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"If I was trying to kill you, I would have"

And other stories from Santa Fe’s domestic violence epidemic

August 5, 2009, 12:00 am

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.”

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Ron Piatt, now at large, allegedly set fire to his ex-wife’s home after starting and losing a knife fight.

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


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