There’s at least a little good news in two horrible crime stories out of San Miguel County.
In one recent case, Eddie Medrano, 53, with a Santa Fe address and a trailer home in a rural part of San Miguel, near Ilfeld, was charged with 21 counts of rape for allegedly kidnapping, forcibly holding and sexually assaulting three different homeless women after luring them with promises of drugs and alcohol. He entered a no contest plea to four charges last week and now faces up to 18 years in prison.
Then there’s the case of Benjamin Baca, 75, of Las Vegas, N.M., who was charged March 18 with forcing mentally disabled women into sex, then compensating them with cigarettes, soda and cheese.
He faces two counts of rape and other counts in what, if the charges are proven, would be only the latest instance of criminal exploitation of former patients of the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute, many of whom remain in Las Vegas after they leave the hospital.
What’s positive in these two disturbing cases is that we know about them at all, thanks to the arrests of Medrano and of Baca, who on his charges may be able to escape conviction by arguing that the women he hauled to a cemetery for sexual encounters gave consent, which people with mental illness can legally do.
The criminal justice system has weighed in on the side of women whose status in life, problems with substance abuse or mental disability can leave them vulnerable to predators looking for easy targets. The kind of person planning to lure a woman to a rural trailer and use her for sex over several days, or who buys sex with a Pepsi and cigarettes, doesn’t typically go after people of high status or those with strong family connections.
So it’s good that police and prosecutors took action here. But it also appears that, at least in one of these cases, something could have been done earlier.
In October 2013, a woman flagged down a driver on Interstate 25 and jumped into his pickup near Ilfeld, then told State Police that she’d been forcibly held, drugged, raped and chased by someone with a chain saw over several days. She even gave officers Medrano’s name.
An officer’s report at the time said the woman was incoherent and that she couldn’t describe where she’d been held.
The State Police told the Journal in 2013 they weren’t pursuing the case because of “lack of evidence.”
It wasn’t until two years later that Medrano was charged for assaulting this woman, who had gone with Medrano and another man from a Santa Fe homeless shelter. In the interim, authorities now say, Medrano held and raped two other homeless women, lured to the Ilfeld trailer from Albuquerque.
It’s worth noting that, in two of Medrano’s three cases, his victims took assertive action to get away from him – one ran screaming to the interstate while her tormenters apparently were in pursuit and another, presented with an opportunity when Medrano took her to a Santa Fe bank so she could get him money from her account, told the teller she needed help (which got her away from Medrano, but again didn’t result any quick action by law enforcement.)
These women clearly had personal problems, including substance abuse, and never should have gone with Medrano, but they had the courage to do what they could to escape.
There’s no doubt police and prosecutors have to make difficult calls when sorting out what’s believable, illegal or worth pursuing when confronted with bizarre stories like those about Medrano, including that chain saw detail, or deciding what to do about the alleged sexual taste of Benjamin Baca for former mental patients. Drugs or alcohol also likely blur the stories victims tell.
But these cases – like the tragic deaths of 11 women believed to have been involved with drugs or prostitution whose bodies were found buried on Albuquerque’s West Mesa years ago – show that every layer of society needs and deserves the protections and support that our law enforcement and legal systems can provide.