In Santa Fe, Residential Burglaries Take a Sharp Rise

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

"I will say I was surprised to hear the chief say he'd shut down narcotics investigations," she said. "(But) I'm not going to second-guess the police on that."

After halting narcotics investigations, Eric Johnson transferred the department's narcotics resources to the Region III Narcotics Task Force, which is supervised by the state police, he said.

Officers assigned to the task force usually come from law-enforcement agencies in the surrounding area and tend to pursue larger targets who are most often not within the city limits, according to sources familiar with the task force.

Now, six months after Altonji was placed on leave and Eric Johnson made his decision, the residential burglary rate in Santa Fe has almost doubled, while the overall burglary rate -- which takes into account auto and commercial break-ins, which are up 26 percent and 13 percent, respectively -- has increased 39 percent over the first quarter of 2006, according to statistics.

Alarmed by the increases, Eric Johnson said he re-authorized his detectives and patrol officers about 10 days ago to again investigate narcotics in the city.

"This whole (FBI) investigation has hampered us in pursuing these (narcotics) investigations," Eric Johnson said. "But at this point, I've got a department to run, and I've got to look at all the issues. It's disturbing to see these rises in crime. I've got to look out for public safety."

Violent crime has not appeared to rise along with property crime, Gary Johnson said.

Drug investigations resume

And that's where the alleged heroin dealer, Lavina Carter, comes in.

The 35-year-old Hopewell Street resident was arrested by two patrol officers and a sergeant April 13 after a confidential source told the officers that Carter sold heroin out of the parking lot of a convenience store and gas station at the corner of Cerrillos Road and Baca Street, according to court documents.

Carter was arrested after she arrived in the area of the store in her banged-up, yellowish-green, older-model sedan with a rope securing the trunk and admitted she had heroin to sell, the documents say. Carter also told Officer Jeff Worth that she planned to keep two of the four heroin doses for personal consumption and sell the other two, the documents state.

"Narcotics and property crime go hand-in-hand," Eric Johnson told the city's Public Safety Committee on Tuesday. "We're running (anti-narcotics) operations in different areas of town (like) the Hopewell and Mann area É to address the burglaries and bring the numbers down."

Carter is not a suspect in any area burglaries, Gary Johnson said.

Eric Johnson pointed to the recent arrests of Juan Nieto -- suspected of involvement in at least 13 burglaries -- and Steve Gurule, who police say was caught red-handed after a commercial burglary off Cerrillos Road two weeks ago, as evidence that the new strategy is beginning to pay off. Preliminary burglary numbers for April show a small decline, Eric Johnson said. Police also closed a crack house off Siringo Road about two weeks ago, Gary Johnson said.

The decision to stop street-level narcotics investigations in the city was not the only factor in the rise in burglaries, however. Eric Johnson and Gary Johnson pointed to other reasons, including a large number of illegal immigrants in the city with a history of burglary or robbery who are nearly impossible for the probation department to track; not enough cops on the street thanks to the large number of officer vacancies that has increased the last year; and recent parolees with a history of property crime.


officer missed

The reasons also include Steve Altonji.

"No question, Steve had to do with (the burglary rate increase)," Gary Johnson said. "Sgt. Altonji had a lot of intelligence and experience. When he went on leave, those skills went on leave too."

Altonji, 48, worked for the Santa Fe Police Department for 11 years. His aggressiveness was hailed in 2005 by then-Police Chief Beverly Lennen as a main reason for a drop in the burglary rate. He received the Distinguished Service Award for Outstanding Law Enforcement from the Rotary Club in 2005 and even got an award once from the FBI for his role in thwarting a bank robbery.