The last time Elena Fuller saw her older brother Robert Montoya alive, she was dropping him off Dec. 3 at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, where he was checking himself in to get a medical clearance for drug rehab.
"He said, 'Hey, Elena, I love you, OK? Remember that,'" Fuller says. "And he had this look in his face…his face was so empty; he looked so far away, like as if I'm never going to see him again."
Fuller's ominous feeling that day was partly why she and other family didn't bail Montoya out of Santa Fe County Adult Detention Center when he called the next day begging to come home: In jail, Montoya would be protected from his own desperate impulses.
Montoya walked out of the hospital Dec. 4 and allegedly knocked down an 80-year-old woman outside of Smith's while stealing her purse. When Montoya told the arresting officers he was struggling with heroin addiction, they took him back to the hospital, where he attempted to escape. After Montoya was booked at the jail on multiple felony charges, including robbery and resisting arrest, he told his mother on the phone that he was scared because he was put in with "the heavies" in a general population area of the jail.
According to a Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office report, a corrections officer found Montoya "in his cell…hanging from his bed rail with a small rope around his neck" at 4:40 pm, Dec. 7. As of press time, Santa Fe County had not explained why Montoya was moved to a segregated cell.
A representative of the American Correctional Association, which accredits prisons and jails, tells SFR "something had to have happened," for jail staff to segregate Montoya.
"You don't take someone out of a general population cell and put them in segregation without a proper reason," the source, who asks not to be named, says.
It's also mysterious why Montoya's nose was broken—hanging off to the side and purple from bruising, according to Fuller—when the family saw him at the hospital before he was pronounced dead. Detectives told the family that Montoya's nose was broken when the corrections officer who found him cut the rope he was hanging from. The ACA source says that explanation is suspicious: Correct protocol would be to call for immediate backup and lift the person up to relieve the pressure on the neck, rather than immediately cut the rope.
Since Montoya's pulse was faint at that point and he was brain-dead when he arrived at the hospital, according to what nurses told Fuller, it's questionable whether Montoya's circulation was strong enough when he was found hanging to cause a dramatic bruise.
County spokeswoman Kristine Mihelcic says the county can't answer some questions yet because "We haven't finished our internal investigation, and we haven't gotten any autopsy results…"
Sheriff Robert Garcia says his detectives, who handled the case, found no signs of foul play.
Other questions remain: Montoya was hanged with a laundry bag drawstring but, when Fuller first arrived at the hospital, she was told he hung himself with a sheet.
"I said, 'I'm not an investigator, but a sheet's flat and my brother has a really deep indention in his neck,'" Fuller tells SFR. "We started saying, 'Your story doesn't match what happened.'"
Detectives then told Fuller that Montoya was hanged with a laundry bag drawstring, she says.
"Almost anything can be turned into an instrument to be used to hurt yourself," Santa Fe County Corrections Director Annabelle Romero tells SFR, of the jail's policy of issuing the bags to all inmates. "A sheet, for example, can be torn into a number of pieces. These types of laundry bags are standard issue at most facilities."
But Rio Arriba County Adult Detention Facility Director Larry DeYapp tells SFR inmates there use pillowcases for laundry bags and don't have access to drawstrings or anything rope-like. Bernalillo Metropolitan Detention Center Administrative Officer Brandy Urrutia says inmates in general population are issued laundry bags with drawstrings, but segregated inmates are not.
"That's just good correctional practice not to issue that kind of stuff," the ACA source says. "I mean, when you get arrested, especially if you're under the influence of alcohol or narcotics, they will take those types of things away from you…So I'm not sure why they would issue laundry bags with strings in it, especially to inmates in segregation."