Friday, March 12, 2010
Stalker's Record Wasn't Available
By Jeff Proctor
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer
A Metropolitan Court judge didn't have serial stalker Ralph Montoya's full domestic violence history in front of her when she allowed him to remain free on a $100,000 bond six days before he allegedly killed a former girlfriend and a UNM professor.
A leading domestic violence advocate says that's not unusual.
"In most courtrooms in New Mexico, the likelihood is that the judge wouldn't have all the information in front of them with someone who has a history of domestic violence," said Sharon Pino, Gov. Bill Richardson's outgoing domestic violence adviser.
"We need to do a better job of making everyone within the system aware of what they're dealing with."
The state court system no longer posts case listings for restraining orders online at www.nmcourts.gov, citing concern for victims and budget constraints.
Albuquerque-based private investigator Mike Corwin said putting the information back online could help employers, victims and even judges get a more complete picture of domestic violence offenders in less time and with less effort.
"We had this great tool for the public, the courts and employers who don't have access to law enforcement databases to make informed decisions," he said.
"And they took it away not because it needed to be taken away, but because it was the easiest thing to do. They just hit the delete button. You don't want to protect the abuser, you want to protect the victim."
The information is public record and still available at local courts and in private online systems to which judges have access.
Montoya, 37, was arrested Feb. 10 on charges of kidnapping, aggravated battery and aggravated assault after allegedly forcing his way into the home of his ex-girlfriend's current boyfriend, a well-known University of New Mexico professor, and assaulting the couple.
His bond was set at $100,000 cash or surety in an arrest warrant signed by a District Court judge. Montoya, 37, posted bond and was released the next day.
On March 1, he appeared with a lawyer before Metro Judge Sandra Clinton. She continued the bond and imposed conditions. Montoya remained free.
On March 7, Montoya allegedly shot and killed University of New Mexico professor Hector Torres and Bernalillo High School teacher Stefania Gray at Torres' home, first attempting to make it look like a murder-suicide but then going to an attorney, who called police.
On Tuesday, Chief Metro Judge Judith Nakamura presided over Montoya's felony first appearance on two open counts of murder. She continued the bond of $250,000 cash only, and there is a no-bond hold on Montoya for violating his conditions of release in the previous incident.
Robert Padilla, director of Metro Court's background investigations division, said neither Clinton nor Nakamura had Montoya's full domestic violence history.
Both judges knew Montoya had a 1995 conviction in state District Court in Las Cruces for attempted arson and attempted breaking and entering, Padilla said. But he said neither judge knew the charges stemmed from several incidents in which Montoya stalked an ex-girlfriend — who filed two restraining orders against him — threatened her and eventually set fire to her car.
And neither judge was aware of the restraining order filed by another woman in 1998, Padilla said. That woman said Montoya called her 15 to 20 times a day and posed as her father to get her on the telephone at work.
Gray obtained a restraining order against Montoya in Sandoval County on Feb. 1.
Padilla said that was entered into the National Crime Information Center database on March 1. But the order was posted to the database after Metro Court investigators had done the background check on Montoya around 7 a.m., so Clinton was not aware of it.
Second Judicial District Court Administrator Juanita Duran said that court's judges typically have information from an affidavit, an arrest warrant and from the officer seeking the warrant when they decide on a bond amount.
"In some cases, the officer may have done a background check and may have given the judge that information, but not always," Duran said.
She did not know whether District Judge Denise Barela Shepherd had received any information about Montoya's background when she set his $100,000 bond in the January incident.
Shepherd did not return a Journal telephone call.
Up until about two years ago, the state's judicial Web site included case listings for restraining orders. The listings didn't include information about victims or narratives describing the case.
Patrick Simpson, deputy director for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said officials took the information off the site to comply with the state's interpretation of federal law restricting the amount of victim information that can be posted online, and because posting the information was a strain on resources.
"There are so many collateral consequences, even if you just post the information about the respondent," Simpson said. "It does make it easier for a stalker to find his victim. Plus, we would end up having to hire full-time employees to post select data. When the trend is to cut back, these kinds of things aren't even part of the conversation. Given unlimited resources that taxpayers are willing to pay for, there could be a better system."
Corwin said removing the information, which is public record, protects offenders because it allows them to "hide their pasts."
Simpson said Corwin "may have a point" and added that the state does publish information about domestic violence convictions on the Web site.
However, he said, most domestic violence experts say any information published on restraining orders makes it easier for an obsessed perpetrator to find a victim.
Courts and law enforcement have access to several public and private databases, including the National Crime Information Centers, Simpson said.
Pino said restraining order information, for example, is available to judges.
"It's available, but they have to look for it," she said. "And sometimes it's a time and resource issue."
State officials have tried for a few years to pass a law that would require law enforcement to fill out a form in domestic violence cases that would provide details on an offender's history, Pino said.
Judges would receive a copy of the form before the offender appeared in court.
The bill died in committee the past legislative session.
Pino said state officials are not comfortable with one proposed solution: posting certain information about restraining orders on the state's judicial Web site, www.nmcourts.gov.
Meanwhile, Metro is the state's only court that has its own background investigators. New Mexico's magistrate courts rely on law enforcement to provide offenders' information to judges.
Still, Padilla said Metro's system could be improved.
He said Metro Court has sought state money for additional staffing to perform more timely and extensive background checks. The proposals have died in the Legislature.