Sunday, March 9, 2008
Ex-Con's Cocaine Habit Catalyst in Run-In With Vet
By Leslie Linthicum
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Of the Journal
Glass shattered in a driveway in a quiet Albuquerque subdivision a few nights after Christmas. Minutes later, at the end of a chaotic quarter-mile trek over fences, through vacant lots and across a six-lane highway, police sirens began to wail.
One man lay dead against a chain-link fence, dirt on his teeth and a bullet hole in his heart.
The other stood in his stocking feet in the middle of the street with his revolver tucked into the waistband of his jeans.
"Why did he do it, sir?" he asked the officer who took his gun and put him in a squad car.
In the more than three years that have passed, one family has buried a son, a brother, a father. The other family has waited for judgment: Was the killing justified or should there be a price to pay?
A judge answered that question late last month, levying two years in prison for the death and taking another father from his son.
The sentence kept talk radio busy for weeks with emotional debates about guns and crime and personal justice. There was outrage over the prison sentence. There were calls for a pardon.
And hovering over it all was the provocative question: What would you have done if you had been in their shoes?
Forgotten in all of the anger and opinion were other questions: How did the lives of these two men ever intersect; and could it have ended differently up against that chain-link fence?
Interviews with friends and relatives of the men, along with information drawn from police, court and forensic reports provided details of the December 2004 incident and depicted two men from very different backgrounds thrown together for a fateful 15 minutes.
Stage is set
Daniel Romero was coked up and outfitted with a car burglar's tools as he approached an older blue and white Ford Bronco that was parked in a driveway on Wolverine Drive, just off Coors and Paseo del Norte, that December night.
Romero, 34, had grown up in the village of Tesuque outside Santa Fe, fishing and camping. After graduating from high school, he had learned the building trades.
He had also strayed from the law, and, by the time he was 23, cocaine and guns had landed him in a federal prison.
Now he was married with four kids, had steady work as a carpenter and his rap sheet had tapered off. He had spent the last five years living at the ranch of his wife's family in Sapello, a small village tucked into the east side of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northern New Mexico where he taught his kids how to pitch a tent and find beaver dams.
But his need for cocaine had not faded.
Now, on that December night, trying to pay off a $400 coke debt, he was dressed in all black and crouched in a driveway on Albuquerque's West Side, getting ready to steal a Bronco while his friend waited in a car across the street.
Inside the house on Wolverine, Elton Richard was watching an episode of "The Sopranos" with his shoes kicked off. Richard pronounced his name the French way ree-SHARD and he was a Cajun Marine vet from the piney woods of East Texas.
Richard was just settling into civilian life and the house on Wolverine Drive the first he had owned with his wife, Erica, and their 18-month-old son, Garrett.
He had been back from Iraq for a little more than a year after a six-month stint doing the nerve-wracking and dangerous work known as recon going up highways and into towns and kicking down doors to find out whether friends or enemies lurked on the other side.
That was behind him after an honorable discharge with the rank of sergeant. His job now was the highly specialized and secretive task of guarding nuclear material for the Department of Energy.
It was the kind of job you don't talk about, and that was fine with Richard. Friendly and outgoing, Richard was not the kind of person to brag about his achievements, whether they were his high school football feats or his commendations in Iraq.
His focus was on his new home and his family, the tight-knit clan in Texas and his wife and son who were sleeping in their bedrooms as he relaxed in front of the TV.
A little after 11 p.m., Richard heard a noise, grabbed his gun and stepped outside.
'As a dad, he was good'
According to his mother, Romero was "a real people person."
Mary Lou Jensen counts eight kids in the extended family named after Daniel, evidence of how he was treasured.
"He would stop along the road to help others," Jensen said. "He was a comedian. He could make you laugh so much."
He had known his wife, Barbara, since they were students together in junior high. They started dating in high school and had built a life that revolved around work, kids and weekend adventures to lakes, where Romero loved night fishing.
"As a dad, he was good," Barbara said. "He was always there for my son's YAFL practice, never missed a game. He'd pick them up, take them to the doctor. Always there after school. He would bathe my little girls at night for me, tuck them in, read them a story, fly them around like an airplane."
Romero's problems had always been related to cocaine addiction, she said. He was first arrested for residential burglary when he was 20 and sentenced to probation.
In 1992, when he was just 21 and a new father, he was charged with possession and intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana, federal crimes. Romero pleaded guilty and got five years in La Tuna, a federal prison in Texas.
He was released just before his 26th birthday and returned to Barbara and their son Daniel Jr.
He and Barbara had moved from Sapello for better-paying jobs in 2003, bought a house just outside Santa Fe and settled into a life of work, dinner, TV, baths for the kids, story time and bed.
The most serious blemish on his record in the next four years was a speeding ticket and a citation for fishing without a license.
Why did he show up in Richard's driveway dressed in all black, wearing dark gloves and a watch cap and carrying a screwdriver and a footlong mallet?
Romero owed $400 to a friend for drugs. The plan, the friend later told police, was to steal Richard's older-model Bronco which was nearly identical to his friend's and get money selling the parts.
His friend lived only a few blocks from Richard, and they met there before setting off in the friend's Bronco with the tools. Romero had some drinks and snorted some cocaine.
'A very stand-up guy'
Elton Richard was named for his father, who died of a heart attack when his only son was 8 years old. His full name Elton John Richard II was quite a curse for a big Texas boy growing up during the heyday of the flamboyant, glitter-fed career of the British pop star Elton John.
"They would make fun of his name," said his grandmother, Bobbie Wilkerson. The teasing didn't sour Richard, although when he had a son of his own, he chose not to pass on the family name.
By the time he was 12, he was washing camper tops and helping out around his grandfather's auto business in Beaumont. He played football at Hamshire-Fannett High School just outside Beaumont and made varsity as an underclassman.
"He's just an all-around friendly outgoing person, always giving people a helping hand," Wilkerson said. It didn't matter whether his Longhorns were winning or being beaten, Richard always extended a hand to help up an opponent who had been knocked down, she said.
After he graduated from high school, Richard joined the military, following in the footsteps of his mother, who had been an Air Force nurse.
With Marine basic training under his belt, he and a friend were back in Beaumont eating at a CiCi's Pizza Buffet when the girl behind the corner caught his eye. Erica Harless was 16; he was 19. They started talking when she filled the napkin dispenser, and he got her phone number before he reported for duty.
Despite the age difference, Erica said, the long-distance relationship had the blessing of her parents.
"They really were excited to see somebody that they could trust and they knew he would take care of me," Erica said. "He's a very stand-up guy. It's what you see is what you get. He's not a guy to sugarcoat anything or act a certain way because he thinks you might like him better. He's just a very straightforward guy."
Two years later, they married on a Saturday, and, on Sunday, they flew back to his base in Twentynine Palms, Calif.
Richard performed well as a Marine and did tours in Asia. But after four years of service, he was ready to come home, mainly to be with his mother, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer years earlier.
He left in 2000 with an honorable discharge, joined a Marine Reserve unit in San Antonio and worked for his grandfather's auto shop while he looked for a job in law enforcement.
In late 2002, Richard's Marine Corps Reserve unit got called up and, within weeks, he was on a ship headed to Kuwait. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, he was among the first troops on the ground.
Six dusty, anxious months later, the members of Charlie Company, 4th Reconnaissance Battalion, came home. Waiting for Richard was a seven-months-pregnant wife and the law enforcement job he wanted: providing security for the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy.
He would be based in Albuquerque guarding nuclear material and could settle down with a family and a home.
Daniel Romero broke the side vent window of Richard's Bronco, popped the vehicle's lock and started hot-wiring the ignition.
Inside the house, Richard heard a noise and came outside, still in his stocking feet, with a .38-caliber revolver.
Richard confronted Romero, who was holding a 12-inch tool that police have alternately called a sledgehammer, a hammer and a mallet.
His friend, who had pulled his Bronco out of sight, drove off when the encounter began, but stayed in the neighborhood and called Romero on his cell phone during the confrontation to find out what was going on.
According to what witnesses said they saw that night, Richard sometimes held his gun at his side and sometimes pointed it at Romero. He repeatedly yelled for Romero to "get down" or "sit down" as the two circled each other.
Evidence shows Romero dropped the tool early in the minuteslong confrontation just a few houses up the street from Richard's house.
Richard was wearing jeans and Romero was wearing a black jacket, and Romero was the taller of the two, so witnesses' statements used those descriptions to identify the two men.
They described a standoff in the middle of Wolverine Drive, then a series of "tussles" as the confrontation moved up the street and Richard brought Romero to the ground.
"The smaller man grabbed the larger man by the shirt and maneuvered him to the ground, but the larger man got up again," one neighbor told police.
Another neighbor said he saw the man in the black jacket walk toward the man with the gun "ignoring his orders to sit down or get down."
That neighbor told police he yelled out, "I've called the cops! They are on their way!"
He said the man with the gun replied, "I am a cop."
Another neighbor told police: "The first male (who) was holding what appeared to be a gun was yelling at the second male to stop and get on the ground. They were pushing and struggling with each other for about 10 minutes. The second male proceeded to get away and run northwest on Wolverine and the first male chased him."
The men disappeared from the sight of neighbors as they ran outside the wall of the subdivision.
End of the line
From that point to the shot fired at the chain-link fence, exactly what happened is known to only two men.
One died at the fence and the other, on the eve of trial for second-degree murder, pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and never gave a detailed account of events in court.
Physical evidence collected by police shows two sets of footprints continued north across two dirt lots. The circling or wrestling that had occurred in the neighborhood never resumed, the footprints show. Measurements of their strides show they both were at a run.
They crossed one empty lot, Richard jumping over a low wooden-picket fence and Romero running through a gap in the fence.
They crossed a street and ran into another lot, heading north toward Paseo del Norte.
When they reached the road, both scaled a chain-link fence on the south side that was at least 6 feet high and ran across the six traffic lanes and median of Paseo del Norte.
On the north side of Paseo del Norte, they encountered another high chain-link fence.
Romero's body, shot once several inches under his right armpit, was found lying on the north side of that fence. Richard flagged down police on the south side.
Had the case gone to trial, Assistant District Attorney Theresa Whatley said she would have argued that Romero was hit with the fatal gunshot as he was scaling the fence to get away.
The bullet entered at a slight upward angle, and a forensic expert said the shot was fired at close range.
"The scenario we would have argued was he was climbing when he was shot, he got to the top and fell facedown on the other side," Whatley said. "He already had his arms up, that's why the shot's under the armpit. (Richard) would not have been facing Daniel at the time he was shot, so we would argue that is not self-defense."
Whatley said she would also have argued that Richard was not defending his family.
Richard told police about seeing the other Bronco in the neighborhood and feeling threatened by it, thinking Romero was calling in his friends for help. However, the prosecutor said, he left the front door of his home open, with Erica and Garrett sleeping inside, when he ran one-quarter mile away.
In a description of those last moments filed with the court last week, Richard and his lawyer, Billy Blackburn, describe Romero as the aggressor. They say Richard followed Romero over the second chain-link fence and found himself trapped.
Blackburn says Richard was in a precarious position, blocked on two sides by fences and by bushes and trees on the third side. They say Romero raised his arms as if he had a weapon and Richard had only one choice: to shoot.
"A final aggressive approach by Romero, his arm coming up as if in a shooter's stance, led to the unfortunate shooting," he said.
Richard told the judge at his sentencing that he tried to avoid using his gun but that, in the heat of the moment, "I didn't have time to armchair quarterback."
The medical investigator said Romero lived only about 30 seconds after he was shot.
Richard's supporters say he did what he was forced to do.
Friend and former neighbor Linda Peacock: "He's not the vigilante type. He's not the impulsive type. He doesn't have a short fuse. He's everything that's the opposite. He would only have acted the way he did if he thought his family or his life was in danger. He's not the type of person to shoot someone in cold blood."
James Korth, who was Richard's battalion commander in Iraq, said he could think of a dozen other Marines whose judgment he might question if confronted in the dark by a thief.
"I never once would have questioned his integrity and his judgment," Korth said. "He's the type who always does the right thing for the right reasons. It's kind of like Elton's always the guy who's wearing the white hat."
He said he believes Richard was fueled not by anger, but by the need to catch a criminal.
"Clearly, he had plenty of opportunities to shoot Daniel and he didn't," Korth said. "A lesser man would have done it immediately or just not pursued him. 'Bad guy, good guy, I need to catch him' that's (Richard's) mentality."
Korth said the firefights of Iraq almost certainly did not resurface and influence Richard that night.
"If you're shooting to kill, that's not the way you do it," Korth said. "I can tell you from our training, it's two to the head and one to the chest."
Those on the other side argue Richard played God when he should have left the pursuit of a car thief to the police.
Romero's mother: "He should have called 911, but he chose to be judge, jury and executioner."
Romero's brother, Joe: "My brother didn't deserve to die like a dog."
Barbara Romero: "We have two crimes here. There's the auto burglary and the homicide. One criminal gets to serve his time, but the other one was executed."
Pleas for pardon
In the days after state District Judge Albert "Pat" Murdoch sentenced Richard to two years in prison for the death and told him to pay Barbara Romero $15,000 for her husband's funeral expenses, more than 100 people contacted Gov. Bill Richardson's office.
They asked the governor to use his power of executive clemency to free Richard. Pete Domenici, the state's senior United States senator, also weighed in in favor of a pardon.
Romero's family, pursuing a civil lawsuit against Richard, has stayed mostly quiet.
Richard's wife, Erica, is back home in Texas while her husband sits in jail in Albuquerque. The entire episode still seems unreal to her.
"This never should have happened," she said. "These two lives never should have come together in a meeting at any point. It should have never happened."