Tuesday, December 30, 2003
Judge's Suit Claims Harassment
By Scott Sandlin
Journal Staff Writer
Valencia County Magistrate John "Buddy" Sanchez claims he and his family were harassed by State Police, including Lt. Mark McCracken, after Sanchez criticized the department's investigation into the death of McCracken's wife.
In a federal civil rights lawsuit, Sanchez, 37, says both he and his family were followed and he became the unfair target of other investigations.
Sanchez says the harassment occurred after he attempted to persuade authorities to investigate McCracken in his wife's mysterious 1995 death. He also claims personal injury.
As a former State Police officer himself, Sanchez was familiar with the players, the lawsuit says. Sanchez had worked as a jail guard and as a State Police officer before running as a Republican for magistrate judge in Los Lunas in 1994.
McCracken retired in August from the police force and was indicted two months later by a Valencia County grand jury for the first-degree murder of his wife, Melanie McCracken.
Melanie McCracken was found dead in the back seat of a family car in a single-vehicle rollover just north of Bosque Farms the evening of Aug. 5, 1995. Her husband told investigators he and his wife had a disagreement and he later found her unconscious on the bedroom floor. He was rushing her to the hospital when the accident occurred, he told officials.
A criminal investigation was launched the next month, but the case was closed in January 1996 after McCracken passed a polygraph test. The case was reopened in 2001 by the newly elected district attorney, leading to the exhumation of Melanie McCracken's body in December 2002.
Sanchez's suit claims Judicial Standards Commission complaints were filed against him in retaliation for speaking out about the probe. It also says he was unfairly made the target of other investigations.
"He's just been hammered by Judicial Standards (with) complaints about things going on in his courtroom, and I would say 95 percent of them are directly attributable to Mark McCracken and the rest are indirectly attributable," his attorney, Justin Pennington, said in a phone interview.
Besides those complaints, there has been other harassment, he said.
"(Sanchez and his wife have) been followed around while doing grocery shopping," Pennington said. The scrutiny was so unsettling it caused Sanchez's wife to suffer a miscarriage, the suit alleges.
Sanchez was investigated by the Judicial Standards Commission for allegedly interfering in a friend's drunken driving arrest. The commission recommended Sanchez's suspension from office, pending a full investigation and hearing on the allegations. But the New Mexico Supreme Court in 2000 instead reprimanded him.
McCracken had filed the complaint with Judicial Standards about Sanchez's conduct.
McCracken's criminal defense attorney, Peter Schoenburg, said he hadn't seen a copy of the new lawsuit and couldn't comment on it.
Jerry Walz, a state risk management contract lawyer, said he had not been assigned to the case, but that allegations in it sound "eerily similar" to another federal lawsuit filed by Sanchez several years ago against Valencia County defendants.
"In that suit, they also alleged she had lost a child due to improper police conduct. It was a different agency but the same allegation," he said. "Back then he said he was harassed because of his criticism of the jail."
Sanchez's Dec. 19 lawsuit says Sanchez became familiar with the facts and circumstances of Melanie McCracken's death and subsequent investigation when Melanie's mother, Nancy Grice, approached him in 1998. Sanchez was called as a witness for Grice in a federal lawsuit she had filed against some of the same defendants.
Grice had become suspicious of McCracken when she discovered he hadn't called 911 after finding his wife unconscious.
According to the suit, Sanchez believed a crime had been committed and reported the facts and circumstances to the State Police, Valencia County District Attorney's Office, the state attorney general, the state Supreme Court, the Judicial Standards Commission, the governor's office, and the U.S. attorney, among other state and federal agencies.
Sanchez also reported the facts of the death and "subsequent corrupt investigation" of it to news media, including the Albuquerque Journal and Dateline NBC.
Since first raising concerns in 1998, Sanchez says in the suit, the State Police defendants have "engaged in continuous and ongoing retaliation" against him and his wife because of his speech.