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‘You will die in prison’

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

The judge told convicted cop killer Andrew Romero on Friday that for the rest of his life – when he turns 30, 40, 50 or even 60 – he wants him to remember five words: “You will die in prison.”

Rio Rancho police Cpl. Justin Garcia hugs New Mexico State Police officer Steve Montaño after Andrew Romero was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Rio Rancho police officer Gregg Benner. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Rio Rancho police Cpl. Justin Garcia hugs New Mexico State Police officer Steve Montaño after Andrew Romero was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Rio Rancho police officer Gregg Benner. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“What I would really like to have happen to you I can’t say in court, because I’d probably be removed from office,” Thirteenth Judicial District Judge George Eichwald said in sentencing Romero, 29, to life in prison without the possibility of parole – plus 20 more years – for murdering Rio Rancho police officer Gregg Benner during a traffic stop on May 25, 2015.

A Valencia County jury convicted Romero of first-degree murder of a police officer and other crimes last week.

Greg Herrera, a Rio Rancho police detective, hugs Julie Benner after Andrew Romero was sentenced Friday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Greg Herrera, a Rio Rancho police detective, hugs Julie Benner after Andrew Romero was sentenced Friday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Eichwald told Romero in a packed courtroom that he did everything he could to be fair to him. He didn’t allow his jury to hear incriminating statements Romero made to police the night of his arrest.

He moved the case from Sandoval to Valencia County because of “public excitement.” And he said Romero was given a “Cadillac defense” team of attorneys Tom Clark and Cindy Leos.

But Eichwald said those facts will give Romero “little wiggle room” when the case is appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court, which is automatic given the severity of the sentence.

The Sandoval County courtroom had filled up 30 minutes before the hearing with police officers and Benner’s supporters. Every seat was taken, and people lined the walls and entrance.

Julie Benner talked about kissing her husband for the last time earlier that day. Since his death, she said, she has had to sell their home, because she can’t do the required upkeep. And she needs to rely on friends for rides.

“Every night since May 25 has been cold and lonely,” she said.

After the hearing, Rio Rancho police officers formed a long line throughout the courthouse hallway and took turns hugging Julie Benner as she left.

Rio Rancho police Chief Mike Geier, left, hugs Julie Benner outside a packed courtroom after Andrew Romero was sentenced Friday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Rio Rancho police Chief Mike Geier, left, hugs Julie Benner outside a packed courtroom after Andrew Romero was sentenced Friday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Nothing to say

Romero wasn’t as clean-cut Friday as he appeared during his lengthy jury trial, which started Sept. 8 and wrapped up last Friday.

He was wearing a yellow prison jumpsuit that he kept unzipped to his waist. He has started to grow a goatee, and he smirked as he entered the courtroom and throughout the hearing.

Romero didn’t say anything to the judge and glanced away from Eichwald as he sentenced him.

Clark pointed out that life without parole – the harshest punishment available in New Mexico – is a mandatory sentence for people convicted of first-degree murder of a police officer in New Mexico.

But he still tried to “humanize” Romero before he was sentenced.

“It’s a sorrowful day,” he said.

Clark said Romero had a tough life and is still a son, grandson and brother. He said he has gotten to know a different side of Romero, and that he can be quiet and respectful.

“We are still dealing with a human being,” he said. “The loss is widespread.”

The shooting

Romero shot Benner, a popular military veteran with an English accent, after he pulled over Romero and Tabitha Littles, Romero’s former girlfriend, in Rio Rancho on Memorial Day evening in 2015.

Romero and Littles were on a two-month drug binge they funded by robbing about 10 business, mainly fast-food restaurants. Romero and Littles were on their way to rob a Twisters when Benner stopped them.

Littles was also sentenced Friday. Eichwald sentenced her to 16 years, and she will be able to cut that in half if she behaves well while in prison.

Her plea agreement called for her to be sentenced to 16 to 20 years and allowed her not to face additional charges for the robberies she and Romero committed in exchange for Littles’ testimony against Romero at trial.

“You came real close to being sent away for the rest of your life,” Eichwald said.

Romero’s future

Although Romero won’t ever be released from prison for his conviction for Benner’s murder, he still has federal charges pending against him.

He has been indicted in U.S. District Court on two counts of interference with interstate commerce, two counts of brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence and one count of felon in possession of a firearm.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Martinez said Romero will now be prosecuted on federal charges. There are no federal prisons in New Mexico.

“I don’t have a preference where he goes, as long as he stays in one way or the other,” 13th Judicial District Attorney Lemuel Martinez said.

Alex Sanchez, a deputy secretary for the Department of Corrections, said Romero is being held at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe.

But she said it would be OK with corrections officials if federal authorities convict him of other charges and want to have him serve his sentence elsewhere in the country.

Romero belongs to the prison gang Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico, SNM, according to prior Journal reports.

“If they want to do something else with him, we’ll do everything we can to support them,” Sanchez said. “They can take him if they want him.”

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