***image1***Sheriff Greg Solano is outspoken, ambitious and increasingly controversial. He also likes to dance.
The music starts and the sheriff begins to dance.
Slowly at first-right leg twisting past the left, both arms shifting up and down from his gun belt.
One, two! One, two!
" the dance instructor shouts, "
Stay with it!
The sheriff's boyish face is taut with concentration as he tries to pick up the steps to "Manteca," an uptempo Dizzy Gillespie number. A stumble here, a missed turn there, and he falls hopelessly behind the class of sixth graders at Kearny Elementary School.
As the song roars forward, so does the sheriff. He begins to wave his hands in a Charleston-looking maneuver. His short, uniformed legs, remembering their moves from Santa Fe's storied "Hot Chocolate" disco nights, shimmy rhythmically across the Kearny gym floor.
And he's grinning-a wide, million-dollar grin-clapping his hands and twisting his 42-year-old hips as the music blares. "It's hard getting some of the other male officers to do this," Greg Solano says, after the hour-long rehearsal for the National Dance Institute of New Mexico's annual performance, an event he's participated in the last three years. "But I love it."
Walking out of the Kearny gym, Solano chats up a few youngsters. Most seem confused, if not awed, by the dancing cop. They're not the only ones.
Solano spent approximately seven years as a Santa Fe police officer and was elected Santa Fe County sheriff in 2002. During those years he has emerged as one of the city's more enigmatic, eccentric and politically savvy characters. He is far from where he started, as a poor and often-in-trouble youth on Santa Fe's streets.
The adult Solano is at once shy and emotional; he speaks so softly it's often hard to hear him, but wept openly while recounting the death of Judith Scasserra-Cinciripini-the result of a drunk driver-at a DWI forum last fall.
He is, in the same breath, easygoing and stubborn; Solano relishes the jokes
his subordinates crack about his height, but the sheriff fired a reserve deputy who publicly criticized the department under his administration.
He is both friendly and confrontational; Solano meets and greets the public regularly, but isn't afraid to criticize fellow law enforcement agencies in the press.
Now Solano faces his first re-election campaign and his challenger comes from within the ranks. Deputy Linda Ortiz says Solano has an overbearing management style, is only out for himself and is politically ambitious. Solano refutes the first two charges but not the latter. He freely admits sheriff won't be the last office he seeks. For now, it's keeping him busy.
It's barely 11 am, but Greg Solano's cell phone keeps ringing.
One caller wants the sheriff's support on an ordinance to prevent commercial rigs from rumbling through Las Campanas; a woman requests a campaign sign for her front yard; the daily papers' cop reporters check in to see if the previous night brought any events they need to know about.
"I can turn my phone off for a few minutes, and I guarantee you there'll be messages," Solano says with a laugh.
The sheriff works his cell (on speaker), while driving from Kearny back to headquarters. He
then slows a brand new, black Ford Explorer (courtesy of Santa Fe County) to a crawl and peers out its tinted windows down St. Michael's Drive.
Solano grew up just down the street, a block west of the Hopewell-Mann public housing projects, in a cramped apartment with his mother Sylvia, her best friend Thelma Ulery and Ulery's young daughter.
Sylvia and Ulery, both single mothers fresh out of high school, met as co-workers at a local
restaurant. With their men gone and money tight, the two friends decided to move in together.
"Greg was this very fair-skinned little boy, with light eyes and lots of energy-just so cute," Ulery recalls. "We would take him to the grocery story and he would want to chat with everybody. He was just one of those boys who loved to do everything."
Solano also loved to get into trouble, especially if it involved the kids from Hopewell. By the time he was 14, Solano was regularly running away from home, sleeping in his friend's van, hanging out on the Plaza, even spending the night in dusty culverts.
Sometimes he'd smoke a little pot ("I never really got into it," he says), but mostly he just wanted to run from the overwhelming responsibility he felt as a fatherless child. His family was poor-food stamps were standard currency for the Solanos-but it was his friends' questions about his absent father that really stung.
"I would tell them he died
in Vietnam," Solano says, his trademark smile masking a glimmer of discomfort.
All that time on the street made Solano a familiar face to local cops. One in particular, Jimmy "Juero" Salazar, would pick Solano up when he ran away and throw him in the juvenile detention center for the weekend to teach the young Solano a lesson.
"I feel very lucky I didn't get into more trouble than I did," Solano says.
Some of his close friends from Hopewell didn't fare as well.
Daniel Martinez, one of Greg's teenage buddies, was accused of raping a woman and killing the man who tried to stop him in one of the city's most high profile and disturbing crimes of the 1990s. Martinez was acquitted of those charges but ended up in prison for cocaine trafficking.
At Santa Fe High, Solano struggled with his marks and was placed in a vocational section of the school. After barely graduating, he left home for good-his mom had since moved to a nearby house, now crowded with Solano's two younger sisters and
younger brother. On his own for the first time, Solano rented a mobile home back in the old Hopewell area and started working at Checkers Auto Parts. He also married the love of his life.
When Solano first met Antoinette, they were 16. She was dating a friend of his but Solano didn't mind waiting. Eventually she and the friend broke up and Solano began courting her, which included long nights of bell bottoms and polyester at the city's "Hot Chocolate" disco nights.
"I just liked him. He was from the wrong side of the tracks," Antoinette Solano says. "And he was insistent. He would be at my locker every single day. He turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me."
In 1984, at the
age of 21, the two were married. Solano was happier than he'd ever been in his life.
"I always wondered, 'What happened to me? How did I end up avoiding all the trouble that everyone around me had gotten into?'" he says.
Solano's close relationship with his mother had a lot to do with it. Then, one spring night just six months after Solano's wedding, Sylvia, who had gone to work for the state, drove a van of co-workers up to Taos for a weekend event. She wasn't supposed to go, but the driver had bailed and Sylvia volunteered to take his place.
After dropping her colleagues in Taos, she set off for home along the narrow, twisting road that slices through the Sangre de Cristos between Taos and Santa Fe. Just south of Pilar, the van plunged off an embankment. Sylvia died at the scene.
"Somebody saw the accident
and thought something was wrong with the vehicle," Ulery says. "Everyone was devastated."
Solano's aunts and uncles descended on the Solano home and offered to take in his brothers and sisters, all still in high school. Solano went to see lawyer Michael Vigil (now a District Court judge), who had a reputation for helping kids from his neighborhood.
Free of charge, Vigil helped Solano take custody of his siblings.
At the age of 21, with $25,000 from his mother's life insurance policy, Solano and his wife became the caretakers for Gerald, Monica and Melissa. Solano and Antoinette left the mobile home and moved back in with his family.
"He was the one who took care of us. He woke me in the morning. He talked to me about boy problems. He grounded me when I stayed out too late," Melissa, who was 13 at the time, says. "I don't really see Greg as my brother. I see him as a father."
situation was hardly ideal, especially for Antoinette.
"The kids didn't accept her as a new mother. They didn't want a new mother. It was a
time for our marriage," Solano says.
With bills mounting, Solano also knew his new job at a car dealership wasn't enough.
In 1988, Solano spotted a newspaper ad for the Santa Fe Police Department. He walked into the police station and filled out an application. Then there was the interview with police chief Ray Sisneros and-to Solano's horror-Jimmy "Juero" Salazar.
"I thought that was it," Solano remembers, as he pulls into the Sheriff's Department parking lot. "I knew there was no way they were going to let me become a cop."
The dusty photo hangs in a corner of the sheriff's office, away
from the collection of police patches, shots of traveling dignitaries, the Elvis memorabilia.
It takes a few minutes to find Solano. His young, whiskerless face is flanked by scowling men who look twice his age and three times as tough.
The picture is from the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy's 1988 graduating class. Jimmy "Juero"
Salazar had hired Solano after all. "'So, you wanna
join the other side now,'" Salazar quipped to him just before the interview, Solano remembers.
After graduating from the academy, Solano found himself on the same streets he used to roam as a runaway, this time in a Santa Fe police uniform.
"It was clear pretty early on that Greg was someone who was going to be moving up the ranks. He was very bright," former police chief Beverly Lennen says.
And there was plenty to learn. Solano was assigned to the department's juvenile crime division to help rein in Santa Fe's burgeoning gang problem. Most of his time was spent chasing young gang members around Santa Fe along with fellow cop Robert Garcia (now Solano's undersheriff).
One Halloween night, Solano was told by an informant that a group of young Reet Boyz Bloods were planning a drive-by on his home to impress one of their shot callers. Solano and Garcia had a fellow officer call one of the Bloods, pretend to be another Blood and arrange a meeting at a mobile home park. When the Bloods showed up, the police moved in and made the arrests.
"The work made my wife really nervous," Solano says.
But Solano's time working gangs gave the young cop plenty of confidence. He eventually made detective. His blue patrol uniform gave way to flashy, '70s-styled
suits. Other cops called him Eddie Munster because of his pompadour of jet black hair and poked fun at his obsession with Elvis Presley, but Solano was also popular. In 1993, he was elected vice president of the Police Officers'
Association (POA), a labor group that predated the city police union.
Solano soon learned the challenges he faced fighting crime paled with the internal strife tearing up the department.
On July 3 of the same year, police shot and killed a knife-wielding, mentally ill man, Francisco "Pancho" Ortega, after a standoff on Hickox street. Police claimed Ortega threatened the officers who surrounded him. The incident galvanized community members who took to the streets and City Council chambers to protest the incident and the Police Department.
In turn, Solano and other POA members organized community forums to support the police. Solano also wanted people to tie a blue ribbon to their cars, another sign of solidarity. But the ribbon campaign backfired badly, particularly with then city councilor Debbie Jaramillo, who sided with community members over the shooting.
By 1994, Jaramillo had been elected mayor and hired the chief of the University of New Mexico police department, Don Grady, to take over as the Santa Fe chief.
Grady's tenure was marked by controversy and he struggled to manage the department. By then Solano was POA president, but says the POA viewed him as too conciliatory in fighting Grady's reorganization of the department.
"They wanted Grady out, and they turned it into a race issue," Solano says (Grady is African-American).
In 1994, Solano lost his POA presidency to Sgt. Frank Novelli, viewed as a more outspoken Grady critic.
"Some of the choices Greg had to
make as president weren't always popular, but he did what he believed was best for the department," Lennen says.
Disenchanted, Solano decided to leave the force altogether. He and his wife opened a video store in addition to their advertising print company, far away from the stress of police work
"I had never failed at anything, until this," Solano says. "I was totally burnt out."
But he couldn't stay completely
out of police work and sat on the board of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), another officer's association.
One night in July, 1995 after a heated FOP board meeting during which Solano argued with POA president Novelli over the role of the organization, Solano sat at
the FOP bar with a few friends. Novelli came up to Solano and hurled a box of anti-gang pamphlets at him, knocking Solano off his chair. Solano's friends restrained him, sheriff's deputies were called and the local press had a field day. Solano never filed a complaint against Novelli and laughs about the incident now.
"The next morning, I left a box of the same pamphlets on Novelli's lawn," he says.
The incident was enough to reinforce Solano's decision to leave the police. He retreated to his family and new business. The hibernation from law enforcement wouldn't last long.
In 1998, Solano mounted a campaign to seek the democratic
nomination for sheriff against Ray Sisneros, the man who had hired him at the city a decade before. Sisneros
had since moved to the county where he was undersheriff to Benjie Montano.
"I kept thinking that I could do things better than the guys that were in charge," Solano says.
Solano says he knew he couldn't beat Sisneros, but viewed the race as a chance to get his name out.
To his surprise, Solano only lost by 600 votes in the primary.
"He ran a professional race, he kept it clean," Sisneros, now director of the special investigations division of the Department of Public Safety, says. "There was no
animosity or anything."
Four years later, when Sisneros opted not to run again, Solano was ready. He sought advice from political consultants, schooled himself on the intricacies of local politics and hit the campaign trail like it was a cop beat. Solano emphasized the problems with the Sheriff's Department as part of his campaign. He honed in
on the troubled county jail, operated by a private Utah corrections company and under investigation by the Justice Department for violating inmates' civil rights. Solano thought the county should take back the jail and run it and he said so everywhere he went.
The effort paid off. He won the Democratic primary in a three-way race and, in November of 2002, roundly beat Republican challenger Roy Dennis.
"The first time around, there were 12 of us at my brother's house watching the returns on TV on election night," he says. "This time, there were 250 people at the FOP!"
Almost immediately, it was clear Solano did things differently.
"Benjie was a character. He was really personable, and the laughs wouldn't stop," Lt. Jeremy Garcia, former president of Santa Fe County Deputy Sheriffs' Association union, says of Benjie Montano, who was sheriff for two terms before Ray Sisneros took over in 1998. "Greg is a little more business-oriented."
And there was plenty of business to attend to.
Solano continued to push the county to take over the jail, which it did last October. He set about filling the department's dozen or so vacancies (now down to two). He negotiated raises with the union. He pushed for the forfeiture of vehicles used by multiple DWI offenders, which the County Commission passed into law April 25.
In January of this year he became a blogger, sending out his views on a near-daily basis in cyberspace on topics such as local politics, immigration and law enforcement. Like most opinionated bloggers, Solano has found himself in hot water from some of his posts.
On Feb. 13, Solano wrote
critically of City Councilor Miguel Chavez' statements regarding the policing of Airport Road within the context of the annexation debate.
"I think he originally took what I said personally, and I didn't mean it that way," Chavez says. "But we talked about it, and we have a greater understanding on where both of us stand. Greg handled it professionally."
On April 1, Solano posted an entry announcing an upcoming, surprise visit to New Mexico by George Bush. Within the entry was a link to a note that said the announcement was just an April Fool's joke.
Albuquerque Republican strategist and fellow blogger Whitney Cheshire didn't think it was funny.
She took Solano to task on her blog for making jokes while other police were searching for Michael Paul Astorga, who alledgedly killed a Bernalillo County sheriff's deputy in March.
"Initially people were upset as to why a sheriff had leaked proprietary information on a presidential visit, and they got angry when they found out it was a joke," she says. "While New Mexico's law enforcement was busy with the hunt for a cop killer, he was blogging about an April Fool's joke."
Now it was Solano's turn to be furious. He fired off an e-mail to Cheshire about her Astorga taunt.
"We had deputies working long overtime hours on that case. I write my blog at 10:30 at night. It was ridiculous," he says.
Solano doesn't keep his opinions confined to cyberspace. On April 6, the Rio Grande SUN reported trouble for the Region Three interagency drug task force, which works narcotics in northern New Mexico and is headed up by New Mexico State Police. State Police Lt. Roman Jimenez, commander of Region Three, had requested a transfer because he couldn't get along with local Santa Fe agents. According to the story, Jimenez believes those agents rallied around Santa Fe Police Sgt. Gerald Solano, the sheriff's younger brother and a member of Region Three.
Not one to be left out of the scrum, Greg Solano, who sits on Region Three's board, also is quoted in the
story questioning Jimenez' leadership.
"Things just weren't right in terms of Roman's management style. We kept getting complaints that he was favoring state police," Solano tells SFR.
Gerald Solano would not comment on issues regarding Region Three, but points out he's been a member of the task force for more than eight years, long before his brother was elected sheriff.
State Police Lt. Jimmy Glascock says the department doesn't "want to get into any personality issues," but, suffice it to say: "When you bring a lot of different agencies into a task force, each of those agencies has their own opinions on operational matters…The region is productive and successful. Narcotics work is very complex and demanding."
Solano also has come up against other law enforcement much closer to home-one of his own deputies.
Sgt. Linda Ortiz has served on the force for nearly 18 years under
four different sheriffs' administrations. She says she was compelled to run because of what she sees as Solano's overbearing management style, his unchecked political maneuvering and low morale.
"I want to get back trust from the officers, better training for the officers and bring back the open door policy where anyone can approach the sheriff and say what they feel," Ortiz says.
Ortiz points specifically
to Solano's decision to combine the department's civil division, which serves court orders, with its planning and training and traffic divisions. Ortiz was in charge of civil, but the reorganization left a fellow sergeant running the show and Ortiz back on the street working patrol.
Solano says he was simply trying to make the department run more efficiently.
"I chose the person I thought would do a better job," Solano says.
Ortiz says she's a senior sergeant and shouldn't have been passed over.
"The community should be first, but Greg is out for himself," Ortiz says. "He's created an atmosphere where people feel they can be retaliated against if they say anything he doesn't like."
Ortiz also says that too many other officers were treated unfairly as well.
Adam Gallegos says he was ostracized by the sheriff and undersheriff after he made it known he was looking for another job in Albuquerque. Specifically, Gallegos says he was prohibited from receiving training with the rest of the department even though he was still on the force.
"If you expressed any concerns, than you faced retaliation," Gallegos, who now is a Santa Fe city cop, says. "Everyone is afraid to speak up over there."
Ortiz points to her co-campaign manager, David Yount, a former city cop and local Allstate agent, who worked as a reserve officer for the Sheriff's Department. When Solano became sheriff, Yount says he clashed with Solano on numerous issues, such as the recruitment of reserves and what Yount says is Solano's lack of communication. In October, Yount decided to run Ortiz' campaign. "Call me Pollyannish, but I have a higher vision of police work. He's the poorest leader I've seen," Yount says.
Two months later, Yount sent out his annual seasons' greetings letter to his clients. Within the letter is the following statement:
"2005 has been an extremely challenging year for the Sheriff's Office. I'll never understand why some people think treating the free help bad makes any kind of sense. In the 13 years I have volunteered my time there, I have never been more discouraged or demoralized…"
Solano got ahold of the letter, met with Yount in January of this year and fired him.
"I would have disciplined him if he was an officer, but because he was a volunteer, I let him go," Solano says, although he adds that there were previous problems and the letter was more a final straw.
Both the past and present presidents of the union disagree with Ortiz, Gallegos and Yount's assessment and praise Solano for working with the union to up deputies' salaries.
"I can remember under Ray Sisneros when the morale wasn't on the up and up," current union leader, Deputy Richard Sisneros (no relation), says. "It goes up and down just like any other job. You can't make everybody happy."
Lt. Jeremy Garcia, who worked with Solano on the salary issue until Solano promoted him last month, concurs with Sisneros' assessment.
"I don't see morale affecting anybody's work," Garcia, who supported Roy Dennis in 2002, says. "I see quite the opposite: a lot of young, happy deputies that are willing to work and do what it takes. There's not going to be retaliation if you express yourself."
Ortiz' giant, yellow campaign billboards now dot Santa Fe's thoroughfares with the slogan, "Changing The Dynamics." Like Solano, when he first ran, Ortiz is mounting a campaign that challenges the current administration and calls for change.
"Greg doesn't know me very well," she says, offering her own trademark smile. "People think I'm quiet, but I know a lot of people in this town too."
Preparing for a final meeting of the day, this one with his wife for
dinner, Solano's cell phone rings for the fifth time in five minutes. He lets the call go, flashes a smile and reflects on the politics and hard work of being the county sheriff. He says he'll eventually run for some sort of office, perhaps a magistrate judge, maybe something higher, probably in law enforcement. But he's also the first to admit there are other things he cares about besides police work. Writing, for one. Having a life, for another.
"A lot of cops are afraid of eating at certain restaurants because they're afraid somebody will spit in their food or something," he says. "I tell my deputies to get out in the community as much as possible. That's something I've always tried to do. It's important to be friends with people who aren't cops too."
Solano's phone rings again. This time he answers it.