Albq Journal- 16 July 2023
Six months into the job as the top prosecutor in Bernalillo County, we don’t doubt Sam Bregman understands exactly how crime is gripping the Metro — violent crime, retail crime, property crime, staggering amounts of fentanyl and human smuggling, this list is daunting.
The drumbeat is daily. Two teenage boys were charged Thursday in connection to a shooting at a park in Northeast Albuquerque on Wednesday. Albuquerque police said the teenagers had arranged to meet at Villela Park through social media. Witnesses said a 13-year-old boy brought a firearm, a struggle over the gun ensued, and a shot was fired. One of the teens suffered a gunshot wound and another teen was stabbed. The dangerous problem of teenagers and firearms has been out of control for years.
• A dispute over seating led to the fatal shooting of 52-year-old Michael Tenorio at a Northeast Albuquerque movie theater June 25. Police say a 19-year-old man threw a bag of popcorn in the face of Tenorio’s wife, a scuffle ensued, and the teen pulled out a handgun and shot Tenorio three times. Police described the scene of moviegoers running out of the Century Rio 24 as “chaos.”
• A Kennedy Middle School custodian was shot twice on June 23 after he asked three people why they were on school grounds so early in the morning. Paul Tafoya suffered a shattered spine and shoulder and a collapsed lung but survived after dragging himself to the road, where he was found.
• Businesses besieged by shoplifters and burglars are giving up and closing shop. Griff’s Hamburgers along Route 66 is the latest casualty. The company with stores in Texas and Louisiana announced on social media this month it was closing its only store in New Mexico after 60 years because the location on Central near Wyoming is “unsafe and undesirable.”
“People have a right to be pissed off right now, and scared,” Bregman said Wednesday during his first meeting with the Journal Editorial Board since becoming DA in January. “The community is so (expletive) pissed off about retail crime that we’re going to do something about it.”
Bregman says much of the crime in the Metro is being driven by massive amounts of inexpensive fentanyl being poured into the state by Mexican cartels.
“There’s no more heroin,” he said. “You don’t see heroin at all. There may be cocaine, there may be meth, but whenever you see those two, there’s always fentanyl, too. The fentanyl just flooding the streets is a huge challenge for law enforcement.”
But as much money as the cartels are making destroying lives through fentanyl, Bregman says human trafficking has become even more lucrative. He recently met with Gilberto Loya Chávez, the secretary of public safety of Chihuahua, Mexico, to exchange ideas on fighting human trafficking, fentanyl and illegal weapons. He also met with César Gustavo Jáuregui Moreno, the attorney general of Chihuahua, and members of the Superior Court of Justice. We give him credit for seeking better cooperation between law enforcement agencies north and south of the border. Battling international smuggling requires it. Bregman said his No. 1 priority since becoming DA has been staffing. He says he’s hired 36 prosecutors since taking over, while 15 to 20 others have moved on. That means the DA’s Office has 95 attorneys to process 130 case referrals every week from law enforcement agencies, although it’s funded by state lawmakers for 120 attorneys.
“We’ve raised it significantly, but we’ve got a lot of work to do still,” he said. “And I’m going to keep hiring until the people on the admin side of the office tell me you can’t hire anymore.”
Bregman says his favorite part of his job is meeting with young prosecutors on Fridays and getting case updates. We can envision how powerful his presence is in the DA’s office. He says he plans to ask lawmakers to fund an additional 35 prosecutors. Good. The homicide caseloads per prosecutor were 50 homicides apiece. The current homicide caseload is down to 27, but that’s still too high.
“I want to see that at 15 per prosecutor, because then, what happens is, they can present that case with the best possible evidence,” he said.
Bregman says, overall, the DA’s Office has tried 137 felony and misdemeanor cases this year, compared to 97 in all of 2022. That’s also good. But with 130 case referrals per week, more cases need to be prosecuted.
In his hour-long meeting the Journal, Bregman pointed out some basic flaws in New Mexico’s laws. For example, he said it’s risky charging someone with first-degree murder, punishable by life imprisonment without parole, because the defendant can assert he was high at the time, and therefore wasn’t in the right mind to plan a murder. Consequently, most homicide cases are prosecuted as second-degree murders, punishable by only up to 15 years in prison.
Bregman also said state statutes do not provide for anything but a dismissal when someone charged with a misdemeanor is found incompetent to stand trial, and trafficking cocaine has stiffer penalties in state law than human trafficking. Lawmakers need to address those flaws, and Bregman needs to lead that fight with his clout as a prominent criminal defense attorney for 25 years, a prosecutor for five years before becoming DA and now chair of the revived Governor’s Organized Crime Prevention Commission.
Bregman recently announced his intent to run for election in 2024. “I want to be able to change, or at least influence, the law changes that need to take place,” he said. “And I want to be a voice for victims. I want to be a voice for changing things that don’t make prosecutorial sense or criminal justice sense.”
If he can accomplish those goals and somehow restore a sense of security in the Metro, he’ll be a formidable candidate indeed.