The sun was hours from setting on July 17, and Jerry Lynn Wood had already started fighting with his girlfriend. He was angry she never helped with the housework, she later told police, despite her chronic depression and terminal brain tumor.
He called her a "lazy fucking bitch," broke a desk fan over her head, threw a cordless drill at her feet, beat her with his fists. She fled into her bedroom, but left the door unlocked. He entered with a gun.
The shot put a hole in the wall. "Are you trying to kill me now?" she said.
Wood's response—according to the police report containing this account—was chilling. "If I was trying to kill you," he said, "I would have."
He let her go on one condition: If she called police, he would hunt her down and kill her.
She called 911 from a friend's home. Santa Fe County Sheriff's Deputy Rachel Weber found the woman on a couch, crying. Her back bore cuts and bruises; there was a bump on her head. Wood was probably at his father's house nearby, she said.
Despite a legal mandate to make an arrest in domestic violence cases with evidence of injury, Sgt. Mike Post told Weber "not to attempt to apprehend" Wood due to his "agitated demeanor and him possessing several rifles and shotguns," according to Weber's report.
Sheriff Greg Solano calls that decision a mistake. "I understand the supervisor was probably thinking of officer safety, but…that's why we have a SWAT team," Solano says.
Furthermore, as of last week, police had still not searched Wood's home for weapons, according to Undersheriff Robert Garcia.
Garcia says Wood has been in contact with police and "wants to turn himself in, but cannot afford the bond. Every time they ask to meet, [Wood] does not show up."
According to Garcia, Wood denies his girlfriend's allegations. And in the days since calling 911, she has made attempts to get any charges against Wood dropped, along with her protection order. "It happens in cases like this," Garcia says.
Wood did not return a cell phone message from SFR. As of July 30, he was a free and lucky man. Lucky the police chose not to pursue him. Lucky to have such a supportive girlfriend. Lucky the law let him have guns at all.
Federal law says convicted felons may not possess firearms. The same law applies to people convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence crime. But that law has so many loopholes as to be nearly useless—at least in New Mexico, where local prosecutors say its provisions are too cumbersome to apply.
Wood's domestic violence conviction dates to 2003, when he served 18 hours in the Santa Fe County jail on a charge of battery against a household member. He eventually pleaded guilty in exchange for a light sentence from Santa Fe County Magistrate Judge Bill Dimas, including 364 days probation, alcohol treatment, anger-management counseling, 48 hours of community service at the Stanley Fire Department and $67 in fees.
The court file contains a sheet of paper from the Torrance County Domestic Violence Program, certifying Wood "completed 26 weeks of Domestic & Non Violence Training." Another counselor called Wood "very motivated," writing, "I feel Jerry has come a long way."
Almost every official interviewed for this story believes New Mexico also has come a long way from the days when violence in the home was a family secret, when a man could beat his wife bloody knowing no one would stop him.
Pretty much every day in Santa Fe, a man threatens to kill his wife, girlfriend or ex, judging by a review of recent incidents reported to local police or courts.
From a July 21 protection order request: "[H]e was going to have one of his homies do him a favor and have my family and I killed since I didn't want to get back with him."
From a July 20 protection order: "I cannot take it anymore after a bizarre series of texts…some saying I was his goddess…others saying I was the devil…I am afraid. He has guns. And he has been going to my mother's house."
Victims aren't the only people who hear these murderous threats. From an unrelated arrest report across town, the same day: "If this crackhead doesn't shut up, I'll kill her."
Such threats are not always idle, as the recent murder of a pregnant 17-year-old and her father shows. The New Mexico Department of Health calls domestic violence a "serious public health problem."
Santa Fe County has roughly 7 percent of New Mexico's population, but was home to 10 percent of the state's reported domestic violence victims in 2007, according to SFR's analysis of the most recent city and state figures. That could be a good sign, if it means more such incidents get reported here. Indeed, in 2008, local emergency calls regarding domestic or sexual violence increased 10 percent over the prior year. City or county police generated 1,508 incident reports on such crimes last year. The bad news is, more than half involved battery, but fewer than a quarter resulted in arrests.
This year has brought troubling trends. Deborah Potter, a victim advocate in the First Judicial District Attorney's Office, says while the number of domestic violence cases has not increased dramatically, the cases are getting more severe.
"We're seeing more knives used, a tremendous amount of guns—more handguns than I've ever seen used," Potter says. "The people inside the field are getting it, but the community's not getting it—how violent it is."
If a woman seeks help—and that's a big if—a judge or hearing officer may issue a "protection order." What that order amounts to is a piece of paper.
SFR's survey of recent cases suggests that when an abuser gets arrested, his time in jail will likely be brief. Should a judge convict him—unlikely, when a victim has been terrorized into recanting—the sentence may amount to probation. And despite what the law says, the abuser can often keep all the guns he wants. Few people interviewed for this story took strong exception to this characterization. District Judge Michael Vigil, however, did.
"It's important to be concerned about the times we are wrong, but there's an awful lot of times that we're right. And people do get the proper counseling. And they do put their families back together," Vigil says. "People don't talk about it because it doesn't sell newspapers."
Granted, Vigil bears some responsibility for creating the impression that even dangerous repeat abusers—the ones most likely to kill their wives—can get off easy. Last month, Vigil gave Steven Romero 4½ years probation, with no jail time, after he beat his pregnant wife. Romero had previously faced five charges for violent felonies, including two guilty pleas five years apart.
Like every case, it was complicated. Potter, who is in close contact with the victim, says Romero's wife believes the police exaggerated their report, though she had bruises; she also hates what she purportedly characterizes as one-sided, agenda-driven press coverage (but declines to speak to SFR). Potter says the victim relied on Romero to feed their two children and that she still loves him.
Her love is irrelevant, victim advocates say. "It is not up to the victim to do the sentencing," Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families Executive Director Sherry Taylor says. "Somebody should've looked at his record and said, 'This is a very, very dangerous man.'"
Considering the uncooperative victim, Judge Vigil understands why prosecutor Cynthia Hill worked out a plea with Romero.
"What the state is trying to do is at least get the person under supervision, rather than take the risk of going to trial [and] getting acquitted," Vigil says.
Unaware of prior convictions, juries can have a hard time identifying a serial abuser. "People tend to have compassion, especially when the couple is trying to stay together," Sheriff Solano says. "A lot of people don't understand the cycle of abuse. We see it in law enforcement. But the public doesn't see it—and the public's on juries."
A review of felony domestic violence cases already in court, along with recent police reports and protection orders, reveals a troubling pattern: The state often fails to protect women who have been threatened, beaten or worse by men they live with, share children with or once upon a time dated. (Not all abusers are men—just most of them.) And even when police, prosecutors and social workers know offenders' names and addresses, they can stay beyond the reach of the law.
Consider the case of Wood, the fugitive who allegedly shot at his girlfriend. Even if his prior domestic violence conviction had triggered the federal gun ban—it appears to have fallen through a loophole—no agency in northern New Mexico would have rushed to seize his weapons. At the Santa Fe Police Department, "unless it is written and spelled out in the order for protection, they do not take the firearm," the department's domestic and sexual violence liaison, Carol Horwitz, says.
So the gun ban exists mainly as an idea.
"If I say to an officer, 'seize the weapon,' what does that mean? Am I giving them the right to search the house? Can they go into a locked cabinet? There are a lot of issues in taking a weapon," Margaret Kegel, former domestic relations hearing officer for the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe, says. "A lot of times we do it anyway. Then we get a call from law enforcement, 'Now what do we do?'"
As improbable as it sounds, police claim they have no place to put confiscated weapons from domestic violence cases.
Why not find a place to put them?
"It's a resource issue," Sharon Pino, Gov. Bill Richardson's appointed domestic violence czar, says. That's easier to believe after seeing Pino's small, underground office in the Public Employees Retirement Association building. She has no staff; her summer intern leaves soon.
Pino says security consultants advised her that proper seized-weapon storage would require building costly climate-controlled regional warehouses under constant guard.
Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Executive Director Rita Smith has heard that excuse before.
"People don't store their guns at home like that, so I'm not sure why the police department should be forced to do it. I think it's an easy way to say, 'I can't,'" Smith says. "I really believe that if we take the guns away [from offenders], we will be preventing some horrible tragedies."
Local prosecutors say their federal counterparts bear responsibility for enforcing federal gun-control laws. US Attorney for New Mexico Gregory Fouratt says he generally relies on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to bring such cases to his office. Local police could tip off his office to convicted wife beaters carrying illegal weapons, but not all officers are trained to do so.
According to Fouratt, New Mexico's federal prosecutors have opened 39 investigations under the law banning firearms for misdemeanor domestic violence convicts since 2000. Charges were brought in 21 cases, resulting in 15 convictions, with three cases pending.
David Iglesias, who held the US attorney position from 2001 through 2006, says the feds are too busy to chase armed domestic violence convicts.
"There are 4,000 or so federal laws on the books. US attorneys can't possibly enforce all 4,000. We have to pick and choose," Iglesias tells SFR. "Misdemeanors, by definition, are lower priority than felonies."
Fouratt rejects that argument. "To the extent that was ever the philosophy at the office, it's not now," he says. In fact, Fouratt says, last month he sent a letter to every district attorney in the state asking them not to cut plea deals that could let domestic abusers benefit from loopholes in the federal gun ban.
State lawmakers have shown little interest in closing any gaps in the federal law. Judge Vigil blames Second Amendment absolutists. "Any time you talk about limiting weapons you get a very big reaction…so it's hard to get the legislation through," he says.
Meanwhile, New Mexico's interpretation of the federal law remains relatively lax, according to Sherry Spitzer, associate director of the Albuquerque-based New Mexico Coalition Against Domestic Violence. For example, former New Mexico Attorney General Hal Stratton created some confusion with a 1988 opinion permitting some convicted felons to purchase and carry guns despite the federal ban. In a 2006 ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals called Stratton's opinion "erroneous" and "troubling."
Interpretations aside, the law poses logistical problems, Vigil says: "You can have it on the books and say, 'You cannot possess a gun.' But how do you enforce it? Unless you conduct daily searches of the person's house—or you stumble on it."
Wearing no pants, Patrick Martinez answered the door of his mother's home in Santa Cruz. New Mexico State Police Officer Marco Oviedo stood on the other side, full of questions.
Martinez, a stocky man with a spade symbol tattooed on his throat, told the police officer he'd been at his mom's all night. Oviedo had reason to believe otherwise, according to his report. The officer was looking for a .38 Special, which Martinez' pretty young wife said had been pressed into her flesh only hours before, on the night of Sept. 30, 2008.
That conversation took place at Presbyterian Española Hospital, where a doctor said the woman had 14 staples in her head and bad bruises on her right side. Martinez had beaten her before, she told Oviedo, but she'd never reported it. Once, he'd broken teeth. This time was worse.
They had left Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino at approximately 8:30 pm, she told Oviedo. For some reason, Martinez was angry and began beating her head and ribs as she struggled to keep the car on the road.
When they got home, her head was bleeding. She planned to let him exit the car first, then flee—but Martinez grabbed the keys as soon as she put it in park.
Plan B: Pretend everything was OK. As his wife cleaned up, Martinez steamed. He wanted to ride away on his motorcycle, but couldn't find the keys.
Obviously, his wife must have hidden them. So he grabbed the .38, pointed it at her head and threatened to kill her.
When that didn't work, he put the gun into her mouth.
She broke down, sobbing. She promised to find the keys; she looked all over the house. Maybe they were in the car?
The ruse worked. She drove to her mother's house.
Martinez called around all night, looking for his wife. In his mind, she "deserved it" because "she knew how to press all his buttons," Martinez told his mother-in-law, according to Oviedo's report.
Officer Oviedo searched the Martinez house. He didn't find the .38, nor did he find the rifle allegedly kept under the bed. Oviedo believed Martinez hid the guns, according to his report. Sitting in the patrol car after his arrest that night, Martinez said "he never had any guns because he was not allowed to because of his history," Oviedo wrote.
That history includes a 2006 guilty plea to battery against a household member, from a previous relationship. But Martinez denies the current allegations against him.
The prior conviction should have precluded Martinez from owning firearms. Oviedo's report says the .38 belonged to the victim's mother. If she gave it to him, she may also have committed a crime. Of course, Martinez might have stolen the gun.
How to prove it, either way?
The divorce became final July 13. On July 24, Martinez' ex-wife and her parents waited nervously outside Judge Vigil's courtroom with Potter, the victim advocate.
Fighting tears, the victim tells SFR Martinez wasn't always violent. She wanted to work it out. Her parents wanted otherwise. "He'll just beg and beg and plead with her. That's why she stayed," the mother says.
Inside the courtroom, Martinez' three boys from another mother watch as he's escorted toward the bench. When the victim finally enters, Martinez steals a glance.
The hearing is to determine whether Martinez broke a no-contact order with his ex and should remain on GPS monitoring, Deputy District Attorney Lara Sundermann says. But Public Defender Sydney West argues the victim also contacted Martinez—implying any violation of the order wasn't his fault. Adding further confusion, the victim's mother says Martinez stole her daughter's cell phone after his release from jail and sent threats to all the contacts.
Judge Vigil is clearly frustrated. "Somebody's lying to me and I'm going to find out who," he says, before ordering Martinez back to jail.
In the hall, the prosecutor confers with the victim and her family. "Honestly, I'm a little surprised the judge put him in jail today," Sundermann tells them.
Eventually, of course, he'll get out.
Two incidents, one day and a short drive apart, call into question the state's ability to carry out one of its most basic functions—to keep people from physically harming one another and getting away with it.
The first happened July 5 off W. Alameda Street. According to a police report, someone heard "a woman banging on [the] front door yelling for help and saying that a person by the name of Joel was trying to kill her."
Joel Archuleta, 31, is now jailed on domestic violence charges. Police say he beat and threatened to kill his mother after demanding money, then attacked his girlfriend.
The mother found shelter at a house in the area. The girlfriend ran to another house, where she was refused entry.
"If someone is pounding on your door saying, 'He's going to kill me'—I don't know if he's 10 feet away with a gun…What if it was a scam?" the person who refused her entry says.
This person spoke to SFR on condition of anonymity, doubtful police can protect witnesses. "They're behind the curve on this," the person says. "They'll show up after the fact, right?"
Opinions differ on the danger faced by those who witness or report abuse. Solano has his own.
"A lot of these domestic abusers will not do in public what they do in their own homes—but I understand [the witness'] concerns," Solano says. "I can't promise that a deputy is going to watch [a] house 24/7. I can't promise that if I arrest this guy, he's going to stay in jail."
There is also this: The person behind the door saw growing danger but kept quiet. "She's a part of the problem, too. I think she's been with him for drugs," the person says. "I knew it was coming."
Such rationales bother Rita Smith, the national activist. The girlfriend "might have a problem with drugs—that doesn't mean her life should be sacrificed. That's just wrong," Smith says.
The second incident, which happened up the road the previous day, might have been just as predictable, had anyone been looking.
In 1990, Santa Fe Magistrate Judge Petra Jimenez Maes placed a domestic violence protection order against Ron E Piatt, then 30. Piatt is now 50; Maes is a state Supreme Court justice; and online court records list that case as "pending" nearly 20 years on.
What scattered papers remain suggest a violent man with a knack for eluding the law. In 1997, Piatt ignored a court-ordered mediation session related to a long-running divorce and child-custody case. In 1999, Piatt was charged with battery and spent four months in jail. Soon after his release, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest; apparently he missed another date with a judge.
Piatt dodged that warrant for eight years. (Sheriff Solano says he has two deputies assigned to processing "thousands of warrants going back years.") Finally, last October, Piatt was booked for "failure to appear" and spent one night in jail.
He disappeared from the system again until July 4 of this year, when he allegedly tried to immolate himself after drinking 27 beers and starting a knife fight with relatives.
The following account comes from officer and witness statements compiled by police:
Though they'd been divorced for years, Piatt continued to live in his ex-wife's trailer. Her daughter was next door with her boyfriend, setting off fireworks, as Piatt got drunk.
Hearing cries and breaking glass, the daughter ran to help her mother, whom Piatt had pinned under a chair. It became a melee. Piatt threw knives at the women. The daughter's boyfriend grabbed a rake.
Then, with a single sudden act, everything changed. The daughter grabbed a large kitchen knife from the floor, and stabbed Piatt in the stomach.
"It was self-defense," Potter, the victim advocate, says.
They fled, leaving Piatt in the house. There was smoke, then fire. When Sheriff's Office Sgt. Cliff Coleman arrived, he could hear Piatt inside the burning trailer, yelling: "Just let me die."
Officers dragged Piatt, whose intestines hung from the wound in his stomach, to safety. An ambulance took him to CHRISTUS St. Vincent Regional Medical Center.
From there, he disappeared.
Deputy District Attorney Doug Couleur says the hospital, citing federal privacy laws, refused to notify officers of Piatt's pending release. ("Requests for notification of a patients release for the purpose of arresting that individual must be submitted in writing on Agency letterhead," hospital spokesman Arturo Delgado writes to SFR.) Police did obtain Piatt's release date from a confidential source, Couleur says, but it turned out to be wrong.
Today, Piatt is at large—again. "You'd think somebody that was almost disemboweled wouldn't be hard to find, but he is," Potter says.
One also might think local law enforcement could protect two women from one violent drunk.
As it happened, they were on their own. SFR