Santa Fe’s Dark History

Unearthing the historic sites and stories that don't make the guidebooks

Stroll the Plaza. Plow down an unfathomably tasty affordable burrito, or a steak that's past your price range but worth it. Drink the best margarita you've ever had. Spend a week awash in some of the world's best art alongside both your neighbors and people from places you couldn't ever imagine visiting. Absorb a panoply of architecture nearly unrivaled anywhere else in these glorious and miserable United States.

SFR fills its pages with words celebrating the above every week. That's not to say we don't kick the powerful in the teeth when they have it coming or present the litany of problems dogging the city and state when it's warranted; we do. But what we've assembled here is something a bit different. We've hauled the shovels from the newsroom closet and exhumed some of the darkness that underlies cases and places connecting Santa Fe's history with its present. We do so in the interest of both honesty and an interesting read.

We present a walk along a road through a neighborhood that sits atop an as-yet-uncountable number of human bodies. We've got an off-center angle on the deadliest prison riot in US history, nearly 40 years hence, that involves the visceral memories of ironworkers. (Yes, ironworkers.) Internment camps in America are, for obvious reasons, on the minds of many in these strange, dark days, too—so, through an interview with a former state historian, we revisited Santa Fe's history of penning people into confined spaces. One of our reporters tossed open the shutters on one of the grisliest murders this city has ever known—it involved a beheading—by passing by the home in which it occurred. (There's a ray of light in this one, just to keep this collection of horrors in some perspective: Sometimes, purpose comes from misery.)

And finally, we've placed the Palace of the Governors in a brief, but more complete frame than what we imagine most folks discuss at cocktail parties when the place comes up.

We hope you'll soak up some of this dark history and let it exist alongside the light you associate with living in this city. After all, places, like people, are maddening, beautiful, hideous and endlessly oversimplified.

A neighborhood and a graveyard

Housing crisis got you down? Let's hope Santa Fe doesn't repeat one unpleasant fact of life in the downtown area: The sloping streets just north the Plaza and south of Hyde Park Road include a development that was cut during an earlier housing shortage. The unpleasantness: Instead of leaving open a fallow space that held a cemetery, home developers went right through the graveyard's center.

Historical maps dating through 1919 show a street made a right-angle around the graveyard, but on a 1940 plat, Kearny Road cut diagonally across it, creating a neighborhood block. In two separate excavations in 2003 and 2005, the state Office of Archaeological Studies identified more than 16 people who had been buried in coffins there, many of them infants.

There are probably many more skeletons below. A report from the office concluded that the area on the edge of the old Spanish "La Garita" fort was a large communal cemetery primarily used in the 1800s, where people were buried, one on top of the other, in several layers. Its use stopped around the American occupation of the city, and contained "the bones of many of the distinguished citizens of the old Spanish times," wrote Earl Forrest in 1929 (his work largely drawing on that of Bradford Prince in 1915). The space became "lost" in more modern times.

"Our cultural patterns today of burial space as owned private property is really a fairly modern thing," explains Eric Blinman, head of the state Office of Archaeological Studies. "There was no sense of, 'This is my plot and nobody else can touch it.' Our attitude is conditioned a little bit on this imposition of a private-property sensibility in what once was a far more communal approach to dealing with a very common problem."

Remains are uncovered virtually every time someone digs a trench in the area for repairs or improvement. The city has been eyeing water line upgrades there, Blinman says, but that will likely involve another excavation. The area, like much of Santa Fe, has been a location of human occupation since at least "the AD 1000s," the archaeological report says.

Other private, commercial and even government buildings are situated over known graveyards all over the historic part of the city, including the PERA building, erected where a boarding school also once stood. Blinman says there are historic known graveyards below the area of the Masonic Lodge, and even the Dunkin Donuts and a tire store on St. Francis Drive. What's more, funerary practices in history called for some people to be buried outside, but near, the cemetery boundaries. So, who knows who's where? (Julie Ann Grimm)

South Capitol’s grisly murder

The modest house in the increasingly gentrified neighborhood on Don Diego Avenue near Cordova is still there. It's a family home, with a tangerine hue to the stucco. The bright turquoise trim has recently been painted stark white.

There's a cross out front, which, in this heavily Catholic city, might not be terribly unusual—but it both recalls a terrible memory and stands as a testament to one family's resilience and constant call for the state to bolster victim's rights.

Kathleen "Kat" Lopez was 31 when she was killed there in October 2000.

Her mother and one of her sisters returned from a trip to discover blood on the kitchen, dining room and living room floors of the South Capitol house. A rug was missing. A comforter, too. Both Lopez' car and her truck were gone. Kat was missing and her family was panicked.

Police found her body 10 days later at an old landfill site near the horse racing track on the southwest side of town. Her head wasn't there. An autopsy showed she had been strangled, bitten, stabbed and beheaded. Her killer had plunged a knife so deeply into her body that the blade and handle weren't initially discovered. Her partially burned head was found miles away. There are more gruesome details, too, but it makes little sense to discuss them further. The case seems as hard to consider now as it was then.

Ivan Sanchez Lara killed Kat Lopez. The morning he did it, the pair was in her house cooking breakfast and smoking marijuana mixed with crack. Another man, David Baca, was also there. Lopez had been kidding Lara about a dollar bill he kept because he thought there was a message on it for him. Baca didn't stop Lara as he choked Lopez, and later helped hide the body. Lara was a convicted felon, a twice-deported Mexican national and a gang member who arrived in Santa Fe after reportedly being told by gang leaders in California to lay low for a while.

At trial, his court-appointed attorney offered a defense of cocaine-induced psychosis. Lara fled town initially—but was captured when he returned, allegedly to kill Baca for agreeing to testify against him. When investigators got a search warrant to try to match his dental records to the bite on Kat Lopez' arm, Lara broke his own teeth in his jail cell.

After days of gut-wrenching testimony and evidence, the jury didn't buy Lara's story. Stephen Pfeffer, a longtime criminal court judge, ordered the Santa Fe SWAT team to transport Lara to his sentencing hearing, where Pfeffer put him in prison for life (mandatory 30 years), plus 37 years for other crimes. He's currently at the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa.

Roberta Lopez, Kat's closest sister in age, told reporters after the trial that she wished the crime qualified for the death penalty and said of Lara, "He can go straight to hell."

In the almost two decades since Kat's death, Roberta and her sisters have been vocal advocates for stronger protections—and services—for victims of violent crime. Her niece, Jessica Montoya Trujillo, kept a close eye on the victim advocate who was at the family's side during the court cases of Lara, Baca and a third man convicted of harboring Lara, Eddie Lucio. Trujillo was so touched by the advocate's work that she went to school for criminal justice and, when a spot opened with the District Court, she became a professional advocate.
(Matt Grubs)

Tools of torture at the Penitentiary of New Mexico

One of the clearest memories Jimmy Sedillo Bourguet has of the Penitentiary of New Mexico is all the floating Bibles.

Pipes broken in the chaos of the nation's bloodiest ever prison riot in 1980 had flooded the lockup until the water was about ankle deep, and Bourguet, an ironworker who had been updating a cellblock's door locks to an electrical system after a recent jailbreak, had been allowed back inside to retrieve his tools four days after the rampage began on Feb. 2.

"All the Bibles really got to me," Bourguet says today, nearly 40 years later. "Them boys praying not to get killed in there."

On Feb. 6, state police escorted Bourguet and about a half-dozen other workers with the Local 495 Iron Workers union through the prison. They discovered that inmates had broken into the cellblock where the workers stored acetylene torches as well as various wrenches, grinders and other heavy metal instruments inside large padlocked boxes.

Although Bourguet says he found some of their tools, workers recovered almost none of them, because they had been deformed by smashing bones and ripping human tissue. Around the prison were iron rods piled high that Bourguet and his comrades had removed from the manual door-opening system they were replacing before the uprising. He later heard from police that somebody had impaled an inmate's head with one of the rods.

The smells of flesh and smoke mixed together, lingering in the workers' noses for weeks after they left the prison. In all, at least 33 people were killed in the mayhem, although dozens of inmates were never accounted for. Sam Montoya, another ironworker who walked through the prison immediately after the riot, remembers seeing "an upside down rainbow of blood" on a wall where a man had been hung by his feet and bashed like a piñata.

"I didn't eat for a long time, because of the feeling, of the memories that I had," Montoya tells SFR. "I don't know why I was chosen to be into the history of this, but as an ironworker, I had to go in there and do my job."

Both Montoya, 76, and Bourguet, 74, say they were never interviewed by any representative from the state for their account of what happened, nor did any journalist ever contact them. They say they were never reimbursed for their tools.

Although the two men are long retired and now make a decent living as metal sculptors selling their craft by word of mouth, Bourguet says they still talk about that day in 1980 when they went back into the prison one last time.

"They took our tools and torches, everything was gone—[but] nobody even came and talked to us," he tells SFR. "But we're the ones, man. We were there on the ground."

For years, the state conducted tours of the prison now known as Old Main as a spectacle. They are no longer offered, a spokesman tells SFR, due to both cost and "lack of interest." (Aaron Cantú)

The camps

In February 1942, the post-Pearl Harbor anti-Japanese hysteria came to a head when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 into law, giving the US military unprecedented power to detain and imprison citizens of Japanese descent. Camps were erected quickly in California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and—you guessed it—New Mexico. We actually had several across the state, from Lordsburg to Lincoln County to Raton.

"People think it was only because of Pearl Harbor, but a lot of these [Japanese people] had to register with the government before then," former State Historian Hilario Romero tells SFR. "They were called Enemy Aliens—they were businessmen, individuals who had very successful businesses—they were really very good Americans. They rarely broke the law."

Santa Fe's camp, which opened mere weeks after FDR's order in March 1942, was housed within an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camp on familiar land—you know it better today as the Casa Solana neighborhood. By March of the following year, nearly 2,000 people were detained there. By some historical accounts, the Santa Fe location maintained more humane conditions than those in Lordsburg and elsewhere. Internees at Santa Fe worked basic jobs, published a newspaper and even maintained a farm in response to otherwise terrible food conditions. "They'd get 80 cents a day," Romero says of their work, "so long as they were doing things to improve or maintain the camp."

Regardless, participation in stripping people of their freedom based solely on national origin remains one of the darker chapters in Santa Fe history. But why was the camp located here?

"New Mexico was a state for just 30 years before all of this, so Franklin Delano Roosevelt probably thought he still had to change his currency into pesos," Romero says. "It was this isolated area and you weren't going to fly in here, things weren't going to happen here, and that's the way they looked at it—[the government] said, 'Let's have the Manhattan Project there,' and it was the same thing with the internment camp."

Romero also grew up in the neighborhood where, he says, the camp stood abandoned after its closure in 1946 until 1953, when developer Alan Stamm began building up the area into what we know it as today.

It wasn't until 1948 that president Harry Truman officially addressed executive order 9066, providing some semblance of compensation for victims of the camps. The order wasn't even reversed until 1976 during Gerald Ford's tenure as president—a full 34 years after the stroke of FDR's pen.

A plaque erected at the Frank Ortiz Dog Park in 2002 explains the location of the internment camp due east and below the hill, and notes the marker is in place "as a reminder that history is a valuable teacher only if we do not forget our past." (Alex De Vore)

A Palace, a Fortress, a Site of Revolt

The world over, the side effect of turning historic government buildings into museums and landmarks is that they're stripped of their filthy origins. Tourists take selfies where guillotines once churned out head after head in Paris' Place de la Concorde; the British raided the White House, ate its leftover food, stole its silver and torched the place in 1814; and in Santa Fe, the peaceful, reverential, thick-walled rooms of the Palace of the Governors used to be horse corrals and produce markets when downtown was just a few dirt roads choked with pack mules and campfires.

And when we say "filthy origins," in the case of the Palace, we mean it literally.

The Palace was constructed in 1610 not as government offices but as a straight-up presidio. Towers held gunpowder, livestock lived inside the fortification, the walls were thick and strong as concrete.

During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Puebloans overtook the Palace and used it as fortifications and living quarters, adding kivas and another story. After Don Diego de Vargas had his 1692 Entrada, wherein he thought he negotiated a peaceful takeover, followed by the violent 1693 Entrada that occurred when he finally realized the Natives weren't leaving of their own accord, the Puebloans were kicked out of Santa Fe—but the Palace still wasn't taken care of.

In Rosemary Nusbaum's book The City Different and The Palace (Sunstone Press, 1978), we learn that by 1716, Governor Felix Martinez ordered a survey of the building, and two master masons sent word that it was in total disrepair. The only furnishings in the place were a few broken pieces of pine furniture and a busted copper kettle. A wooden bucket (but no well) also was cataloged.

By about 1779, Juan Bautista de Anza was sent by the Spanish crown to see the state of Santa Fe. He "wrote a report about the Palace being dilapidated with doors hanging on hinges and things just falling apart," says historian and former Palace of the Governors Director Tom Chávez. De Anza perhaps even regarded it as a lost cause.

"He wanted to move the whole thing to the other side of the river, to where the Barrio de Analco is, and start anew," Chávez continues, "except the local citizens refused to move. … So he complained to his superiors about the locals not wanting to change anything, which is sort of apropos to today."

But residences and offices were indeed needed, so, Nusbaum writes, Secretary of the Territory of New Mexico HH Heath secured $5,000 in 1867 to restore it to host territorial government. And so it went from there.

(Though, while the Palace was much nicer inside by the time Governor Lew Wallace was famously finishing Ben-Hur in his quarters there in 1878, outside was still the Wild West, the Lincoln County War raging—and he apparently feared Billy the Kid's gang would shoot him through a window.)

Now, the Palace is undergoing renovations till the spring—but once it opens again, take a stroll through the hushed hallways. The Palace may not be towering in its appearance, but its history and legacy may make it one of the most impressive buildings in the state. Next time you visit, imagine donkeys and chickens in the interior courtyard, smoke-blackened walls from cook fires and kivas, Puebloans and governors alike crouched against the fortress walls, awaiting siege and gunshots. (Charlotte Jusinski)

Read more of Santa Fe's history-
Castles, Ruins & Mysteries: Uncovering the secrets of Santa Fe's icons and eyesores

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