Three arrests were made last week in burglaries in and around Mountainair, and another man is still being sought. That’s according to Torrance County Sheriff Heath White.
White said victims of the burglaries reached out to his department directly. “They contacted us and asked us to look into them,” White said, explaining that the County has jurisdictional “oversight” of municipal police departments.
The Mountainair arrests were a joint effort of the Torrance County Sheriff’s office, with “the 7th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, US Marshals Service, NM Corrections Department, US I.C.E., and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office,” according to Torrance County’s Facebook page.
Onesimo Romero, 19, Isaac Padilla, Jr., 20, and Peter Sisneroz, 34, were arrested and are now facing charges including aggravated burglary, conspiracy to commit aggravated burglary, receiving, transferring or disposing of stolen property, burglary of a dwelling house, burglary of a commercial structure, and criminal damage to property of $1,000 or less.
Another man, Isaac Padilla, Sr., is also being sought under an “active felony warrant for his arrest stemming from a property crime investigation in Mountainair, NM,” according to an alert White’s department posted on Facebook, which goes on to say, “There is a cash reward being offered for information leading directly to Padilla’s arrest.”
Those with information are asked to contact Detective Ballard at 505-544-4908, or dispatch at 505-384-2705, White said.
Meanwhile, new Mountainair town council member Peter Nieto asked people to contact him with their stories about police inaction in town, with many people commenting in that forum. He said that he has gotten calls from in and around Mountainair.
However, this reporter has been turned down by dozens of people asked to comment about the town’s police force, both in person at the Sunflower Festival held last week, and online, with about half citing fear of retaliation for their reluctance to speak on the record.
Mountainair Police Chief Robert Chung did not return a phone call for comment before The Independent went to press.
“We are working hard,” White said. “We understand and realize there is a major issue with burglaries and crime in Mountainair. We need the knowledge from the public on what’s going on.”
White declined further comment, citing an ongoing investigation.
Edwina “George” Hewett is running for county commission in Torrance County. She has been outspoken in criticizing Mountainair’s police force online, but on the record with The Independent said only, “I’d had issues for a couple of years and nothing [Mountainair Police] did worked. The sheriff’s department came in and within a week, part of my issue resolved.”
Hewett said she approached the town council recently and said the town does not have enough police officers, suggested that the department consider “moving money around” for needed equipment, and that Mountainair Police should work cooperatively with the sheriff’s department.
She said because Mountainair is a small town, “Everybody in town knows who the problem people are.”
Jesse Davidson, formerly chairman of the town’s planning and zoning board, gave an account of the demolition of a building in Mountainair, which he described as a “debacle” and said Chung “attempt[ed] to shift blame away from the town.”
That was after the state’s environment department sent a letter because the building destroyed had contained asbestos, which was not disposed of legally when the building was demolished by Romero Heating and Cooling.
“As the Mountainair Planning Commission Chair, and a licensed GB-98 [commercial contractor], I had explained all this to Chung prior to the VFW debacle,” Davidson wrote to The Independent. “As a side note, I was ‘dissolved’ (by the Town Council) as a Planning Commissioner four days before the VFW was torn down. Romero Heating and Cooling does not carry a GB-98, and should not have been awarded the contract.”
Another resident, Joan Woodruff, called out potential conflicts of interest involving Chief Chung’s wife, Barbara Chung, who was serving as a town councilor at the time.
Woodruff’s letter to The Independent asks whether legal conflicts of interest arose out of Barbara Chung’s hiring of attorney Michael Romeo Demarco in a civil suit against her by Sandra Dunbar, State Farm Insurance and USAA Insurance.
At the same time, Demarco “was also suing the town’s governing body,” Woodruff wrote, adding, “Police Chief Robert Chung, as husband to the plaintiff, and an employee of the Town, and because the Town was being sued by Demarco, was also indirectly sued by Demarco. There is no way a police chief and a member of the town’s governing body did not understand, did not know full well, what they were engaged in involved multiple conflicts of interest with their respective offices, and the townspeople.”
Meanwhile, at Tuesday’s town council meeting, Nieto said more people attended that meeting than at any held since he was elected in March.
And the department hired two new police officers at its last meeting in August, Nieto said.
“I think that we need a change in policies and procedures,” Nieto said. “One thing I strongly believe in is that basic policing—as far as citations and things of that nature, the very basics of policing—set a precedent for our entire police department. I don’t feel confident in what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard.”
Nieto said that the town’s police department doesn’t give detailed written reports to the town council about its activities as is common in other towns. He said he asked for that to change at Tuesday’s meeting.
By his own calculations, Nieto estimated that five people a month are getting pulled over by police in Mountainair over the summer months.
He also said he thinks that a police report should be available to a person reporting a crime, within a defined time frame.
Asked if he thinks the town’s police department is corrupt, Nieto answered, “I don’t think we go that far.”
Asked why Mountainair Police were not among the agencies leading to the arrests last week, he said, “That’s what I would like to know. That’s what frustrates me. Mountainair should be almost the first one listed on there, and we’re not. Things like that kind of get under my skin, kind of have me worried.”
Next steps for the town, Nieto said, should include policies, procedures and reports by the police department to the town council.
The town also approved GPS units for its police cars. “It’s not some giant cop witch hunt, and I don’t want it to be taken as such,” Nieto said. “We’re monitoring to see where we can make changes and improvements. Tonight I was so proud, because there were not enough chairs for the town council meeting. … I think people are realizing that as a town council we want to help as much as we can. … Another next step is getting the community more involved, and making them more comfortable in trusting that we’re making a positive change.”