In Santa Fe, Residential Burglaries Take a Sharp Rise

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.

"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.

"Steve definitely had talent in that area," Eric Johnson said. "He would receive information about what was going on."

The grand jury investigation into Altonji has dragged on for five months and spawned far more questions than answers. Though many close to the investigation expect an resolution in the coming weeks, spokesmen for the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI declined to comment on anything having to do with a grand jury. The prosecutor in the case, Reeve Swainston, and Altonji's lawyer, Richard Winterbottom, also declined to comment.

One thing clear, however, is that the FBI-led investigation into Altonji has moved on to "others in the department," said Santa Fe Mayor David Coss. Coss didn't know who the targets were but said he met in late March with acting U.S. Attorney Larry Gomez, who told him the investigation would wrap up soon.

FBI 'stirring it up'

Coss and City Attorney Frank Katz bemoaned the lack of information from federal authorities over the past five months, and blamed the FBI for sowing dissension in the ranks of the Police Department.

"There's the tension of who's trusting who and who's afraid of getting set up or who's in the wrong place at the wrong time," Coss said. "At some point, you wonder who all's under investigation."

Still, the mayor was careful not to make matters worse.

"I have my issues right now with the way the federal government is operating in Santa Fe," Coss said. "I don't want to say anything that would make them more difficult than they already are."

Katz wasn't as diplomatic.

"They keep stirring it up and stirring it up," he said. "(Problems in the Police Department are) stemming from efforts by the FBI to turn people against each other to get information. When are they actually going to come up with something?"

Bill Elwell, an FBI spokesman in Albuquerque, defended his agents, saying they investigate and talk to people at the behest of the U.S. Attorney's Office. He refused to confirm an active FBI investigation into the Santa Fe Police Department.

"We're not trying to stir it up," he said. "We're just going about doing our investigations."

He said he hopes the investigation, such that it exists, ends soon.

"We don't like to have people that have had allegations thrown at them to be left lying in the wind," Elwell said. "But we want to be thorough."

'Hire some

police officers'

Santa Fe Motor Sports, located nearly next door to the police station off Cerrillos Road, has been burglarized three times in the past six months to the tune of more than $80,000. Owner Sid Mace said his insurance rates have gone up 500 percent in the past five years and that he expected to pay $25,000 this year for his policy, but he believes the bill will be higher because of the latest theft of three motorcycles valued at $22,000.

"It's to the point where you wonder if you want to be in business," Mace said.

Yet he doesn't blame police.

"I feel for our Police Department," Mace said. "They're so understaffed. I would like to see the mayor and the City Council do something about this. Hire some police officers."

Unfortunately, it's not that simple.

Finding qualified men and women to serve as police officers is a long and complicated process, and the department must compete with surrounding counties, Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, the state police, the county jail and the state penitentiary for recruits.

Both Coss and Eric Johnson said the officer vacancy rate, which now stands at 21 with nine potential recruits in the pipeline, is the biggest problem facing the department. Once they can hire more cops and get them on the street, as well as reach some sort of resolution of the FBI-U.S. attorney investigation, the situation will improve, they said.

"The burglary rate concerns me," Coss said. "Graffiti issues concern me. We have a very professional Police Department. I'm satisfied we are doing the best we can with what we have."

Councilors also

burglary victims

City councilors felt about the same as Coss. In interviews, Heldmeyer, Ronald Trujillo, Chris Calvert, Carmichael Dominguez and Matthew Ortiz said all the recent problems at the Police Department didn't merit a change in leadership. All said recent complaints about burglaries from citizens have been minimal to nonexistent. In fact, all five mentioned graffiti and other issues as bigger public concerns.

"I've heard much more about potholes than I have about burglary," Heldmeyer said.

Calvert, Ortiz and Councilor Rebecca Wurzburger have been burglary victims in the last year.

Coss cited new state funds to remodel department headquarters, negotiations on a new contract for officers and a new domestic violence coordinator as evidence that the department is getting back on track.

Eric Johnson said he knows that recent events have made the situation uncomfortable for officers.

"But they're doing a great job," he said. "We're doing our best to control the rumor mill. I'm trying to do everything in my power to monitor the safety of the public."

Meanwhile, the school nurse whose home downtown was broken into 10 days ago has a novel solution in case the burglars decide to return.

"I've left a note on the backdoor saying that anything of value to you has already been removed," she said.

Contact Jason Auslander at 995-3877 or .