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."
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."
She was 19, he was 25 or 31.
Reno's mother, Loretta Valdez, married Marino Leyba in Santa Fe in 1986, according to their pending divorce papers; Santa Fe County clerks have no marriage license on file and Marino has given authorities conflicting birth dates.
Reno was born that August, so Loretta was likely pregnant already. Brother John was born in 1989. Sister Angel came in 1991.
By then or soon after, Loretta had developed a drug problem. In June 1992, police caught her forging prescriptions for the painkiller Darvocet. (In one of Reno's later suicide threats to Ewers, documented in her restraining order, he said he'd swallowed 72 pills.)
State prosecutors, represented by Angela "Spence" Pacheco, called six Santa Fe Police officers as witnesses against Loretta. Pacheco, now the district attorney for the 1st Judicial District, declined comment to SFR for this story.
Loretta passed her probation in July 1993. Three months later, she was involved in a car accident. Four-year-old John, who was in the car, suffered leg injuries.
For various reasons, the Leybas spent a lot of time among doctors. In the early '90s, St. Vincent Hospital garnished Marino's wages through his employer, ABC Self Storage, which court records indicate was owned by local businessman Gerald Peters.
That $4,738 hospital bill finally got paid off in 1995. Even by Leyba standards, it was a rough year.
That April, Marino filed a protection order against Loretta, citing her "verbal abuse." He claimed she'd showed up at his work the day before, demanding out of the marriage and threatening to take the kids. She said they belonged to another man.
"I hit her and she also slaped [sic] me and I want this vilonce [sic] to stop. She call me a asshole over and over making my work day hard," Marino wrote to the court, in his scrawl.
The court at the time thought Loretta's location was "Maybe Esperanza." The shelter could not confirm that for SFR.
Now deceased Judge Carol J Vigil, who oversaw domestic violence cases in the First Judicial District Court at the time, gave Marino temporary custody of Angel, John and Reno, then 8.
Three days after requesting the protection order, Marino had it dismissed. He and Loretta were attending counseling, he wrote, and they wanted to keep the kids together. Vigil agreed.
"That L word is what gets people in trouble," Esperanza Executive Director Sherry Taylor says, only half kidding.
Whatever counseling the Leybas received didn't end their fighting. Loretta faced a domestic violence charge in Mora County in 1997. For a while after that, the law didn't get involved.
But in the wee hours of Feb. 2, 2005, Santa Fe police responded to an argument between Loretta and Marino. "No physical violence occurred," Officer Peter Neal wrote. He "exceptionally cleared" the case, which can mean police lacked evidence to press charges or the victim refused to cooperate.
That March 10, Sue Shaffer, a case worker at the mental health clinic Casa De Su Vida, asked police to check on fighting at the Leyba home. The officer's report listed Reno, then 18, and Loretta as victims. The next day, Detective Charle-Ann Martin followed up on another call from Shaffer. This time, Martin listed daughter Angel as the victim of "emotional and physical abuse and neglect."
Shaffer declined comment. Martin referred SFR to Capt. Gary Johnson, who did not respond by press time.
Within a month of Martin's investigation, police arrested Loretta for felony domestic violence. Ten days later, prosecutors dismissed the complaint "pending further investigation;" that May, police arrested Loretta on a lesser domestic violence charge. She accepted a plea deal amounting to $67 in fines and fees, 180 days probation and 12 hours community service.
Loretta completed her community service on July 20, 2005. At 10 am that very day, Martin got another referral from the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department alleging "abuse and neglect" of 14-year-old
Angel, then attending Capital Christian School.
Teenage Reno knew the abuse in his family was wrong, according to his ex—and he "hated" it.
"His dad was always abusive; his mom was an alcoholic," Amanda Ewers says. "I know that really fucked him up."
Whatever animosities they might've shared, father and junior worked as a team at the security firm. But the family business became another detriment to Reno's education. He dropped out of high school twice. "He was smart enough to finish. But working for his dad at nights, till 5 am, that always sucked up his days," Ewers says.
Marino founded USA Security and Surveillance in 2000. Clients included apartments, hotels and the Santa Fe Place mall. The state Regulation and Licensing Department, which oversees private security companies, records no violations for Marino's company.
"Sadly there was nothing in [Reno's] file, or in the file of US Security, that would indicate such a traumatic event was ahead," RLD Public Information Officer Teala Kail says. "There simply were no red flags…Our hearts go out to the family, of course."
Indeed, RLD records no complaints filed against the company. Reno got his guard license in 2004, and RLD renewed it in 2006 and 2008, after the documented incident in which he threatened to "blast" the police with his new .22. (Until recently, the agency did not conduct background checks for license renewals.)
RLD wasn't alone in underestimating the danger.
First Judicial District Court Judge Daniel A Sanchez closed Ewers' restraining order on Feb. 5, 2006, seven days after granting it.
Within two months, police responded to another incident involving the couple.
Ewers says she was meeting a friend at an apartment complex off Sawmill Road. She says she fell asleep in her car, parked in the lot Reno was guarding. When Reno found her, he called his dad, Ewers says. When Marino arrived, he put a boot on her wheel, Ewers says. Then he called police.
Officer Shane Shultz reported finding Ewers parked in a handicapped spot. Marino "held the juvenile and called her father and police," Shultz wrote. "Marino feels the juvenile is stalking his son." Case closed.
Ewers says police did tell Marino he was "lucky" they didn't arrest him for false imprisonment, but recalls no official follow-up. "That was pretty much the end of that," she says.
On May 2, Detective Martin got another referral from caseworkers about Angel, who made an unspecified disclosure about her "19 year old brother"—Reno. The details would become clearer in following years, but only after Angel moved to a mental institution.
The record is quiet on the Leybas for the rest of 2006. But on Jan. 17, 2007, a nurse at St. Vincent Hospital called police when Marino left his wife at the emergency room.
Officer Judah Montano found Loretta in tears. Her left arm was in a purple cast.
According to the police report, that afternoon she'd been watching television and having "a few drinks," she said, when Marino came home, enraged. He lifted her from the sofa by her neck.
"I'll break your other arm," he shouted. "I'll kill you."
Marino had at least nine inches and 60 pounds on his petite wife. He pushed her into the bedroom door, knocking her down. She looked up at him.
"You're right," she said. "I need help. Please take me to the hospital."
Montano arrested Marino for misdemeanor battery of a household member. He spent four hours and 23 minutes in jail.
The next morning, he called police, complaining of "unwanted telephone calls from his wife." Then he filed divorce papers. Judge Vigil ordered mediation for the couple.
Marino's attorney was Yvonne Quintana of Española. Loretta's only advocate was the state. And three months after saying Marino had beat her, Loretta requested prosecutors drop the case. She was drunk, she claimed, and had "misconstrued" her husband's actions. Now sober, she realized "he did nothing inappropriate, threatening or abusive" and in fact was only "trying to help her."
Such reversals are common, Esperanza's Taylor says.
"If somebody attacked you on the street, you wouldn't want to protect them. When it's someone you're sharing a home with, sharing your bank account with, sharing your children with—a lot of times the charges are dropped," Taylor says.
Around this time, Reno began dating Sarah Lovato. She was 15, he was 20. Roses grew in the yard of Reno's new trailer on Calle Norte, off Agua Fria Street, and he continued working for his father.
Sometime on June 20, 2007, Officer Bryan Hidalgo arrived at the Vista Allegre Apartments on Zepol Road, where a Mace-wielding security guard had chased a man into his home.
The guard was Reno's father, Marino. When Hidalgo arrived, Marino had his Smith & Wesson 9-millimeter holstered.
"I knew Leyba had been arrested for a domestic-violence-related charge since I had served him with an emergency order of protection," Hidalgo wrote. "Leyba…stated he did not know if the conditions of his bond allowed him to possess firearms. I instructed Leyba that due to the time of night, I had no way to verify those conditions."
Nothing much came of the incident. Santa Fe County Magistrate Court Judge Sandy K Miera amended Marino's bond conditions, from the assault on Loretta, so he could carry a gun "for job release uses."
Miera would later look down from the bench on young Reno.
More red flags unfurled. In September 2007, Detective Martin got what was by then her fourth CYFD referral about Angel, then 16. The girl "disclosed being molested by her father," according to Martin's report. SFR has no way of determining the truth of this allegation, only that it was documented in a public record as were Angel's other allegations. And as with those other allegations, police referred the case to some "other agency"—likely the district attorney or CYFD or both. Father Marino was never charged with molestation. However, a person familiar with the family says Angel would disclose abuse and later recant—much as Loretta withdrew her charges against Marino.
The Leybas spent 2008 spiraling toward destruction.
That May 2, Marino called 911. Loretta had tried to shoot herself, he claimed, but he intervened and she shot the wall instead. SFPD Officer Flavio Salazar's report doesn't say whether he simply took Marino's word for what happened, but police did take the gun as evidence. They sent Loretta to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.
Two things happened that fall.
Detective Martin got her last public report about Angel, who by then lived in a mental hospital outside Santa Fe: "A CYFD referral alleges a 17 year old has been physically and sexually abused by her father and two brothers over several years." Again, SFR could not determine the veracity of the allegation or what "other agencies" did to follow up. CYFD Investigations Supervisor Gabrielle James did not respond to a message by press time.
The second event: Reno and Sarah Lovato conceived the child they would name Isaac. By all accounts the pregnancy made Sarah glad. She was 16, he was 22.
Sarah Lovato's family also knew violence.
Her mother, Linda M Sanchez, known as Lindy, married Bennie Ray Lovato Sr., on May 3, 1982. She was 21, he was 23. Their first son, Bennie Jr., was born that September, so Lindy must have been pregnant already. Later came Jared, Nick, Sarah and Julie.
In 2001, police arrested 18-year-old Bennie Jr. for attacking a "household member" with a knife. He was also charged with blocking a call for help.
Bennie Jr.'s first Santa Fe County jail stint lasted 108 days, records show. Later years brought more arrests. He would show up at probation appointments with traces of cocaine in his urine or booze on his breath, telling officials "he cannot stop drinking." One probation officer wrote, "Mr. Lovato becomes very violent while under the influence of alcohol." Another wrote, "Bennie appears not to care about his future."
Reno's family, the Leybas, looked wealthy next to the Lovatos. Lindy found a job "caring for children" for CYFD in the late '90s, according to later divorce papers, but was applying for disability benefits in 1999, when Sarah was 7. When Lindy filed for divorce in 2004, she said she was homeless but had physical custody of the children. Their father's monthly income was $529 in disability benefits; mom got $387 through a federal needy-families program.
Court mediator Teddy Delfs decided the sisters would stay with Bennie Sr. at the Paseo Del Sol apartments. Across the street from Capital High School, that affordable housing project was a step up. Sarah lived there when she dated Reno; she would die there, too. By then, the Leybas' course was set.
The record is unclear about the other woman's identity. It's also vague about the mystery object. It could've been a bottle, a dildo, a gun—anything.
Loretta told police she spent Dec. 31, 2008, at the Park Inn & Suites on Cerrillos Road, getting drunk, high and then raped "with an object" by another female. Marino's company guards that hotel, a clerk confirms.
Whatever happened that New Year's Eve may have led Marino to sign divorce papers, again, on Jan. 2.
On Jan. 6, Loretta reported her rape from CHRISTUS St. Vincent Regional Medical Center. Marino also called the cops that day: Someone had stolen his white Ford Taurus, which he'd left in the Lowe's supermarket lot overnight with the keys inside.
By 2009, little that happened to the Leybas could surprise.
April was the last time Reno's neighbor, Juan Medrano, remembers seeing Reno and his pretty, quiet young girlfriend, Sarah. Medrano never saw or heard them fight. But Medrano, also nicknamed Reno, rarely spoke to the skinny security guard across the street.
"He looks like a good guy, always," Medrano says.
Others saw more. In the months after Sarah's pregnancy, according to an article in The Santa Fe New Mexican, a Paseo Del Sol resident saw Reno and Sarah "fighting in a car and when Lovato tried to get out, Leyba pulled her back in by her hair. The neighbor did not report the incident."
Horwitz, the domestic violence liaison, is disgusted but not surprised. "People are more concerned about robberies and prairie dogs than they are about each other," she says.
Knowing the Lovatos might have been saved wears on her. "It's been horrible—beyond horrible," Horwitz says. The same goes for others in the "DV" field.
"This happening on my shift; I feel responsible somehow," Esperanza's Taylor says. "Maybe we should've done more outreach in the schools. Maybe there should've been more triage for [Reno]. I don't know what we could've done. But we're going to do something now."
To Reno's defense attorney, ACLU-New Mexico President Gary Mitchell, it's no accident New Mexico ranks among the nation's worst in treating mental illness. (A 2009 study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness says this state made little progress, despite a bureaucratic overhaul begun in 2005.) Without saying his client committed "any act," Mitchell suggests Reno might have benefited from some serious psychiatric attention early in life.
"Until the Legislature decides to provide appropriate funds for mental health treatment, whether it be in schools or outside of schools, we're going to continue to have major problems," Mitchell says. "Isn't it worth it to save lives? Why do we have to be so ignorant? And I say ignorant because the Legislature knows and the governor knows, but they don't want to do it because it's not something that gets you votes. It is so wrong that the governor and every official in this state ought to walk with their heads down. They're the ones responsible."
Morally, Mitchell may have a case. But the law will hold one person responsible for the Lovatos' deaths, and his name isn't Bill Richardson.
Reno had revealed a jealous side before. Yet even after learning what happened to Sarah, Reno's ex doesn't think she dodged a bullet.
"I don't think he would have it in him to shoot me," Amanda Ewers says. "I'm sure a lot of girls would say this: I think we had a different kind of relationship."
Steve Ewers suspects his daughter might still have feelings for Reno. But even the angry dad has sympathy for the young man now jailed on murder charges: "Wherever he goes, I hope he gets the help he needs," Ewers says.
Earlier this year, Reno tried to reconnect with Amanda. She blocked his calls—except one night when she was drunk. "Maybe I can just come out there with you and start a new life," he told her.
"No," she said.
Amanda remembers a cryptic message Reno left sometime in May, apparently before the shooting.
C'mon, I love you. I just wanted to talk to you. I don't understand.
You'll hear about me. I don't know what's going to happen, but you'll hear about me.
Detective Trujillo thinks it happened like this.
It was a Friday night, May 22. Reno—in uniform, with Mace and pistol—was beginning the graveyard shift.
He and Sarah were arguing over the phone again. In her room, Julie Lovato could hear them through the walls.
Minutes after getting off the phone, Sarah went to Julie's bedroom. Soon the sisters heard Reno barge in. They heard Bennie Sr. yell, "You just don't walk in here like that!"
Reno refused to leave. Julie followed Sarah into the hall.
"What the hell," Reno shouted, "What are you going to do about it?"
Julie fled to her brother's place nearby, hoping he could help. Running down the stairs, she heard Sarah's voice for the last time: "Please Reno, no."
Then she heard a shot. Moments later, more shots. People were finally calling 911. Bennie Jr., who once pulled a knife on his family, grabbed a baseball bat and ran to save his father and sister.
Reno was gone. The room smelled of Mace. Bennie Sr. lay dead in the living room, pregnant Sarah lay dead in the kitchen.
"We think the fetus was targeted specifically," Trujillo says.
She was 17, he was 36 weeks in the womb. SFR
Santa Fe Reporter