New Mexico families of people killed by accused repeat offenders or unsupervised teens have come together to become the “Nadine Milford” of what they feel are lax laws for people with violent histories who keep committing crime.
A determined grandmother, Milford became the face of the battle against driving while intoxicated in 1992 after her daughter and three small grandchildren were killed on Christmas Eve by a drunken driver going the wrong way on Interstate 40 in Albuquerque. Her fierce and relentless lobbying of legislators prompted a decade of attack on DWI laws at a time when New Mexico ranked top in the nation for drunken driving crashes.
More than 20 years later, the state has moved down that list and had a more than 40 percent reduction in DWI-related deaths.
That is the kind of result the mourning families in the group Repeat Offenders Bring Death, Destruction and Devastation, known as ROBD, want as they battle what they say are lax laws allowing repeat, violent offenders their freedom – and the freedom to hurt others.
“When I say I am going to make things better, I mean it,” said Nicole Chavez, mother of a popular Manzano High School student who was killed this summer in a drive-by shooting.
Part support group, part campaign strategy, ROBD is pushing for government actions to make laws tougher and policing and prosecution more efficient.
The group wants:
- More crimes to be considered as grounds to put third-time offenders in jail for life with the chance of parole.
- Enhanced penalties and expanded definitions for child abuse resulting in death.
- A state constitutional amendment that allows judges to keep dangerous offenders in jail without bail while awaiting trial.
- Laws allowing cities to enact a curfew for children under 16 and for judges to have access to their juvenile criminal records when setting bail or sentencing.
- A consolidation of the six, disconnected criminal databases currently in use in the state into one database.
The families have been meeting weekly since October, starting their time together with introductions, often tearful, then venting and brainstorming their way to ideas about making things better – for their hearts and their community.
Nicole Chavez is the mother of Jaydon Chavez-Silver, an incoming senior at Manzano High who was in a friend’s home in June when police say a group of teens drove by, firing shots in retaliation for a previous fight at that home that didn’t involve Chavez-Silver. A bullet hit Chavez-Silver in the neck while he sat on the kitchen counter watching his friends play cards about 9:30 p.m.
In the face of her grief, Chavez asks herself what she can do with it to make sure her son’s life was not lost in vain.
“What can you do? I can try to make small changes so this doesn’t happen to any other family,” she said. “I have sat back and put a lot of great thought into these bills. I have been very good at putting aside my emotion and thinking logically to make change. And to make change, you have to step back and see it all.”
The group’s first steps are fighting for a curfew and for tougher laws and penalties, which they say will make offenders think twice about their crimes and keep those who refuse to change behind bars so they can’t hurt others.
Their second step is to tackle the front end of the repeat offender cycle: the early childhood programs, school systems, juvenile criminal system and prison treatment programs that have failed to help the people who killed their loved ones.
They vow that they aren’t going away anytime soon and that the legislative session beginning Jan. 19 is just the start of their campaign to keep repeat offenders from hurting other families.
Chavez’s son was killed the same day that Steven Gerecke, 60, was shot to death, and teens are accused in that slaying, as well. The six young suspects, ages 14 to 17, are also accused of roaming residential streets in the early morning hours stealing from cars and homes when confronted by Gerecke.
Gerecke’s family and Chavez have joined with other grieving families of loved ones killed allegedly by offenders who had a violent criminal history, who were on probation or parole at the time of the killing, or who were unsupervised teens, some with criminal histories of their own.
Julie Benner, the widow of Rio Rancho police officer Gregg Benner killed in May, has joined the group. Andrew Romero, 28, was arrested and charged in that case. A repeat offender, he was convicted in 2006 and served time for killing a man.
At the time of Benner’s shooting, police believe Romero had just committed a robbery and say they suspect he committed a string of armed robberies in March. At the time, he was supposed to be at a drug rehab program for his heroin addiction, a program that was part of his plea deal in a case in which he stole gasoline at gunpoint and other cases.
Alan and Veronica Garcia, the parents of Lilly Garcia, 4, have joined the group. Lilly was shot in the head in a road rage incident in October, while riding in the back of her father’s truck. Police have arrested Tony Torrez, 32, who has admitted firing shots at the Garcias’ truck and is facing murder charges.
Previously, Torrez had been charged with pulling a gun in a road rage incident and in a domestic violence incident. But those cases were dismissed.
The families of Leroy Encinias, Ray Gurule and Carla Estrada have also joined the group. Their mothers, grandmothers and friends say they were all killed by people who had multiple chances to learn from their previous mistakes.
And numerous other crimes this year fit this formula, including the suspect in the death of Albuquerque police officer Daniel Webster. The man accused in his death had also spent years in prison.
“Until they are hit with their consequences, what’s the next best thing? Lock ’em up” and keep them there, Alan Garcia said during a recent meeting.
In his brewing anger, Garcia vented to the group that he would like to see “harsh executions” in the state in the same way they are done in parts of the Middle East, where he served in the military.
“I feel if our laws were tougher, our penalties harsher, I think if a kid grows up knowing that (execution) could happen … it’ll make that kid think twice about doing the same thing,” Garcia said. “If our laws were tougher, people would think twice.”
But people in heated situations, especially when under the influence of drugs and alcohol, don’t usually think of consequences when committing their crimes, said Matthew Coyte, the president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
Coyte says he understands the families’ impulse to make laws that punish those who took their loved ones, but he said current laws and all the offender’s previous encounters with police, rehab and prison didn’t affect their behavior.
“Experience has taught us mandatory sentences (one of the proposed bills) fail to deter someone who is high on drugs or alcohol from committing a crime. Instead we need to focus on the root causes of the problem,” Coyte said.
All of the repeat offenders involved in the cases that brought ROBD together have at one time been in prison or jail or had run-ins with police. Some of the victims have, too.
Coyte says tougher laws – and more people in underfunded and understaffed prisons – are not the answer to the repeat offender problem in New Mexico. If prison and jail were the answer, the state would have already experienced a reduction in crime at the hands of people who have encountered those systems.
He said he supports two of the group’s six measures: linking the state’s various criminal and court databases and creating a constitutional amendment that allows judges to deny bail to dangerous defendants.
But the group’s proposed three-strikes law would just create more crime, not more safety, he says.
“At the moment, our prisons are dangerously understaffed and our jails are overcrowded with the mentally ill. People who enter these institutions come out in worse shape then they went in, and the natural consequence is more crime. Until we address these deficiencies head-on, we will not succeed in reducing crime, regardless of the sentence we chose to impose,” Coyte said.
Chavez said that her group plans to target those issues as well, but that their current platform is the topics they felt they could tackle first in the mere weeks they had between organizing and the 30-day legislative session that starts Jan. 19. The governor must call bills to be heard during this session and has already promised to call a curfew bill.
“Not by any means do I think you should throw them in a cell and throw the key away. Does that help? No,” she said. “But this is about keeping the very dangerous, violent criminals behind bars and hope that while behind bars there are programs” for mental health, drug addiction and trauma recovery.
She said she and the group have engaged in deep philosophical and cultural discussions about how the people accused of killing their loved ones got to that point in their emotional and spiritual lives.
“But that is so complicated,” she said. “I’m really trying to understand.”
But there is only so much understanding she is willing to extend after people have shown over and over that they are not changing their behavior.
She says the three-strikes law mandatory sentencing is for people convicted of their third violent felony from separate cases.
“Do you really think after that point they are trying to change?” she asked.
Calling for help
She has met with about 30 police officers, lawyers and lawmakers in the past few months and plans to meet with District Attorney Kari Brandenburg’s office this month.
She and the group have called and emailed the leaders in the state House and Senate, getting calls back and visits from Republican Reps. Nate Gentry and Paul Pacheco of Albuquerque, Democratic Rep. Pat Ruiloba of Albuquerque and Democratic Sens. Daniel Ivey-Soto and Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque.
Gentry, the House majority leader, is taking a personal interest in the group’s platform, sponsoring or co-sponsoring two of their five bills and pushing for an appropriation for funding to connect all the criminal databases in the state.
Chavez is emphatic that she does not want to play politics, but she says she has felt some frustration that she hasn’t gotten responses from Democratic leaders in the Senate.
She identifies herself as a strong Democrat from a politically active Democratic family in Arizona.
She hopes the senators and representatives in all parties will consider the ROBD bills seriously – and not kill them outright.
She says she welcomes anyone in the community – social workers, educators, legislators, law enforcement, defense attorneys and prosecutors – to join her group or to just call her for a one-on-one conversation. She can be reached at the groups’s email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Please, help me work on this. Help us make laws that are fair, but that make it so we can all feel safe again.”