex couples have gotten married in Bernalillo County – 1,145 from New Mexico, 873 from other states, according to Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver.

One couple who got married a few months after the ruling in November 2013 is Jere Kelly and Paul Oostenbrug of Albuquerque. Oostenbrug, reached by phone, said his new husband is busy with an online master’s program, but in general, he said, “We’re doing pretty well.”

And now, he said, laughing, “It seems like the (same-sex) marriage battle is so last year.”

Planet Fitness head covering ban

Tarainia McDaniel settled her case against Planet Fitness, which changed its policy about wearing head coverings in the gym.  (Adolphe Pierre-Louis / Albuquerque Journal)

Tarainia McDaniel settled her case against Planet Fitness, which changed its policy about wearing head coverings in the gym. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis / Albuquerque Journal)

Another legal case filed locally had a national impact. It pertained to whether members of the national fitness chain Planet Fitness could cover their heads while inside one of its branches.

The gym’s policy was no hats or headgear, but Tarainia McDaniel, an Albuquerque Muslim woman who covers her head as part of her faith, kept hers on when she entered a West Side location and was turned away. So she filed a civil lawsuit under the New Mexico Human Rights Act and the Unfair Practices Act, alleging the gym had no valid reason to deny her entry.

The case was set to go to trial in August, before District Judge Beatrice Brickhouse, but it never made it that far.

“It settled prior to trial for a confidential amount,” said Rachel Higgins, McDaniel’s lawyer, in an interview. “Planet Fitness confirmed they’ve changed their policy such that no person has to inform the management that they are wearing a head covering for religious purposes.”

In fact, she said, “There’s no longer a policy that prohibits the wearing of head coverings of any sort.”

She added: “I think my client was really pleased that the case resolved, and she was really pleased to know the policy is no longer in effect – she considers that a very good result.”

Chicken executions on hold

A good result was in store for Journal reporter Patrick Lohmann’s chickens as well. In an essay he wrote in October for Fetch!, the Journal ‘s pet page, he said he had been considering humanely killing the six Light Brahma chickens he keeps in his yard, because they no longer lay eggs.

But in a newsroom interview in December, the 24-year-old journalist and part-time urban chickener admitted to a change of heart.

“I’m gonna wait till summer to see if they’ll start laying eggs again,” he said. “I’m not against getting rid of them; I decided to wait a little longer.”

Candy Lady’s new digs in Old Town

Owner Debbie Ball is happy with the new location for her Candy Lady confection business.  (Albuquerque Journal File)

Owner Debbie Ball is happy with the new location for her Candy Lady confection business. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The Candy Lady couldn’t wait to restart her business. After being evicted over a lease dispute from her longtime spot across from Little Anita’s in Old Town, Debbie Ball found a new location in the 400 block of San Felipe NW, just a few blocks away. Since moving there in March, she said in a December interview at the shop, her business initially fell off a bit.

That’s because as far as the Internet was concerned, her store was still at its former spot. In September, she hired an expert to make sure her current address showed up in online searches, and business began to come back.

The new location suits her well, she added, because it’s in a lighter and airier space that sees more foot traffic than her previous spot – many of them tourists walking around Old Town, she said.

The gift of life

Joe Sanchez, shown with his wife, Sally, is in good health and spirits after a life-saving operation.  (Albuquerque Journal File)

Joe Sanchez, shown with his wife, Sally, is in good health and spirits after a life-saving operation. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Speaking of walking around, it’s something Joe Sanchez now does easily. In August 2013, the 85-year-old Uptown resident was cleaning his kitchen when he suddenly was jolted with so much pain that his son called an ambulance to rush him to the hospital.

His abdominal aorta, a major vessel transporting blood from his lower to upper body, had burst, a medical emergency that takes the life of nine out of 10 people who suffer it.

He was one of the lucky ones: Dr. Steve Henao, a vascular surgeon approximately half Sanchez’s age (whom Sanchez affectionately refers to as his best friend) performed an emergency procedure – the first one in the country – that sealed the rupture.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” Sanchez said in an interview in December. “I had a check-up in August (2014). That made a year that they did the operation, and everything was fine.”

Henao, who high-fived his team and called his mother right after completing the surgery, has since invited Sanchez to join him at speaking engagements about the procedure. “He wanted me to say a few words and I did,” Sanchez said. “I felt great, in telling people I was the first one.”

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