Maria Markus and Mateo Romero both say they were terrorized on July 7, 2014. But only Romero, a Pueblo man and local artist, had an assault-style rifle pointed at him.
On that afternoon, Romero pulled into the driveway of Markus' home at 1127 Old Santa Fe Trail after Han Solo, his pet Shih Tzu, defecated in the car. At the time, Romero says, he was living only a few blocks away on Upper Canyon Road.
Shortly after, Markus says, she pulled her 2006 Lexus into the driveway behind Romero's SUV and got out to ask him what he was doing there. To this day, she is adamant that Romero "looked guilty." She says she felt "instantly suspicious."
“I walked over, and he was sweating, he looked really guilty,” Markus tells SFR by telephone on Thursday. “Beads of sweat, like guilty sweat … He was being really flustered. If you were caught with your hand in the cookie jar, what would you be looking like?”
Shortly after, Markus got back into her vehicle, which she concedes she had parked strategically to prevent Romero from leaving her driveway. She then called 911 and told dispatchers she believed Romero had just burglarized her home.
She told the police dispatcher that two "Hispanics" had tried to burglarize her home a few weeks prior. She claims her husband shooed the alleged burglars away, and the couple later noticed power tools and rugs had been taken out of her garage. No one was ever arrested.
Markus tells SFR she thought Romero was part of this "same gang" of Hispanic men.
In October 2015, Romero sued the Santa Fe Police Department and officers Christopher Mooney and Louis Carlos, two of several who responded to Markus' call, as well as the city of Santa Fe, alleging civil rights violations. Mooney pointed his assault-style rifle at Romero after officers demanded he lie face down on the ground.
The lawsuit garnered local headlines at the time, but it has taken on new significance now—with a court victory for the city, an appeal by Romero's lawyers and a national debate spotlighting white people calling the police on people of color who have committed no crime.
Flashing back to 2014, Mooney can be seen brandishing his weapon near Romero's prone body in the dash camera video below. (fast-forward to 5:38).
In another video, from the vehicle camera of Lt. Carlos, an officer can be heard around the 13:20 mark telling Romero that Markus said she prevented Romero from leaving because "a couple of Hispanics" had recently been in her yard.
In April 2016, lawyers for the officers and the city moved for a state District Court judge to toss Romero's case out, arguing that the officers' actions were lawful and fell under the protection of qualified immunity—a legal doctrine that shields police officers from being sued if they were acting within the scope of their duties.
The court agreed in June 2017, but Leon Howard, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, says Romero's appeal, through the lens of hindsight, fits alongside recent viral videos of white people calling the police on black people for barbecuing with charcoal, sleeping in a dorm lounge, and other non-criminal acts.
An incident involving two Mohawk teenagers from Santa Cruz on a May 1 college tour at Colorado State University, where a white woman called the police believing the teens were Hispanic, also captured nationwide attention around the same time.
“By the time we filed [an additional brief in April 2018], these very public cases of white women calling law enforcement on people of color [had] kind of caught the public’s attention,” Howard tells SFR. “Law enforcement need to be educated on the concept of ‘white fear,’ and acknowledge this notion causes exaggerations and misperceptions when reporting people of color doing everyday actions.”
Romero's lawsuit alleges violations of the Fourth Amendment's restrictions against unreasonable search and seizure. The brief filed in April says that officers "failed to independently assess the facts at the scene and blindly relied on dispatch," and also "continued to detain Mr. Romero after reasonable suspicion was dispelled."
Romero says he has no doubts Markus' 911 call was a result of racism.
"Markus can't admit that, because that would be terrible to admit that she's a closet racist with the fear of 'the Other,'" he tells SFR.
Markus, who is originally from London, says Romero "didn't strike her" as Hispanic, and describes herself as "colorblind." She explains to SFR her decision to racially characterize the two men who she says burglarized her home thusly: "They were speaking Spanish. When someone speaks Spanish, what do you say? 'Are you from London?' No, you're from Mexico or some place, if they're speaking Spanish."
She still doubts there was even a dog in Romero's car, and says he "was not explaining himself" when she walked over to his car and asked what he was doing there. After she went back to her vehicle and Romero realized she was calling the police on him, he says he walked to her car door and tried to convince her to roll down her window—which Markus says only affirmed her belief that Romero was a threat.
"That's the classic response that a white person in this situation wants, they want obsequious behavior," Romero says. "I wasn't obsequious, I was myself … [and] I was aggravated [because] I was cleaning dog shit in my car."
While the court hears Romero's appeal, Markus has vowed to personally sue him in response.
“This man terrorized me while I was in my car, pulling at [my] car door and banging on the window,” she tells SFR. “And the police rescued me. So if [Romero and the ACLU] are trying to pull that, shame on them. I will stand up for the police and the city of Santa Fe. I love Natives and the city of Santa Fe. How dare he do this, and the ACLU do this. This is wrong, there’s no ground for it.”
Since the incident, Romero says he has experienced symptoms of post traumatic stress when he sees the police. He now advises his three children to avoid walking onto the property of "rich, white" owners if they can help it.
In certain neighborhoods like Markus', Romero says, "It's unsafe to be not white." Of Markus, he says, "She is symbolic of something in the Trump era, which is entitled, white, economically privileged people feeling inherently threatened by nonwhites, and that's something we have to all talk about."