In Santa Fe, Residential Burglaries Take a Sharp Rise

Statistics point to loss of focus on narcotics crimes as driving robbery trend

On the surface, the alleged heroin dealer and the elementary-school nurse have absolutely nothing in common.

The dealer, who allegedly sold the drug out of a local convenience-store parking lot, was arrested last week, around the same time that an unknown burglar broke into the nurse's home near the Santa Fe Railyard and stole her jewelry.

But focusing on the larger picture -- a skyrocketing residential burglary rate in Santa Fe and the reasons for it -- reveals that the two cases are not only related to each other, they are also related to an FBI investigation that first centered on the former head of the Santa Fe Police Department's narcotics unit but has since mushroomed to include unnamed others in the department.

The 91 percent rise in residential burglaries in the first quarter of the year, as compared to 2006, can be linked to the Police Department's decision in November to suspend narcotics investigations in the city, which itself was linked to Sgt. Steve Altonji, the former head of the department's narcotics and property crimes unit, being placed on leave after the U.S. attorney said he was the target of a federal grand jury investigation.

That investigation has led to an internal city investigation into a still secret, four-year-old FBI videotape showing Police Chief Eric Johnson and to serious ethical questions about four narcotics officers including Altonji.

The department, rife with infighting, factionalization and low morale, is also battling an officer vacancy rate that only seems to grow.

Drugs and burglary:

Cause and effect

The story begins with the school nurse, who came home on the evening of April 12 a little later than usual from her job at a nearby elementary school. The woman, who lives alone and asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, found her backdoor kicked in and that thieves had stolen a cowhide rug and all of her jewelry. The missing items included a watch that belonged to her mother and had only sentimental value.

"I was shocked," she said. "I might have even scared them away because the door was open and the house wasn't even cold yet."

The nurse said she remembered seeing young, unfamiliar men in her neighborhood before the burglary and believes they might have spied on her for days beforehand to learn her habits.

"I felt like I'd been watched," she said. "Now I feel in between grief and gratitude that they didn't do more than steal my stuff -- they didn't wreck the place. Obviously they took (the jewelry) to get money for drugs. What else would they be doing that for?"

According to police, her theory is correct.

"You have to confront drug trafficking and burglary at the same time," said Capt. Gary Johnson, a city police spokesman. "I'd be a fool to say you can just investigate one and not the other."

However, about six months ago, the Santa Fe Police Department did exactly that.

A fateful decision

At the end of the first week in November, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Albuquerque sent Altonji, the decorated head of the department's narcotics and property crimes unit, a letter saying he was the target of criminal allegations, including money laundering, deprivation of civil rights and theft of federal program funds.

In the wake of that letter, Eric Johnson -- a 20-year veteran of the force with seven months under his belt as chief at the time -- decided to suspend all city narcotics investigations. He said in an interview last week that at the time he wanted to internally review department narcotics procedures and also wanted to wait to see if the FBI had found fault with those rules.

"It was a precautionary measure," Eric Johnson said. "We wanted to make sure we weren't doing anything wrong."

City Councilor Karen Heldmeyer, a member of the Public Safety Advisory Committee, learned of the police chief's narcotics decision last week at the committee's meeting.

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