2015 Spirit of NM Awards come with a call for action

Julie Benner, second from left, wife of slain Rio Rancho police officer Gregg “Nigel” Benner, accepted a Spirit of New Mexico Award on behalf of her husband. From left, Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull, Benner, Gov. Susana Martinez and Lt. Gov. John Sanchez. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was a theme heard repeatedly Thursday by honorees of the 2015 Spirit of New Mexico Awards: The criminal justice system has got to change so that violent repeat criminals do not get out of jail prematurely to reoffend.

Three law enforcement officers shot in the line of duty, two of whom died from their wounds, a nurse who came to the aid of one of the injured officers, and a woman who was the victim of a sexual assault and is fighting for legislation to further protect the vulnerable were among the eight people celebrated during a lunch and ceremony at the Isleta Resort.

All of them spoke to the need of enacting or altering laws to make the community safer. And all received positive support from the capacity crowd of 200, which included the mayors of Albuquerque and Rio Rancho, Gov. Susana Martinez, Lt. Gov. John Sanchez and several legislative leaders.

Martinez, the keynote speaker, thanked the honorees for their selfless acts that make New Mexico special.

The Spirit of New Mexico Awards program was created in 2009 by the Albuquerque Journal and the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce as a way to celebrate individuals and groups who make a difference in their communities.

“In my four years as a sheriff’s deputy, every single shooting that I have been witness to or involved with are all (committed by) convicted felons,” said Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy Michelle Carlino-Webster, wife of Albuquerque police officer Daniel Webster, who in October was shot and killed by a suspect who he’d pulled over for driving a stolen motorcycle.

“We deal with 10 percent of the population who commit 90 percent of the crimes,” she said. “It’s disgusting, and you look at it and go, ‘how is this happening, why is this man out of jail?’ It shouldn’t be and it can’t be and it has to stop.”

The outpouring of sympathy and expressions of concern she received from the public in the wake of her husband’s killing “has really renewed my sense of humanity,” Carlino-Webster said in accepting the award on behalf of her husband.

Julie Benner, wife of Rio Rancho police officer Gregg “Nigel” Benner,, said she will “carry on fighting to change things and make things better for all of us.”

She accepted the award on behalf of her husband, who was killed Memorial Day weekend after making a traffic stop four minutes after his shift ended. Julie Benner has been named to the Attorney General’s Violent Crimes Case Review Team, which will review “breakdowns” in the state’s criminal justice system that allow violent and dangerous criminals to stay on the streets.

Citizens speak up

APD officer Lou Golson, still recovering after being shot four times when he pulled over a suspected drunken driver in January, said Albuquerque citizens are speaking up and “they’re saying ‘we are tired of criminals taking over,'” tired of a system that goes out of its way to accommodate career criminals and drunken drivers.

Citizens are giving public notice that “time should not run out on good laws, and that laws should not die in committee,” he said. “It’s time for our lawmakers to step up to the plate and pass the laws that protect our citizens, not necessarily (protect) me as a cop, but the citizens we serve and proudly do so every day.”

Rose Barak, the nurse who happened to be shopping in the Walgreens store at Eubank and Central Avenue when Webster was shot, and immediately jumped in to assist, said she read the stories of the other Spirit of New Mexico honorees. “All of our stories have some things in common – tragedy, pain, suffering and sadness; but they also have something else in common – triumph, honor, good will and positive action.”

In the hours after Webster’s shooting, before Barak’s identity was known, APD Chief Gorden Eden said “we don’t know who you are, but we love you.”

In accepting her Spirit Award, Barak returned the sentiment: “I don’t know who you all are, and I’m talking to the police officers, sheriff’s department and State Police, all of you, I don’t know who you are, but I love you.”

Racheal Gonzales, raped by a relative beginning at age 10, saw her offender sentenced to 42 years, but then released in half that time. After his release, he began stalking her and sent her a Christmas card. Seeking a restraining order against him, she learned that, in New Mexico, such orders are only good for six months to a year.

“I was seeking permanent protection,” she said. Working with others, she helped to craft Racheal’s Law, which will provide victims with a permanent no-contact order against their offenders that could be granted as part of their sentencing and without forcing the victims to be present at hearings.

The proposed legislation had wide bipartisan support, with versions of the law easily passing the House and Senate. However, time ran out before it could be enacted.

“I’m hopeful that the law will be introduced in January” when the short legislative session begins. Gov. Susana Martinez told the attendees that she will “ask the Legislature to take action on Racheal’s Law.”

Also honored were a former state District Court judge and his wife, who are dealing with his diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and a nurse who helped a terminally ill man get recognition for his accomplishments as a record-setting drag racer.

Former state District Court Judge Kenneth Martinez received his diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease just as his wife, Vivian Martinez, was being treated for breast cancer. Rather than be consumed by their changing situation, they decided to get involved with the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association “to share our story with the hope of bringing awareness and raising funds in the fight to end Alzheimer’s,” he said.

Martinez thanked his fellow District Court judges for sharing his case load so that he could retire with dignity from the bench and he asked the business community for understanding should employees get an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

“Be patient and support them during the time needed as they are consumed with doctors visits and dreadful disability paperwork,” he said. “Take the time to visit or call them. This is what gives them the strength to pick up the pieces and feel the goodwill of humanity.”

The Harry Kinney Good Neighbor Award, named for the late Albuquerque mayor, was presented to Nick Vaughn, a hospice nurse at the Veteran’s Administration hospital. Vaughn befriended a terminally ill Vietnam War veteran, Tim Lent, and learned that, prior to his military service, Lent was an accomplished drag racer in California. At the age of 19, Lent set a quarter-mile record of 189.6 mph in 8.9 seconds.

Vaughn, who also had a background in graphic arts, did research and created a display of Lent’s accomplishments that hung in the VA hospital’s hospice ward. Unfortunately, Lent died before the project was completed.

“Nick went above and beyond his duties as a nurse, helping to preserve a veteran, neighbor and racing legend’s story,” said the governor in her opening remarks.

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