Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s note: Repeat offender Steven Trujillo was out on $1 bail and an ankle monitor when he allegedly crashed into a van, killing a woman and a boy. Today, the Journal chronicles why he was free. Tomorrow, the victims’ family tells its story.
For the past 16 years, Steven Trujillo, 36, has gone only a few months at a time without close contact with police, courts or jail.
In fact, for most of 14 of those years he’s been on probation, wanted on a warrant, scheduled for some sort of court hearing, under police investigation or in jail awaiting trial.
That’s where he was earlier this year awaiting trials on charges he raped his child’s mother and severely beat her while she held their toddler son – his third domestic violence case with her.
When District Judge Jacqueline Flores and the court’s Pretrial Services program looked at Trujillo’s history as they determined whether he should be released from jail, they would have seen he’s had 33 bench warrants and been in an out of jail 15 times since 2000.
The Albuquerque man has violated his conditions of release from jail in all but one of his cases, either for failing to show up for court or not following court orders, or for picking up new domestic violence or DWI charges while on release.
When he was given two years of supervised probation instead of prison in 2000 for selling drugs, he promptly disappeared – for 4½ years – corrections records show.
Still, after a series of hearings, Judge Flores and the court’s Pretrial Services Division, which approves jail release and supervision plans for some defendants, released Trujillo from jail March 19 on $1 bail and a GPS ankle monitor.
While out with this ankle monitor on, he is accused of driving drunk – again – this time, police say, killing a woman and a teen on July 12 and injuring six kids.
Court and police records show some of the path that led to his release, and it involves a man with a past, a hasty hallway conversation, allegations of improper conduct by court staff, and a jury foreman “sick and angry” over it all.
A mess of cases
Three girlfriends in Trujillo’s past have made similar allegations that he stalked, threatened and violently harassed them.
Most recently, Trujillo, 36, had three pending domestic violence cases with the same woman, with whom he has a 4-year-old son.
Two of the cases are pending in District Court before Judge Flores, and it is in one of them that she authorized a Pretrial Services officer to sign him out of jail without bail.
In one of the cases, he is alleged to have attacked his girlfriend at home in 2012, smashing out her windows with his fists and trying to pull her out through the broken glass before entering the home, pouncing on her and beating her and smashing her head into the pavement while she held their terrified toddler son.
In the other case, he is alleged to have been drunk when he surprised her while she slept, forcing painful sex acts while choking her and punching her head until her cries woke Trujillo’s sister, who stopped the attack.
Trujillo’s sister, Margaret, told the Journal on Tuesday that her brother “is a good guy.”
“He works. He just got married,” she said.
Trujillo has been married twice before. Police said he works for a construction company.
The third case went to trial in Metro Court in August, and the result played a consequential role in his release onto the ankle monitor.
‘Dropped the ball’
On May 5, 2013, Trujillo’s ex-girlfriend called police to make a final report about harassing phone calls she said she had been receiving from Trujillo at all times of day and night even though she had changed her phone number. She told police she had an extensive history of domestic violence with Trujillo, including the rape and beating cases.
The case went to trial in Metro Court in August, but prosecutors did not provide the jury with phone company records, only a handwritten call log from the woman. Also, the officer in the case did not show up for the trial, leaving only the woman to testify.
The jury found Trujillo not guilty.
The jury foreman recently told the Journal that his jury peers were ready to convict Trujillo but prosecutors and police “dropped the ball.”
“The police officer had her write this stuff down, but, my God, in this day and age, why didn’t they have the records?” the foreman said. “But none of that was presented. That would have been a shut case.”
The District Attorney’s Office told the Journal last week that police didn’t get the log or ask for a subpoena. The woman was unable to get the log herself. And by the time prosecutors asked the cellphone company, the company had deleted the records. As is often the case, fair trial laws prohibited prosecutors from presenting Trujillo’s criminal history.
Though not guilty of these charges, Trujillo remained in jail awaiting trial on the rape and beating charges.
Asking for release
State District Judge Ross Sanchez initially set Trujillo’s bail in the rape case at $50,000 and ordered pretrial monitoring in the event he was able to post bond. Another judge had set bail at $1 in the beating case – a separate incident with the same victim.
When Flores received the rape case, she upped Trujillo’s bail to $100,000, cash-only.
He had been in jail for about five months when his attorney in both cases, Stefanie Gulley, requested that his $100,000 cash-only bail in the rape case be lowered or that he be let out of jail without bail and onto a pretrial monitoring plan.
The $100,000 cash-only bail at that point was an unconstitutional hold on her client, Gulley told the Journal last week.
“Despite what a defendant is charged with, they are afforded the opportunity to reasonable bond,” Gulley said. “That’s my job, to uphold the Constitution.”
The State Supreme Court in a 2014 decision said that under New Mexico’s Constitution judges can’t use the severity of the charges to set a high bail. Instead, judges are supposed to set bail to assure the defendant shows up in court, limiting them to factors that establish a flight risk, such as bench warrants for failing to appear in court or follow court orders.
Trujillo had 33.
Both the alleged victim and prosecutors told Judge Flores in a June 28, 2014, hearing that it wasn’t safe to release Trujillo.
So Flores, balancing Trujillo’s rights with the likelihood Trujillo would appear for trial, declined to release him without bail, but she did lower the bail in the rape case to $80,000 and requested pretrial monitoring and a GPS ankle monitor if he was able to post bond.
He stayed in jail.
Gulley says pretrial officers then should have conducted an interview with Trujillo, but they didn’t.
So she came back again to ask for his release Oct. 28, 2014.
Attacking the victim
The alleged victim was in Flores’ courtroom Oct. 28 to hear Gulley tell how Trujillo’s mother had suffered strokes and undergone surgery, and Trujillo needed to get out of jail to take care of her.
Prosecutors objected again. The alleged victim said again that she was afraid Trujillo would follow her and their son.
“Even when he is out, we could still run into each other, so I’m not, I don’t want to stop my life just for him. I would accomplish more with him in custody than when he was out, and I feel safer,” she told the judge.
At this point, Gulley told the courtroom that the alleged victim was found “to be uncredible” by the Metro Court jury in the phone harassment case.
The foreman of that jury told the Journal that characterization was inaccurate and it made him “sick and angry” that it was used to try to get Trujillo out of jail considering what police say Trujillo did once out.
“I wouldn’t say she (the woman) was unreliable. Clearly, I would say the police and prosecution were delinquent,” the foreman said last week. “I’m sick of what happened (after Trujillo got out).”
Despite Gulley’s argument, Judge Flores decided to keep the $80,000 bail in place while asking Pretrial Services for screening to see whether Trujillo could qualify for what is called third-party release – in which an officer from Pretrial Services signs the defendant out of jail and starts immediate supervision.
Flores ordered that if Pretrial Services approved his release that Trujillo would be released without posting bail but would have an ankle monitor and a supervision program.
District Court would not allow pretrial services to be interviewed by the Journal. In written responses to questions, the court provided a summary of procedures for Pretrial Services.
It said the program’s officers look at several factors in determining eligibility for release, including “appropriate housing, whether the defendant can benefit from various services” such as mental health or drug counseling, ” the risk to the community, and community ties.”
Gulley said that Pretrial Services finally interviewed Trujillo, after she pressed them, only to determine he wasn’t qualified for release.
Court documents don’t explain why, or when, that decision was made.
A District Court spokesman, who said he can’t comment on pending cases, would not say why Trujillo was found unqualified for release – or why five months later Pretrial Services staff would change their mind.
Closer to release
Gulley came back to court on March 19, 2015, for her third request to release Trujillo, reiterating that a Metro Court jury “flat out did not believe (the woman’s) testimony, and her credibility was called into question,” in the other case.
Gulley, though, added a surprise allegation that the Pretrial Services officer on Trujillo’s case was friends with the alleged victim, who was not present at this hearing.
Prosecutor Sarah Coffey again told Flores that she strongly opposed Trujillo’s release, citing his history of cases and his pattern of picking up new charges while out of jail on other charges. She also said she did not oppose a new pretrial officer rescreening Trujillo.
Court spokesman Korte said in an email last week that “the employee subsequently was asked about this and told her supervisor that no relationship existed nor currently exists” with the alleged victim. Another officer has since been appointed.
At the time of Gulley’s allegation, Judge Flores asked to talk with the accused pretrial officer, but she was unavailable, so the court called in another Pretrial Services employee to answer questions.
Trujillo’s fate – and that of a vanful of kids – flipped in less than 30 minutes.
Within half an hour of the call, the summoned pretrial employee, Dawn Smith, was meeting with Gulley in the hallway, according to Gulley and court records.
Within minutes, Smith entered the courtroom and told the judge the pretrial program had changed its mind and would themselves sign Trujillo out of jail on third-party release.
And just like that, the judge reversed course and authorized Pretrial Services to sign Trujillo out of jail without posting bond.
He did post the $1 bond in the beating case. And he did promise to stay away from the alleged victims in the case, including his son. He also promised to not stay out after 8 p.m. and to not drink. And he would wear an ankle monitor.
Trujillo was wearing that ankle monitor on July 12 when, just after midnight, he was arrested after police say he drunkenly ran a red light while fleeing sheriff’s deputies in the South Valley. His “borrowed” construction work truck smashed into an SUV full of seven unbuckled children and two women, deputies said.
The children were thrown from the vehicle and seriously injured.
Mary Soto, 31, and a 13-year-old boy were pronounced dead at the scene, which sheriff’s deputies described as one of the worst crashes they’ve ever seen. Two children are still in the hospital.
Trujillo is now back in jail on a no-hold bond and with another pending case, homicide by vehicle DWI.