Oct. 16, 2017
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Everyone Knew

A family headed toward tragedy—while Santa Fe watched

July 8, 2009, 12:00 am

She was 14, he was 18. They met at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center, where she was a camp counselor and he just hung around. It beat staying home.

Amanda Ewers and Marino K Leyba Jr., better known as Reno, dated for two years. Actually, they were infatuated. She was pretty, fair and impressionable; he was handsome and intense.

“His energy was in working for his dad, me and music. He was always trying to make music,” Ewers, now 19 and living in North Carolina, recalls.

But the relationship had bigger problems than their age difference. “He was one of those guys,” Ewers says. “I wasn’t allowed to wear anything but sweatpants and big T-shirts when I wasn’t with him.”

They broke up, Ewers says, after she learned Reno had slept with her best friend. According to a restraining order Ewers’ father filed on her behalf, Reno barraged Ewers with calls and text messages. Once she awoke to find handprints on her bedroom window. Twice he threatened suicide. The first time, she called his parents. The second time, she called police.

Two weeks after the breakup, in January 2006, their relationship flamed out where it began, at the Chavez Center.

Reno found Ewers there. He told her he’d obtained a .22-caliber handgun. If the cell phone was his first weapon, this was his second.

“I am not going to go to jail,” Reno said, according to the restraining order application. “If the police come after me I am going to blast at them. I will die before I go to jail.”

Ewers fled. Despite the no-contact order, Reno continued to call. “It was not a good breakup,” Ewers says.

An understatement, sure. But it could have been worse: Reno’s next serious relationship ended in blood on May 22, 2009.

That’s when police say Reno killed his girlfriend, Sarah Marie Lovato, her unborn child, Isaac, and her father, Bennie Ray Lovato, Sr. Police assume Reno shot the family with a gun he carried working for his father’s state-licensed security company.

Ewers was not surprised to learn Reno stood accused of such a horrific crime. Perhaps no one else should have been surprised, either. The story of Reno and Sarah is one of families destroying themselves while their community, looking on, does nothing.

Leyba family members refused to comment for this story, and SFR could not reach Sarah Lovato’s immediate family. SFR reconstructed their story using a stack of police reports, court records and other documents available to anyone who cares to look—which only underscores how much happened in the open.

Dozens of cops, lawyers, judges, social workers, teachers, friends and family knew Reno was a troubled kid from a home where terrifying things happened as predictably as birthdays. They knew, from experience, that abuse follows families like a shadow. They knew Reno had a gun.

Granted, hindsight is 20/20, but Reno’s threats to Amanda weren’t the first warning. The Lovatos’ murder was heralded by more red flags than the Beijing Olympics.

Carol Horwitz, the city’s domestic and sexual violence liaison, agrees.

“All the neighbors knew, family members knew, community members knew,” Horwitz says. “If neighbors had called and said, ‘I heard screaming and fighting,’ and law enforcement had intervened, and they’d done a lethality assessment: She was pregnant; he didn’t want her to be; she had broken up with him and he had access to weapons. If she’d gone to the shelter, she’d still be alive and have had the baby. There were lots of missed opportunities to intervene.”

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Police say Marino Leyba Jr., aka “Reno,” murdered his pregnant girlfriend, Sarah Lovato, her unborn child and her father, Bennie Lovato Sr.

Which leads Horwitz to an inevitable, depressing conclusion: “Our community has not stood up against domestic violence yet,” she says. “It’s still acceptable. It’s still normal and natural and commonsense—that’s the way people treat each other.”

Santa Fe’s already endemic family violence problem appears to have surged with the economic downturn. “It was just one of the busiest years, from July to June, that we’ve got recorded,” Sherry Taylor, executive director of the Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families, says.

Seventeen days after the Lovatos’ murders, a pregnant woman was severely beaten. Across town the same day, a man threw boiling water over his ex. And late last month, investigators identified four corpses in a car dredged from Cochiti Lake as a father and sons, missing since 2001; police think he may have drowned them to spite their mother.

Detective Tony Trujillo, who is investigating the Lovatos’ murders, calls it a “textbook” domestic violence case. “Unfortunately, there wasn’t any police intervention [when] it could’ve been prevented,” Trujillo says. “It’s a pattern—a cycle, they call it…There is a history between mom and dad, also.”


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