Judge Rules Teen Murder Trial Can Proceed

Suspect will be held in jail until trial in alleged killing at Ragle Park

A state District Court judge in Santa Fe on Monday green-lit for trial prosecutors’ case against Elijah Judah Trujillo, who was 15 when authorities say he fatally shot 60-year-old Samuel Cordero in Ragle Park last August.

Trujillo, now 16, will remain in custody as the case proceeds.

After a roughly two-hour preliminary hearing in which Trujillo appeared in person but did not testify, First Judicial District Judge T. Glenn Ellington ruled from the bench that prosecutors cleared a probable-cause hurdle and can try Trujillo on first-degree murder and evidence tampering charges. Prosecutors with the First Judicial District Attorney’s office presented police testimony and three home security videos during the hearing as they sought to move the case forward. Trujillo’s attorney’s argued the state’s evidence is lacking and failed to show Trujillo and Cordero were the only ones at the park the morning Cordero was killed.

In a possible preview of difficulties prosecutors may find in the case’s next steps, Ellington said in his ruling that the “testimony and evidence in respect to identification of the alleged shooter is all circumstantial” before binding Trujillo over for trial. For now, he’ll remain incarcerated at the Juvenile Services Center.

Jerry Archuleta, one of Trujillo’s lawyers, tells SFR the bar for probable cause in preliminary hearings is set “super low,” and that “the prosecutors are overreaching, which they do on other cases.”

“The hard part for [co-counsel Les Romaine] and myself is that every time we try to talk to Judah, it’s with detention personnel there,” Archuleta says. “So we can’t get a full understanding of what, if anything, happened. We just—we kind of know a little bit of a little bit.”

Archuleta plans to file a motion to seek Trujillo’s release until his trial.

Assistant district attorneys Ramon Carrillo and Jeanine Salustri used Cordero’s and Trujillo’s phone data to show the two were at Ragle Park within minutes of each other and that Cordero’s phone was near Trujillo’s home before someone ditched it near Rodeo Road.

Ellington also heard testimony from officers and detectives who were either on the scene where Cordero’s body was found or worked the subsequent investigation. But prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of Santa Fe Police Det. Rebecca Hilderbrandt, who swore out an affidavit that formed the basis for a criminal complaint charging Trujillo.

Hilderbrandt testified that after analyzing data from Cordero’s phone she found that Cordero was using a dating app marketed towards the LGBTQ community while he was at Ragle Park, but little else.

“I could see that Samuel Cordero was using the dating app Grindr, and I didn’t see any incoming or outgoing messages around the time that he left work or phone calls,” Hilderbrandt said from the witness stand. “But the main thing was that he was using Grindr.”

Hilderbrandt submitted a search warrant for the Grindr account that, according to prosecutors, is connected to an email address associated with Trujillo. But she testified: “There wasn’t much from the Grindr account, just that the profile age was 19 years old.”

The DA’s office also presented three videos from a security camera at the home of Trujillo’s stepfather, which Hilderbrandt said is also the “former residence” of Trujillo and his mother. Hilderbrandt testified that the first video showed Trujillo’s mother walking out of the house, which is near the park, “with her phone and keys in hand,” as a “male identified as Judah Trujillo is coming up the driveway” at 2:53 am, about 10 minutes after police say Cordero was killed.

The second video, Hilderbrtandt said from the stand, showed Trujillo, his mother and his younger sister leaving the house at 3:10 am. The third video showed Trujillo and his mother—without the sister—coming back to the house at 5:02 am, according to Hilderbrandt’s testimony.

Search warrants police executed on two addresses believed to be associated with Trujillo turned up several guns, Hilderbrandt testified, particularly two 9 mm handguns. Others testified on Monday that 9 mm casings were found near Cordero’s body.

Trujillo’s lawyers successfully blocked testimony from Hilderbrandt about further test results from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on the guns, arguing that it was hearsay.

During cross examination from Archuleta, Hilderbrandt testified that despite finding Cordero and Trujillo both had Grindr accounts, she found no evidence that the two ever connected or communicated with each other. Archuleta also pressed Hilderbrandt on statements from Trujillo’s mother about her work hours. Hilderbrandt testified that Trujillo’s mother said she usually gets up for work around “3 am-ish.”

Police found Samuel Cordero’s body at Ragle Park in the early hours of Aug. 10 after someone called to report a motionless body. Police say there were shell casings near his body, but no weapon. Using a geofence, or reverse location warrant, police identified Trujillo as a suspect and arrested him more than a month after police found Cordero’s body.

While search warrants for a specific phone or computer are common, Santa Fe Police Capt. Aaron Ortiz tells SFR in a recent email that the department has only executed three reverse-location warrants “in the past year,” including the one used to identify Trujillo as a suspect. Whereas a search of a specific phone requires justification through additional evidence, geofence searches look at a specific geographical area for electronic devices with location history turned on to identify who might be in that area. In Trujillo’s case, police say they found only his and Cordero’s data at the park when Cordero was killed.

Several days after his arrest, Truijllo made his first appearance in court, remotely from San Juan County’s Juvenile Services Center, where he’s been held since his arrest. Ellington ordered Trujillo jailed there after the DA’s office said the 16-year-old was on suicide watch. SFR could not verify that claim because Trujillo’s counsel and the DA’s office have stayed publicly quiet about the case and a representative from the juvenile jail refused to share any medical information about Trujillo, including specifics about his conditions of detainment.

Salustri, the assistant district attorney, told Ellington earlier this month the DA’s office sought to charge Trujillo with first-degree murder as an adult, meaning Ellington could sentence the boy to the maximum penalty of 30 years to life if Trujillo is convicted—though the judge would have discretion to hand down a shorter prison term.

A criminal complaint obtained by SFR outlined that police may have suspected some sort of connection between Cordero and Trujillo through Grindr. The document stated that both had accounts, but stopped short of alleging they had connected through the app. The account police say was associated with Trujillo’s email address listed his age as 19, the document states.

Trujillo turned 16 about a month after Cordero was killed. Ellington did not set a trial date on Monday.

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