By Sharna Johnson: Freedm New Mexico
An initially quiet year was fraught with high profile criminal cases in the last quarter.
Law enforcement scrambled to recapture eight escaped inmates and the prior year’s homicide rate doubled in the space of weeks.
With the exception of a summertime rash of home invasions, things were relatively calm leading up to the fall months of 2008.
All that changed at the end of August. Eight men used a key stolen from detention officers to unlock a plumber’s chase inside their pod at the jail. They shimmied up pipes inside the wall, then used handmade tools to cut a hole in the roof and gain freedom.
All were charged with violent crimes — one a convicted child-killer and another a murder suspect waiting trial.
The escape got national media attention and led local law enforcement to call on federal authorities for assistance.
One-by-one, law enforcement, often acting on community tips, caught seven of the escapees, most recently nabbing 19-year-old Louis Chavez on Dec. 8 at a Clovis grocery store.
Edward Salas — a 24-year-old recently sentenced to life in prison for the shooting death of a 10-year-old child —has managed to avoid capture in the four months since the escape.
But even before August, the Curry County Sheriff’s Office devoted significant time and effort to conducting criminal investigations into drug and contraband smuggling by detention officers, according to Undersheriff Wesley Waller.
In the course of the year, four detention officers were arrested for smuggling items into the jail.
“The jail has been a focus due to the past problems there during the first part of the year (when we) arrested several of the detention officers for smuggling drugs into the facility,” Waller said.
“A large number of staff hours and resources were dedicated to the problems experienced at the Curry County Adult Detention Center, to include the escapes and the internal criminal investigations.”
Subsequent investigations at the facility revealed security issues, staffing problems and lax or outdated policies and procedures.
As the hunt for the escapees continued, a double killing at the end of September shattered hopes for a homicide-free year.
Then, the November shooting death of a Honduran national at his home in Texico and the Dec. 20 slaying of a 54-year-old Clovis woman doubled 2007’s homicide rate, mimicking numbers of years past.
Homicide is likely the most noted type of crime in most communities, and, “There’s no doubt that’s big news in any circle,” said police Capt. Patrick Whitney, whose department is investigating three of the homicides.
But the number of homicides was lower than it could have been and, “Not for lack of trying,” Whitney said.
Violence was certainly present throughout the year, he explained, “We had plenty of other aggravated batteries (and incidents) that could have been homicides or (incidents where) people were shot at and they missed.”
An example of the violence can be found in July, when a hopscotch pattern of home invasions spanning multiple jurisdictions and more than half a dozen homes emerged.
During about a two-week stretch, Clovis, Portales and Curry County residents reported masked invaders busting through their doors in the middle of the night. Police said the suspects brandished guns and sometimes battered the startled, sleepy victims, stealing items of value and vehicles used to flee the scenes.
The series of home invasions ended July 29 when a battered man fought with invaders and escaped, his head grazed by a bullet as he fled a Sheldon Street residence where he had been house-sitting for a friend.
That night five males, three teens and two adults, were found hiding in a nearby house and arrested.
The man described by police as the “ringleader” in the home invasions, 19-year-old Jeremy “Cartoon” Enriquez, would later be among the jail escapees.
The incident also served as an example of criminal activity by youth.
Whitney said the greatest obstacle faced by his department in 2008 and the one they expect to face in 2009 is dealing with juvenile offenders and associated gang activity.
Stringent state criteria governing the juvenile criminal justice system hampered law enforcement’s ability to deal with youth involved in crime, he said.
“We need a larger juvenile detention center that can hold more and the (Children, Youth and Families Department) and the state need to change their requirements for detention and the Legislature coming in needs to change the law,” he said, “So that (juveniles) do not continue to terrorize the public over and over again.”
For the sheriff’s department, Waller said the focus in 2009 would be the capture of Edward Salas and the continuation of programs launched in 2008. Those include an Internet predator interdiction program that has netted almost a dozen arrests and programs for school-aged children like “Bullying Hurts.”
And as with any occurrence of growth in a community, Waller said law enforcement is preparing for an increase in traffic and calls for service in 2009 tied to expansion at Cannon Air Force Base.
Curry County 2008 homicides