The ‘like’ went live; a man went from missing to murdered; art and education made headlines in Valencia County
Whether it’s truly the end of a decade or not, no one can say 2019 wasn’t interesting. There were wild fires and cultural blazes, the loss of lives and the loss of summer fun.
The News-Bulletin covered a lot of ground last year and these are some of the stories of note.
1. Facebook Data Center opens in the village of Los Lunas
It was a big thumbs up this year for the grand opening of the Facebook Data Center in Los Lunas. The first completed building of Facebook’s $1 billion project opened with a tour of the facility for local and state officials in February.The construction of the first building represents more than 128,000 cubic yards of concrete, 14,600 tons of steel, enough conduit to connect Los Lunas to Houston, more than 4,000 miles of wire and 480,000 miles of fiber, more than 3.5 million cubic yards of earth, and the work of an average of 1,100 workers on site each day.
Company representatives said about 150 people support the day-to-day operations of the data center.
The second building was expected to be completed by the end of this year, and the remaining four of the six buildings are to be completed by 2023.
On the north side of the data center is a 10 megawatt solar farm — one of eight to be built in the state to serve as part of a 396 megawatts system to run the data center on 100 percent renewable energy by 2020.
Facebook officials estimate the solar- and wind-powered energy projects will result in an estimated investment of more than $800 million and 1,300 jobs in the state.
The consensus among state economic development and Facebook officials seems to be that the data center will be an economic driver, supporting hundreds of jobs in and around Valencia County.
Many are already employed at the Los Lunas facility, including culinary staff, security and communications staff, as well as mechanical engineers from Belen, Los Lunas and the Albuquerque area.
There are logistics experts that support all of the shipping in and out of the data center, and Facebook officials expect at full build out the campus will employ about 200 to 250 full-time staff.
2. Case of a missing Marine ends in murder
What started as a search for a missing Belen Marine ended in tragedy this summer.
Marine veteran Matthew Gurule was last seen at Isleta Casino on Saturday, July 27. He called his mother, Sandra Miller, who lives in Texas, at about 12:30 a.m., saying he was being asked to leave the casino. That was the last time anyone heard from him.
For weeks, family and friends searched the desert east of Rio Communities off Manzano Expressway where Gurule’s car was found on fire the day he went missing.
On Aug. 17, Valencia County Sheriff Denise Vigil broke the news that a body had been found on a ditchbank south of Rio Communities and been positively identified as Gurule.
Francisco Gomez, 37, of Los Lunas, and his girlfriend, Jeannine Willard, 45, of Adelino, have been charged in connection to the homicide.
According to the criminal complaint, Willard told investigators with the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office she and Gomez were driving west on Camino del Llano, near where Gurule lived on Paseo Arbolado with his cousin when Gomez noticed a car parked on a small dirt pull-out near the water tank at the top of the mesa. It was Gurule in his Honda Accord.
Willard said Gomez parked the motorcycle they were on a ways off from the Accord, and told her he was going to rob the person in the parked car.
As she walked toward the two men, Willard said she heard Gomez tell Gurule he was being robbed, so he “better start running.” Gurule did not run.
The preliminary OMI findings lists Gurule’s cause of death as multiple gun shot wounds to the head.
Gomez is charged with an open count of murder, armed robbery, second-degree felony; and two third-degree felonies — tampering with evidence and arson.
Willard is charged with conspiracy to commit murder, armed robbery, arson and tampering with evidence for helping Gomez.
3. Turbulent times for the Belen police chief
The city of Belen’s newest police chief was barely six months into his tenure when he found himself under investigation and on paid administrative leave in July.
Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova said Belen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez was put on leave after the city received complaints from both inside and out of the police department.
Cordova said it was a personnel matter and couldn’t comment on the specifics of the complaints or who made them.
Robert Caswell Investigations, a private investigation firm in Albuquerque, was hired to carry out the investigation. Six weeks later, RCI concluded its investigation and Rodriguez was absolved of the allegations against him.
Rodriguez came back to work in mid August, but a month later, officers served the chief with a vote of no confidence by eight of the 10 non-probationary department employees.
A letter to the city council indicated the officers and their families believe Rodriguez has created a “chronic unsafe working environment,” and has a “lack of leadership, and inability to make sound decisions that affect the citizens of Belen.”
In a written statement, Rodriguez said there was no merit to the allegations made by the officers, or the ones made previously that led to his investigation.
“I would remind the community that I am not the first police administrator who has been subjected to these false allegations from this same police union,” the chief wrote in his statement.
Things quieted down until October, when the city’s auditor, Robert Peixotto, managing member of Southwest Accounting Solutions, told the council if the city didn’t release the confidential investigation report regarding the chief to him, he would give the city a modified audit opinion.
The effect of a modified opinion could be devastating to a city in that municipalities who receive a modified audit opinion would not be eligible for state and federal funding.
The mayor and city manager told the council they had been advised by the city’s attorney to not release the report, as it could open up the city to a lawsuit for revealing protected personnel information.
After a tense and heated special meeting, the council voted 3-1 to release the report to the auditor.
To wrap up a tumultuous second half of the year, Rodriguez filed a lawsuit against the city in December, claiming there were “many acts of retaliation” inflicted on him, including a “groundless investigation and humiliating leave of absence imposed by the City of Belen.”
4. Los Lunas Schools closes down swimming pool
Los Lunas Schools swimming pool
The year got off to a bit of a rocky start when the Los Lunas Board of Education decided in January to shut down the district’s deteriorating swimming pool.
The pool was built in 1983, and becoming more and more costly to repair every year. Seasonal start-up costs for the pool were about $38,000, according to district personnel, without major repairs. Weighing an additional $64,500 in salaries against the average annual revenue of $62,000, the district threw in the towel.
The pool was used for summer swimming for the community and hadn’t been used by the district for competition or PE classes in about 20 years.
With the loss of a prime summer recreation spot, when residents of the village of Los Lunas were asked what the No. 1 priority was in a quality-of-life survey, a swimming pool was at the top of the list by a wide margin.
Although new pool isn’t in the works, the village announced plans in September to build a splash pad at Daniel Fernandez Memorial Park. The project is projected to open in the summer of 2020.
5. Scorched earth from the Iron Works Fire
In early March, clouds of black and white smoke billowed over the bosque as a fire beneath devoured brush, trees and homes.
The blaze started on Thursday, March 7, on Los Chapulinas, just north of the city of Belen and west of the Rio Grande.
Fierce winds pushed the blaze into the bosque, then across the river and east where it was stopped at a local business on N.M. 47, Security Iron Works, from which the fire took its name.
The cause of the fire was determined to be hot ashes dumped outside by a homeowner the day before the fire started.
Valencia County Fire Chief Brian Culp said three investigators — from the state fire marshal’s office, Valencia and Bernalillo counties — reached the same conclusion.
The property owners where the fire started weren’t cited under county ordinances since it was accidental.
The Iron Works Fire burned nearly 139 acres, destroyed three homes and various outbuildings, and damaged a fourth home.
6. Bad things come in threes
Suspects in the April 20 shooting deaths of three men.
A birthday party gone wrong left three men dead on a front porch of an El Cerro home and three Valencia County teenagers charged with murder.
Shortly before 2 a.m., Saturday, April 20, deputies with the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office arrived at a home on the 200 block of East El Cerro Loop in response to multiple gunshots.
There they found Darrin Bernal, 40, Nathan Morrison, 28, both of Belen, and Joseph Santiago, 29, of Albuquerque, dead from multiple gunshot wounds.
A blue SUV was seen leaving the scene, and when it was located, Brandon Dowdy, 18, Robert Wilson 19, and Anthony Williams, 17, were found inside, along with a shotgun VCSO detectives say might have been used in the shooting.
All three teens were charged with three open counts of murder in connection to the deaths, as well as conspiracy to commit murder.
Multiple witnesses, including Dowdy and Wilson, reported repeated arguments between the two groups of males that night. The three teenagers left the party at some point but returned armed and angry about being “disrespected” by Bernal, Morrison and Santiago.
7. The art of controversy
One of the biggest hullabaloos to ever hit the city of Belen culminated in late July with a colored smoke art extravaganza welcoming the Through the Flower Art Space to the city.
It all got started in the fall of 2018 when Belen Councilor Ronnie Torres and Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova asked world renowned artists and Belen residents Judy Chicago and Donald Woodman if they’d consider opening a museum in the Hub City.
The initial proposal was for the city to provide funding for a part-time employee for the museum, but that was met by a backlash from a vocal group of community members.
The problem was not so much the money, but Chicago’s art. During several city council meetings at the end of last year, several community and church leaders criticized Chicago’s art saying they didn’t want “that sort of art” displayed in Belen.
Chicago called the controversy the “Belen Brouhaha.”
While objection to the project was vocal and obvious at the council meetings, when the couple returned from a trip to Brazil, they were met by support and encouragement.
That kick started nine months of planning, fund raising and effort to launch the TTF Art Space, which serves as a cultural anchor for Belen’s burgeoning arts and culture district.
The Art Space has a permanent display of works by Chicago and Woodman, as well as space for rotating art exhibitions and a study resource center, which includes books, periodicals and online access.
8. Los Lunas teacher wins Milken Award
Lacy Rivera, a professional learning coach at Los Lunas High School, was completely unaware of what was happening at an all-school assembly at the school in late October.
Little did she know she was about to be recognized for something only 40 educators across the country accomplished in 2019 — she was a $25,000 Milken Educator Award.
Rivera was the only educator in New Mexico to receive the recognition.
In her second year of being the professional learning coach at Los Lunas High School, Rivera’s role is to improve levels of student learning by working with collaborative teacher teams, individual teachers and working with administration to address organizational change needs.
Described as “The Oscars of Teaching,” the Milken Awards provide “public recognition and individual financial rewards of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and specialists from around the country, who are furthering excellence in education,” according to its website.
Educators are not nominated and cannot apply for the award; they are selected by a panel appointed by state departments of education, and The Milken Family Foundation makes the final selection. Meanwhile, the educators have no idea they are even under consideration.
9. What’s in a name?
In October, Los Lunas Schools sent out cease and desist letters to at least one Facebook group, claiming it was infringing on the district’s intellectual property rights.
The letters were sent to Rowena Tachias and Monique Dereta, the administrators of the Los Lunas School District Parents Facebook page.
Los Lunas Superintendent Dana Sanders wrote that the page was making unauthorized use of the Los Lunas Schools trademark “for purposes of criticizing and providing false information about the district.”
Sanders claimed the Facebook page is “confusing and misleading” to people searching for the district’s page. The page, run by Tachias and Dereta, was established in 2011, several years before the district’s page, and is a closed page which requires administrator approval to join, where as the district’s page is public and anyone can like and view it.
Both women said they were shocked to get the letter. The page was started to discuss the 2011 board of education elections, but the administrator at that time felt that they needed to close down the page because it could endanger their spouse’s job with the school district.
Tachias and Dereta took over the page, saying it was a place for parents and taxpayers of the district to voice concerns and exchange information.
The board has discussed the situation on more than one occasion in executive session under the “pending or threatened litigation” exception of the state’s Open Meetings Act.
There has been no public resolution to the issue.
10. Mistrial declared in murder case
After a witness for the state fumbled a question on the stand in a murder trial nearly six years in the making 13th Judicial District Court Judge James Lawrence Sanchez declared a mistrial in December.
Brandon Villalobos, 20, who is accused of killing his 12-year-old-friend, Alex Madrid, on Feb. 17, 2014, will get a new trial in February.
Villalobos, who was 15 at the time of the alleged homicide, has been indicted by a grand jury on an open count of first-degree murder and one count of tampering with evidence.
Mark Earnest, representing Villalobos, called for the mistrial after former Valencia County Sheriff’s detective Alejandro Lara took the stand and referenced an interview he’d conducted with the defendant in 2014.
Lara was one of two VCSO detectives who questioned Villalobos in regards to Madrid’s death. During the interview, Villalobos told the detectives he and Madrid were jumped and assaulted by three unknown men.
About an hour into the interview, he was handcuffed, and while Lara was standing outside the door to the room, Villalobos allegedly admitted to hitting Madrid once with a crowbar.
In May 2018, Judge Sanchez ruled statements made by Villalobos to detectives after Miranda warnings were given and he was handcuffed would be suppressed — meaning they couldn’t be used at the trial.
He also ruled that statements by Villalobos before the Miranda warning were admissible, since he was not detained as part of a criminal investigation at that time. The state appealed Sanchez’s ruling, but the New Mexico Supreme Court affirmed in June.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.