Year in review: Homicides on the climb

Detectives Keith Farkas (standing) and Kirk Roberts on June 26 investigate the scene at 916 Axtell St., where Clovis resident Roshawn A. Pitts was shot. Pitts died later that day at the hospital. (CNJ file photo)

By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer

The number of homicides in Curry County and Clovis in the last five years has increased 10-fold, a trend law enforcement officials say is a product of heightened gang activity in the community.

In 2004 there were nine homicides in Clovis and one in Curry County, making it top among law enforcement stories this year as determined by CNJ staff.

The first homicide came just four days into the new year, when Carlos Murillo was gunned down in the streets of Clovis.

Santiago Calbert, 20, Christopher Meier, 20, and Eric Duran, 26, were charged in Murillo’s death and are awaiting trial dates.

Through September, the city averaged one homicide a month, according to statistics compiled from police agencies in the area.

Clovis Police Chief Bill Carey said most of the violence in the area has been a result of gang-related activity or inter-personal relations gone bad. He said the problem is also happening in Hobbs and across the rest of the state.
Of the nine homicides investigated by the police department, he said arrests have been made in seven of those cases.

Michael Binder’s homicide in late September and an incident at a hotel in October that left an infant dead as a result of shaken baby syndrome remain unsolved
Binder was found shot to death in his Clovis house on Sept. 29. Police say they have no suspects in the case.

The boyfriend of the infant’s mother remains a suspect in the other case but police have not issued a warrant for the man’s arrest because there is not enough evidence against him.

“I want to get these other two arrested and locked up,” Carey said. “The homicide rate has really bothered me and the department this year.”

Sheriff Roger Hatcher said the September 2003 slaying of local J.C. Tucker is still under investigation.

He said he doesn’t know why the number of homicides has gone up so dramatically in the area, but said it is probably linked to a larger, societal problem.

“Every year we do a remembrance of survivors of homicide victims, and every year it grows,” he said. “It’s definitely showing us that there is a violent element growing, and that we need to take a hold.”

Carey said implementing street enforcement units — concentrated operations to enforce law in certain areas — may help curb the problem, as well as working closely with Chandler.

Other major crime and court news from 2004:
• Timothy Michael Burke, 52, was denied a plea agreement deal by Judge Stephen Quinn in August for the December 2002 shooting of former Clovis police Detective Keith Bessette.

The night of the incident, police returned fire and hit Burke several times, paralyzing the suspect from the chest down. Bessette later recovered, but Burke remains confined to a bed at a medical facility in Fort Bayard, according to public defender Jim Wilson.

Burke will go to trial in February.

• A Cannon Air Force Base staff sergeant was sentenced in November to 35 years in the New Mexico Department of Corrections for manufacturing child pornography.
Rocky Fleming was originally charged with almost 100 counts of sexual exploitation of children, but accepted a plea agreement on five of those counts.

• Matthew Chandler defeated incumbent Brett Carter in the Republican primary for 9th Judicial District Attorney. He ran unopposed in the November General Election.

He took over the office in November after Carter accepted a job as the 9th Judicial District’s chief public defender.
Chandler laid out an aggressive plan to curb the district’s methamphetamine problem, student truancy and gang activity.

The attorney will have his work cut out for him, with 10 homicide trials in the first five months of 2005, as well as a court docket that is considerably backed up.

“I think that crime in our district, particularly in Curry County, is at an all-time high,” Chandler said.

• Two homicides in Portales happened within a month, but Portales police said the incidents were more of an aberration than a trend.

Portales saw no homicides in five years before this year.
In April, Portales resident Amber Robinson, 19, was beaten and buried in a man’s back yard in Portales, police said.
Richard Baca, 18, is facing a first degree-murder charge and two counts of tampering with evidence in connection with the slaying.

A month later Clovis resident Jorge Prado was stabbed in the street in Portales, the apparent victim of a random fight. Police say they have identified suspects, but no arrests have been made.

• Joe Martinez Jr., 44, pleaded no contest to the charges of vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of an accident, but the sentencing phase of the trial won’t take place until February or March, Chandler said.
Martinez was accused of vehicular homicide in the death of Bobbie Lynn Sandoval on July 4, 2003, near Green Acres Park.

A pre-sentence report recommended the full 17 1/2-year incarceration for Martinez, Chandler said, but the defense attorney requested a 60-day evaluation.
Meanwhile, the Sandoval family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Clovis earlier this year in connection with the vehicular homicide.

• A Curry County jury in May found Fernando Garcia innocent of second-degree murder in the death of Moises Ortiz.
The incident that left Ortiz dead by gunshot occurred during a dogfight on Feb. 28, 2003, at Ortiz’s home in south Clovis.

Number of homicides in the 9th Judical District by county. Numbers do not include vehicular homicides, which are labeled as fatality in annual police reports:
Curry County (includes Clovis’ numbers):
1999 — 1
2000 — 1
2001 — 4
2002 — 5
2003 — 6
2004 — 10
Roosevelt County (includes Portales’ numbers):
1999 — 0
2000 — 0
2001 — 0
2002 — 0
2003 — 0
2004 — 2

Source: 9th Judicial District Attorney Mathew Chandler and Portales Police Capt. Lonnie Berry