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Suspect Acquitted Of Murder

SANTA FE, N.M. — Even though a Rio Arriba County jury late Wednesday could not agree on a murder charge related to a grisly killing from last year, both defendants will receive a lot of time behind bars.

Jurors were hung on a second-degree murder charge against Toby Gonzales, but they did come back with convictions on other felonies.

Gonzales faces 27 years in prison for his role in the February 2010 killing of 26-year-old Steven Duran of Chamita, who was hogtied and beaten in the back of his pickup. His lifeless body was doused with gasoline and set on fire in a remote arroyo.

Gonzales, 23, of El Guique, was found guilty of kidnapping, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and tampering with evidence.

Because the kidnapping resulted in death, that charge alone carries a mandatory 18 years in prison. The other two counts call for an additional six years behind bars.

Another three years will be tacked on due to a prior conviction, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Juan Valencia.

Gonzales’ partner-in-crime from that evening, Rudy Salazar, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder before his case went to trial. He faces about 14 to 16 years in prison at sentencing. However, prosecutors haven’t determined whether they will cancel Salazar’s plea agreement, since he refused to testify against Gonzales after earlier agreeing to do so.

Gonzales, Salazar and Duran had been partying on drugs and alcohol before the killing. Prosecutors alleged that the violence was sparked by an argument over Gonzales borrowing Duran’s truck earlier in the day and using it to evade police during an unrelated incident. Gonzales ran out of gas in the foothills between El Guique and El Duende after the chase, and Duran and Salazar brought him gasoline. As they partied, the violence erupted.

Salazar, 33, of Alcalde, refused to testify when called to the stand last week. His attorney, Dan Marlowe, said at the time that Salazar was going to prison and implied that his client didn’t want to be killed for ratting anybody out.

Salazar refused to testify even though state District Judge Michael Vigil ordered him to do so. For that, Salazar was found to be in contempt of court and faces an additional six months behind bars on top of whatever sentence he receives – if prosecutors decide not to throw out Salazar’s plea deal.

Gonzales’ attorney, Tom Clark, said after the trial that he “respects the findings of the jury,” and he “respects their courage” for not finding his client guilty of the murder charge. Clark also acknowledged that this “was an ugly case.”

“Anytime there’s a murder and a burned body, it raises the emotional level to a point where it’s hard for jurors to get past that,” he said.

Valencia said that nine jurors voted for the second-degree murder count, but three disagreed.

The trial started in Santa Fe on Dec. 14. It resumed in Tierra Amarilla on Monday. Jurors had to deal with travel back and forth through inclement weather. They deliberated for about five hours Wednesday, before coming back with their decision about 8 p.m.

“I can’t say enough about the jury,” Valencia said. “Every one of them showed up. They worked very hard.”

Valencia also lauded the work by State Police officers, saying they did “an excellent job.” However, the former case agent in the investigation found himself at the center of a controversy earlier in the trial.

Last week, Clark won a motion to toss an alleged confession that Gonzales gave to an officer during a jury selection hearing preceding the trial.

Rio Arriba County sheriff’s Sgt. Abraham Baca – who was once a State Police officer and lead agent in the case – was working at the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse and had a conversation with Gonzales at that time.

Baca testified during a motion hearing that Gonzales struck up a conversation with him, during which he confessed to taking part in Duran’s murder. However, the judge wouldn’t allow the confession, saying that he had “serious questions” about the legitimacy of Baca’s testimony.