On Sunday July 7, 2019 , it was reported that the APD Crimes Against Children Unit are investigating the death of a two-week-old infant at a Northwest Albuquerque apartment complex. Police were dispatched to the 1800 block of Indian School NW following reports that an infant was unresponsive.
Emergency medical personnel attempted treatment, but they determined the baby was “beyond help” and medical investigators determined the child’s injuries were suspicious. An APD spokesman said ““Detectives are conducting interviews to determine the course of events and what caused the injuries. … This is an open and active case.”
HAVE THINGS CHANGED WITH APD?
In 2018, there were several high-profile child abuse cases in Albuquerque that were so mishandled by the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) and the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) that major policy changes in handling child abuse cases by APD were ordered by Mayor Tim Keller. Keller decided APD officers should respond to all cases reported to CYFD’s Statewide Central Intake center.
The high-profile case that prompted the APD policy changes was the case of Terri Sanchez and James Stewart, the mother and father of a seven-year-old girl, who were charge by the NM Attorney General Office with serious child abuse allegations including human trafficking, promoting prostitution, child abuse and criminal sexual contact of a minor. The facts of the case merit review as does the changes announced by Mayor Tim Keller at the time.
FACTS OF CASE REVISTED
The AG’s Office launched its investigation in April, 2018 after a school nurse reported that she thought a 9-year-old child girl was exhibiting signs of trafficking and sexual assault. Other school employees described seeing “hickies” on the child’s neck and chest. In an April safe house interview, the child said one parent made her touch other adults inappropriately. One of the 7-year-old girl’s teachers found the girl’s underwear had caked blood on it, the child smelled of feces and urine. The teacher called the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) and the Children Youth and Families Department (CYFD) to report suspected child abuse.
The Albuquerque Police Department (APD) released three (3) lapel videos and recordings of the 911 calls of APD officers going to the hotel for a well fare check and the elementary school to interview the child’s teacher. A November 14, 2017 lapel camera video of an APD Officer and a Children Youth and Families Department (CYFD) investigator was released of the 7-year old’s teacher being interviewed. In the video, the teacher describes how she took the child to a bathroom located in the classroom to have her cleaned up and provide the child with clean clothing.
The teacher tells the APD Officer and the CYFD investigator she was “gagging because it smelled of feces and of urine”. When the teacher took the child’s clothing and went to put it in a bag, she discovered the child’s underwear had caked blood on it with dried feces. The teacher told the officers that the blood was not at all normal for a child of 7 who was not old enough to be menstruating. The teacher told the police officer and the CYFD investigator it was not the first time she had to give the 7-year-old child clean cloths and it was an ongoing problem.
The teacher took the child’s clothing, bagged it, and saved it for police. The teacher reported that she left the bag of the child’s clothing in a locked classroom bathroom and then left the classroom. The teacher testified in a detention hearing that when the police officer came to the school the following day, the APD officer said they could not use the underwear as evidence. She said the APD officer told her the underwear had not been kept in a secure location.
The police officer also said to the teacher “they’re going to have a field day if this ever went to court.” Instead of taking and tagging the child’s underwear into evidence, the APD officer threw it into a school dumpster, saying it was not useful as evidence. After the officer finished talking to the teacher, the APD Officer and the CYFD investigator had a discussion on what to do with the child’s clothing collected by the teacher. The APD officer actually asks the question “Do you think it is a good idea to collect them?” The CYFD investigator then tells the officer “That’s up to you guys. That ain’t my department.”
The APD officer attempted to call the APD Crimes Against Children Unit to get guidance on what to do with the clothing and apparently never received a response. APD officers did not arrest the mother or father. The child was never taken into protective custody following the November 14, 2017 interviews. On November 14, 2017 a child welfare check was made at the hotel the child was residing with her parents and the girl’s teacher was interviewed at her school.
James Stewart’s case went to trial and the child testified against her defendant father. The District Court Judge was force to declare a mistrial in the jury trial after witnesses gave testimony about a topic that was prohibited. A second trial will have to be held and the child will have to testify again against her father.
MAYOR KELLER AND APD CHIEF GEIER BACKTRACK
Initially, both Mayor Keller and APD Chief Geier insisted that no one with APD violated any policies or procedures, including when an APD officer tossed out the bloody underwear of the child. Keller and Geier then doubled down when they said that officers and detectives did everything, they could with the information they had at the time. After Keller and Geier doubled down, it was reported that when two APD officers and two detectives with APD’s Crimes Against Children Unit looked into an allegation that the 7-year-old child had blood on her underwear someone from APD in fact accessed the states Children Youth and Families (CYFD) law enforcement portal and reviewed the family history of CYFD contacts. After a week of intense media coverage Keller ordered APD to launch an Internal Affairs investigation to provide a more complete accounting of the department’s interactions related to the incident involving the parents and the child.
On June 2, 2018, the Albuquerque Journal published front-page story on an interview Keller had with the editors entitled “KELLER WALKS BACK DEFENSE OF APD IN CHILD ABUSE CASE; Mayor: ‘Bunker mentality’ stalls reform in department”.
Mayor Keller is quoted as saying:
“It was premature to go out with those kinds of statements [that no one with APD violated any policies or procedures and that officers and detectives did everything they could with the information they had at the time] … We should have waited. … What we learned is that you can’t make a few phone calls and say you have the entire picture, and we’re not going to do it again. I think we learned a lot through this. … There are still lots and lots of issues at APD. … It’s just a realization that reforming APD in reality is going to be a unit-by-unit exercise and that is going to take years.”
MAYOR KELLER ORDERED CHANGES
On May 18, 2018 Mayor Keller ordered APD to examine how they investigate possible child abuse or children’s safety issues in the wake of the case and the accusation of suspected sex trafficking of the girl by her parents with whom police had prior contacts.
Mayor Tim Keller ordered APD to undertake the following steps:
1. Review child abuse cases for patterns that raise red flags.
2. Work on trauma-informed interviewing techniques.
3. Use the Real Time Crime Center to identify people with repeat interactions with law enforcement or child welfare agencies.
4. Work with a state Children, Youth and Families Department task force to review prior cases.
5. Prioritize recruitment and funding for civilian and sworn positions that work on children’s cases.
6. Reach out to other law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, the courts, CYFD and child advocates to coordinate crimes against children cases.
7. Evaluate policies on evidence collection.
In a press release announcing what action he wanted APD to take, Mayor Keller said:
“We’re going to do everything we can to try to prevent this from happening [ever again]. It’s going to take all of us – law enforcement agencies, child advocates, prosecutors and the courts. … Today we’re stepping up ourselves, and we’re reaching out to all these partners to address coordination for cases impacting children’s safety. We’re asking all of these partners to review how they interact on child abuse, sexual assault and human trafficking cases, including the handling of evidence. We’ve got to figure out a way to build a system that protects our kids.” (Ephasis added)
TWO OTHER NOTORIOUS APD CASES REMEMBERED
There are two other cases Mayor Tim Keller, APD Chief Michael Geier and the public need to be reminded of involving APD: Omaree Varela and Victoria Martens.
In 2014, 9-year-old Omaree Varela was found beaten to death months after placing a desperate 911 call to APD. Nine-year-old Omaree Varela called 911 from his Albuquerque home 6 months before his death. In the 911 audio recording, the child’s mother and the boy’s stepfather can be heard hurling verbal abuse at the child. The parents were unaware that the 911 dispatcher was listening and recording the exchange. The verbal abuse began after the child accidentally spilled food on the ground. Two APD officers went out to the residence after the child’s 911 call and made several errors that day that may have led to the child’s eventual death. The 911 dispatcher told the APD officers that they should listen to the phone call before going to the home. APD officers never went to the child’s home.
According to police logs, the officers claimed they questioned the parents for two hours. Their lapel camera showed that the officers were there for only 15 minutes. The APD Officers did not write a report in the case with one officer saying he would call the state’s Children Youth and Family Department. No call to CYFD was ever made by either APD Officer. After arriving to the child’s home to investigate the 911 call, one of the officer’s belt tape has him telling the parents: “You guys seem like a good family. … A decent family. Just be careful what you guys say when you say stuff like that. I am going to overlook it right now.” Six months later, Omaree Varela was dead. Omaree had been stomped and beaten to death by his parent. The autopsy report detailed the child’s injuries. The autopsy report said Omaree had lost about 25 percent of his blood volume through internal bleeding.
On August 24, 2016, in one of the most brutal murders seen in Albuquerque’s history, APD found the dead body of ten-year-old Victoria Martens in an Albuquerque apartment. The APD Officers were responding to a 911 call for a “domestic” dispute. The APD officers discovered 10-year-old Victoria Martens’ dismembered body partially wrapped in a burning blanket in her mother’s apartment. The child’s mother, her boyfriend and the cousin of the boyfriend were arrested at the scene by APD. All three defendants were arrested and charged with first degree murder, child abuse resulting in great bodily harm and death, kidnapping, tampering with evidence and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
On August 4, 2017 it was reported that an investigation by the Civilian Police Oversight Agency (CPOA) found that a spokesperson for APD “did lie” about the police department’s response to a CYFD referral concerning Victoria Martens prior to her death. In late January 2017, two police spokespersons told the media that officers did investigate the referrals and stated that interviews with Victoria Martens and her mother had been conducted. The APD spoke persons lied in that and there were no interviews of the child nor of her mother as they had said.
After close to a full year in custody by the 3 charged defendants, it was revealed by the District Attorney’s Office that the confession taken by APD of the mother was fabricated by the mother in order to cooperate with APD, the DNA evidence gathered and finally tested by APD did not substantiate the claims and that another person actually killed Victoria Martens. The suspect remains at large.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW IS NO LONGER APD’S PROBLEM
On June 28, 2019, it was announced by the Keller Administration with a press release that the procedures ordered by Mayor Keller in May, 2018 would be altered. It was announced APD officers will only respond to calls that are determined to be “emergency” and “priority one” calls. “Priority One” calls involve immediate danger of physical harm. All the rest of the calls will be responded to and handled by just CYFD workers. According to the APD press release, the changes will run through August to test how effective they are and then will be evaluated for success.
Under the test procedures, Statewide Central Intake (SCI) will take responsibility for calls that are not categorized as emergencies or priority one and will send CYFD counseling or family services to follow up. According to the APD news release, CYFD will continue to provide child neglect and abuse reports to APD’s Crimes Against Children Unit.
Lt. Nicholas Sanders with APD’s criminal investigations division juvenile section explained the rational for the changes as follows:
“What we were seeing was APD was receiving calls for real, real general, not even neglect, just general calls that were coming in … Some of those would be an incident where a child missed an appointment for an eye exam. Then you’re getting law enforcement out there looking at that element, when it was just truly just a family structure issue that made that child not be able to attend the doctor’s appointment and no real criminal element.”
APD did not provide the number of calls officers responded to that were reported to the Statewide Central Intake center since March 2018 when officers began responding to all calls. CYFD said they had 4,228 cases reported in Bernalillo County between then and now. Of those calls, they said 2,444 were rated as emergencies and 1,784 were rated as priority ones. Some of those calls would have been fielded by the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office deputies instead of APD officers.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
With the passage of time, Mayor Tim Keller and APD find it all too easy to announce major changes in policy relating to child abuse cases by press release no doubt believing no one cares or will take notice. For that reason, Mayor Tim Keller needs to be reminded of what he said on May 18, 2018:
“We’re going to do everything we can to try to prevent this from happening [ever again]. … We’ve got to figure out a way to build a system that protects our kids.”
It is highly likely the case involving the bloody underwear of a 9-year-old would have not have been classified as a priority one call or emergency call that lead to changes in APD policy by Mayor Keller. No doubt the July 7, 2019 shocking case involving the death of a 2-week-old baby was an “emergency” and “priority one” call under the APD altered policies. What remains to be seen is did APD or CYFD ever have any contact at all with the family before the baby’s death. What is likely is we will hear absolutely nothing from Mayor Keller regarding the recent case unless of course he expresses sorrow and condolences and announces new policies which are policies abandoned by his administration months after they were initially announced by him.
Absolutely nothing has been said by APD nor Mayor Tim Keller as to what he promised and what has in fact been done to:
1. Review child abuse cases for patterns that raise red flags.
2. What has been done by APD to work on trauma-informed interviewing techniques.
3. How the APD Real Time Crime Center is being used to identify people with repeat interactions with law enforcement or child welfare agencies.
4. What work is being done by the state Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) task force to review prior cases.
5. What has been done to prioritize recruitment and funding for civilian and sworn positions that work on children’s cases.
6. What has been done to reach out to other law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, the courts, CYFD and child advocates to coordinate crimes against children cases.
7. What exactly has been done to evaluate policies on evidence collection.
When it comes to Mayor Tim Keller, you can always count on him to do a good press conference by saying all the right things but never have any substantive follow up unless of course it’s to take credit for something done such as reducing crime rates. Perhaps sooner rather than later, Mayor Tim Keller will announce what he has actually done “to build a system that protects our kids” unless of course his APD Department discards his orders to change policy he has announced.