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December 16, 2008
Officers, sergeant indicted in Saenz death
Three scheduled to enter pleas in court Friday
RATON, New Mexico (STPNS) -- Two Raton police officers and a sergeant are scheduled to be in court Friday to each give his initial answer to a charge of involuntary manslaughter regarding the November 2007 death of a local man who died shortly after the two officers arrested him and were transporting him to jail.
A Colfax County grand jury on Thursday issued indictments of each of the three policemen, finding that enough probable cause exists to initiate a case of involuntary manslaughter against each.
Accused in the indictments are officers Nolberto Dominguez, 31, and Leonard Baca, 32, and Sgt. Chris Edmondson, 39. Dominguez and Baca were the arresting officers who dealt directly with 23-year-old Jesse Saenz the night he died - actually in the very early morning hours of Nov. 18, 2007 - while in police custody. Edmondson, a 17-year veteran of the Raton Police Department, was the supervising sergeant during the police shift when Saenz died. Dominguez has been with the department for three years and Baca for 12 years.
New Mexico State Police investigated Saenz's death and the officers' actions immediately prior to it. According to statements from Raton police officials and an autopsy report from the state Office of the Medical Investigator, Saenz died shortly after 4:30 a.m. Nov. 18, 2007, a few minutes after Dominguez and Baca arrested him while handling a disturbance call on Oliver Avenue, where Saenz lived. They found Saenz in a neighbor's yard pulling up grass and talking to himself, according to Raton police.
Saenz was arrested and placed into a police car. Because Saenz was allegedly trying to kick out the windows of the police car and bang his head against the windows, Dominguez is alleged to have sat on Saenz's lower back while Saenz was face down in the back seat of the police car while being taken to the Colfax County Detention Center. The autopsy report says Saenz's legs were shackled and "flexed at the knees," during the transport to the jail. Saenz was "unresponsive" when the officers and he reached the jail, and CPR efforts were unable to revive him.
The state's autopsy determined Saenz died from "excited delirium," which the coroner's report defines as a form of cocaine intoxication. The medical examiner classified the death as homicide, meaning "another party either knowingly or unknowingly was a factor contributing to the death."
The autopsy report concluded that "although the cause of death was likely a result of cocaine intoxication," Saenz's "breathing abilities were also impaired when he was placed in a prone (face down) position while supporting another person's body weight on his lower back." The report says the "means of physical restraint significantly contributed" to Saenz's death as the restraint means would have "heightened the effects of the body's internal hormonal and chemical derangements" triggered by the cocaine.
Prior to placing Saenz in the police car, Dominguez and Baca shocked him with Tasers. The officers said the Tasers had been used when Saenz became combative. They also reported they believed the Tasers were malfunctioning when they were using them.
State police determined the officers pulled the triggers of their Tasers a combined total of 23 times while dealing with Saenz, but could not determine the actual number of shocks administered to Saenz. An autopsy found that the Tasers did not contribute to Saenz's death.
Early this year, Eighth Judicial District Attorney Donald Gallegos turned over investigation of the case to the state attorney general's office. Gallegos said he decided a conflict could exist if he were to make the decision on whether or not to prosecute the officers. He described the conflict as existing because of his regular working relationship with the Raton Police Department, paired with the high amount of "public scrutiny" the case has received. Gallegos said he wanted to avoid any potential for even the "appearance of impropriety."
Dominguez, Baca and Edmondson were officially notified in mid-November that they would be the targets of a grand jury hearing, according to Raton Interim Police Chief Terry Sisneros, who said that Dominguez and Baca testified before the grand jury last week during the grand jury's private hearing.
Sisneros said Dominguez has been on paid administrative leave since the incident a little more than a year ago, while Baca and Edmondson - as a matter of standard procedure - were placed on paid administrative leave when they were notified last month that they were targets of the grand jury hearing. Sisneros said Dominguez was placed on leave immediately after the incident and remained on leave because of the nature of the specific allegations against him, particularly that he allegedly sat on Saenz on the way to the jail.
As late as Nov. 13, when asked by The Range about the case, a spokesman for the attorney general described the investigation and decision-making process - as to whether or not to pursue charges against the police who were involved - as "still ongoing." The following week, the three policemen were notified of the grand jury hearing, according to Sisneros.
The attorney general's spokesman last Tuesday said he could not comment about anything pertaining to a grand jury because state law keeps those proceedings private.
Assistant Attorney General Raul Torrez presented the attorney general's case against the police to the grand jury, the indictments filed in Raton District Court indicate. Torrez also filed a "joinder" that ties together as one case the prosecution of the three policemen. Each of the defendants is being represented by a separate Albuquerque attorney.
The summons each defendant received following the indictments orders him to appear in District Court this Friday, Dec. 19, "to plead" to the charge of involuntary manslaughter. The indictments explain the charge as asserting that each defendant "did without malice unlawfully kill Jesse Saenz...and did so while in the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony, or in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death in either an unlawful manner or without due caution and circumspection..."
The indictments do not list Dominguez and Baca as having testified before the grand jury - although Sisneros confirmed they did - but the indictments do list the following people as having testified before the grand jury: state police agents Eduardo Martinez and Ben Swope, and Capt. Pat Werrick; Raton police officers Manuel Avila, Jimmy Valdez and Pat Salazar; Dr. Jeffrey Nine, the state medical examiner who performed Saenz's autopsy; and three other people, Danielle Avila, Max Martinez and John Saenz.
Sisneros said the Raton Police Department will hire an independent investigator to conduct an internal investigation for the department regarding the Saenz incident.
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