Heath White preliminary hearing underway

Testimony by county workers, State Police detective

A preliminary hearing in the state’s 10-felony indictment of Magistrate Judge and former Torrance County sheriff, Heath White has finished its second day, with testimony from county employees and law enforcement officers.

Testimony in the first day of Heath White’s preliminary hearing July 25 centered around county procurement procedures, with current and former county employees testifying.

The hearing is ongoing; The Independent will update this coverage as the hearing continues.

White appeared with his attorney Sam Bregman for a preliminary hearing held July 24 in the courtroom of Judge Charles Brown in Albuquerque.

The case, assigned to the Seventh Judicial District Court in Estancia— where the sitting judges recused themselves from the case—was assigned to Brown from the Second Judicial District in Albuquerque. Brown chose to move the case to his courtroom.

The prosecution by assistant attorneys general Jonathan Gardner and Collin Brennan called deputy Torrance County manager, Belinda Garland as their first witness.

Garland was the county manager in 2017 and 2018 while White was Torrance County sheriff. Procurement was overseen by Garland, who said she reviewed and approved all county purchases.

Early questioning by Gardner focused on White’s signed acknowledgement of procurement policy. Several other policy acknowledgements were objected to as irrelevant by Bregman but were overruled by Brown.

Gardner asked Garland about the purchase of 16 tires from Walmart by White in 2015 for $2,544. Garland said that a purchase price over $2,499 required three quotes but it was not done in that instance.

Garland was asked about the purchase of 22 unmounted tires by White. She said, “I noticed an excessive amount of tires purchased by Torrance County not being mounted. I could find no place they were being stored.”

Heath White confers with his attorney Sam Bregman, as former county manager Belinda Garland testifies July 25. Photo by Thomas Campbell.

Asked by Gardner about the purchase of a towing trailer, Garland said she never saw the trailer, which White used line item transfers within his budget to pay for, and which was later approved by the county commission.

Gardner asked Garland how she got involved in the investigation.

An electric welder/generator was purchased by White for $3,750, which was delivered to The Old Mill Feed Store in Edgewood, a business owned by White and his wife, a violation of procurement policy, Garland said.

She said she asked White why the welder was delivered to The Old Mill Feed Store in Edgewood and that he told her because it was heavy and required a forklift to move it, which the sheriff’s office does not have.

She said she told then-undersheriff, Marty Rivera, “I want to know where all this stuff is,” adding, “I believe assets procured by the county were being kept by Mr. White.” She said they then contacted the FBI with concerns of procurement policy violations.

Garland said she sent an email to White, along with two other elected officials, requesting the return of county property before they left their positions.

White had served two terms as Torrance County sheriff, and was subsequently elected Magistrate Judge in November 2018.

In cross-examination by Bregman, Garland said she did not know whether White read the memo and she did not send a certified letter.

She said she waited until after the end of the calendar year to see if White would return items to the sheriff’s office before he took his newly-elected position as Magistrate Judge.

Garland testified that those items included tires, vehicle parts, a drone, weapons and the welder, among other items.

Asked by Gardner about White’s purchase of gas masks, Garland said Torrance County doesn’t have a SWAT team or a riot team and that she didn’t know why they were purchased.

Camping equipment purchased by White including a tent, hatchet, saw, lantern, cooler and 2-way radios, and was not authorized, according to Garland.

On cross-examination of Garland, Bregman said that a deputy had spent a night in the mountains guarding a crime scene, and White wanted the camping equipment for such situations and rescues.

Asked by Bregman whether she had first-hand knowledge of the falsification of vouchers, solicitation to falsify, or “enhancing his personal financial interest,” Garland said she had no such knowledge.

Garland testified that there was no place to store tires at the county, that there were no records kept of what vehicles got tires when, and that the county didn’t have a tire changer.

Former Torrance County Manager Joy Ansley was called to the witness stand, and testified that White would often work on sheriff’s department vehicles himself.

Sheriff’s administrator Stephanie Dunlap testified that purchase orders initiated by White included a truck chest found on White’s truck, exhaust headers, several U-joints, motor mounts, several batteries, radiator hose, water pump, ball joints, door hinges, and items delivered to The Old Mill Feed Store, including a vehicle air conditioning unit, firearms and other vehicle parts.

Dunlap testified that White was rebuilding a vintage Chevrolet pickup at the time.

She said she, Garland, Rivera and county detective Kent Ballard began an inventory of sheriff’s office assets and compiled a list of unaccounted-for items, and gave it to State Police.

On cross-examination by Bregman, Dunlap said a list of items returned to the county by White that were not included on their list was longer than those on their list.

On questioning by Bregman, Dunlap said that purchases arriving at the sheriff’s office were received by whoever happened to be there at the time of delivery. She said there was no check-in procedure.

She said deputies would often pick up items intended for them without signing for the items, and she was unable to say where the equipment went after being received.

Dunlap said White came to her with concerns about equipment being released without being checked out.

Brown disallowed exhibits of seven receipts because they had been signed by Rivera.

Ballard testified that the department had two drones; one that he had used on occasion and one White purchased without his knowledge.

Ballard said White purchased an AR15 semi-automatic rifle in .308 caliber, a caliber not used by the department previously.

Ballard testified White had worked on his department vehicle installing a light bar and said White commonly worked on county vehicles.

Asked by Bregman about his procurement of equipment, Ballard testified that he would ask White for what he needed, and when it arrived, he would pick it up without signing for it.

There was no inventory procedure in place, and previous attempts to establish one failed, Ballard testified.

Asked by Bregman if White was a good sheriff to work for, Ballard said, “Yes.” Asked if he still was, Ballard replied, “No. I’ve seen too much.”

Bregman told The Independent, “It’s a big story when you charge a sitting judge with these crimes. It’s a bigger story when he didn’t do it.”

Day 2

The next day, July 25, State Police detective Mitch Bengston was called as a witness by Brennan to begin the second day of testimony.

Bengston testified that he obtained and executed search warrants in the case, including ones for White’s Facebook page, and the Old Mill Feed Store page, where he saw an AR15 rifle which had been hydro-dipped, [a metal surface process that creates esthetic random coloration].

He said that firearm was later recovered from White’s residence April 16, and that the serial number identified it as county property.

Brennan then introduced into evidence 23 photographs, identified and described individually by Bengston, of the White residence and alleged county property seized, which included a black drone; two Pelican brand cases; part of a pistol; a generator; a sandblaster; a stand grinder; three rifles; several pistols and more than 10 unmounted tires.

Bregman argued that the generator was being stored at the residence because there was a lack of storage space at the county sheriff’s facility in Estancia.

Bengston said a warrant was executed at the Old Mill Feed Store in Edgewood where State Police seized a vintage Chevrolet pickup truck belonging to White, the restoration of which had been shown on White’s Facebook page.

State Police Detective Mitch Bengston. Photo by Thomas Campbell.

Bregman asked if Bengston knew the Old Mill was not owned by White, or that he did not have a federal firearms license. Bengston said he did not know that when he sought a warrant which described the store as White’s “personal firearms store.”

Brennan introduced 21 more photographs into evidence, again individually identified and described by Bengston, depicting auto parts installed on White’s truck, allegedly purchased by the Torrance County sheriff’s office, including two inline fuel filters and tank switch-over valve; motor mounts; after-market air conditioning compressor; heat wrap on exhaust headers; shocks; steering box and coupler; truck bed tool box; electronic fuel injection unit; radiator; U-joints and yoke; body mount bushings; sway bar bushings; and drive shaft.

Bregman asked Bengston about White’s emailed attempts to return county property, April 12. Bengston said he did not pursue White’s attempts at the direction of his “chain of command.”

Bregman also asked about White’s notification to State Police that some county property was overlooked when the warrant was executed and to return for it; Bengston said officers returned and seized the property.

The prosecution played part of an audio recording of Bengston’s interview of White.

During the interview, White said former county manager Joy Ansley agreed to replace auto parts he used when repairing sheriff’s vehicles in explanation of the fuel injection unit on his truck, paid for by the county. He also told Bengston in the interview that the air conditioning unit on the truck was paid for by the county.

Bengston said when he asked Ansley about the claim, she told him, “Absolutely not.”

During the interview, White explained that such behavior was part of “the culture” of the sheriff’s department in Torrance County.

Asked by Bengston in the interview if that made it right, White said, “No.” Asked if that made it legal, White again replied, “No.”

Bregman argued the auto parts could not be identified by serial number and so might not be the same parts paid for by the county. Bengston said county purchase orders described all of the parts.

Torrance County sheriff’s lieutenant John Stocum testified that he oversaw the armory and helped with the inventory of weapons during the investigation, discovering a missing AR15 and two pistols.

Stocum said weapons were purchased by White without his knowledge and were not put into the armory, including two .308 caliber AR15s, a handgun and a shotgun.

He said his review of purchase orders by the sheriff’s office included unaccounted sheets of OSB, typically used for target frames; parts for AR15s including 20 “short barrels”; magazines; gun accessories; and .308 caliber ammunition.

Several shotguns were returned by White according to Stocum.

In reply to a question by Bregman, Stocum said three people had access to the armory: himself, White, and undersheriff Rivera.

Bregman asked Stocum about sheriff’s vehicles stored on private property. Stocum recounted 11 vehicles in various states of disrepair and several trailers being stored on the properties of several deputies, Sheriff Rivera and county commissioner Kevin McCall.