An Albuquerque man pleaded not guilty to the murder of an El Cerro woman who went missing in the fall of 2018.

Arthur James Lovato, 59, entered his plea before District Court Judge Cindy Mercer on Wednesday, June 12, in response to being charged with the murder of Rita Jaramillo, 49.

Arthur Lovato

Jaramillo was last heard from on Sept. 20, 2018, and Lovato was arrested and charged in May after a seven-month investigation by New Mexico State Police.

The grand jury indictment of Lovato includes five charges — first-degree murder (depraved mind), first-degree murder (willful and deliberate), second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and tampering with evidence.

After his plea was heard, the judge ordered Lovato be held without bond.

“The court finds that there are no reasonable conditions to ensure the safety of the community and his appearance in this matter,” Mercer handwrote on the conditions of release form.

There are few details known about the investigation into Jaramillo’s disappearance and apparent death.

On April 26, Mercer signed an order sealing both the arrest warrant for Lovato and the arrest warrant affidavit, which typically contains a narrative from law enforcement explaining why they are seeking the warrant.

Rita Jaramillo

In the motion to seal, assistant district attorney Natalie Campbell writes that the warrant and affidavit contain information about the investigation that investigators can use to test the knowledge of people, including potential suspects they interview.

The warrant and affidavit are sealed until the investigation is completed and provided to the district attorney for prosecution and discovery or a period of 180 days, whichever may occur first, according to the order sealing the documents.

Jaramillo’s daughter, Leslie Romero, 30, last spoke with her mother on the evening of Sept. 20, but became alarmed about her mother’s safety just days later when Jaramillo’s home at 6 San Luis Rey Place burned.

Valencia County Fire Marshal Casey Davis said the fire started in the bedroom in the south end of the home and while he couldn’t report the cause of the fire at that time, did call it “highly suspicious.”

Romero said she and family members were allowed into the house after the fire was extinguished, and they found two tires, which reportedly can be used as an accelerant and to make a fire burn hotter and longer.

The Monday after the fire, Romero received a call from the Albuquerque Police Department — they had found her mother’s car which had also been missing since her disappearance.

Romero asked APD to not tow the car, since it was part of a missing person’s case, and the department agreed to leave it where it had been found, at an apartment complex on Wyoming and Comanche.

As far as Romero knows, APD did leave the vehicle but when deputies from the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office went to pick it up, the car was gone.

In February, Romero, and her sister, Denise Fay, 27, held a candlelight prayer vigil at Heritage Park, holding out hope their mother would be found.

To date, Jaramillo’s body has not been found.

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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.