A member of the Arroyo Hondo Land Grant Board of Trustees pleaded guilty to one count of fraud as part of a deal struck with prosecutors on the morning he was to go to trial.
Lawrence Ortíz was facing felony charges of forgery and attempted fraud related to a warranty deed filed in 2010 laying claim to the entire Arroyo Hondo land grant north of Taos. The deed purported to pass ownership of 20,000 acres from a single person (Ortíz’ father) to a newly formed land grant board and to the unnamed heirs of the grant’s original settlers.
The deed has since stalled real estate transactions by clouding title to all properties inside the historic grant’s boundaries. Monday’s conviction will have no direct effect on the real estate trouble caused by the deed.
A jury trial in the case was set for Monday (Jan. 28), but Eighth Judicial District Attorney Donald Gallegos told The Taos News that Ortíz agreed to plead guilty to one count of misdemeanor fraud before arguments began. Gallegos called the deal a “last minute thing” his office felt was an acceptable alternative to going to trial.
“Accountability is all we were really looking for,” Gallegos said.
The fraud charge could carry a maximum penalty of 364 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, Gallegos said. A signed copy of the plea agreement in the case states that the district attorney’s office “does not oppose a suspended sentence and unsupervised probation” for 364 days.
A sentencing date in the case had not been set as of press time.
The plea agreement with Ortíz does not specifically reference the forgery charge. That charge was based on a deposition in a civil case in which Ortíz’ father claimed he never signed the documents that included what appeared to be his signature. A subpoena had been issued to the notary public who certified the signature on the deed.
Gallegos said the forgery charge would have been harder to prove in court because a deposition in a civil case may not have been admissible in a criminal trial. A judge was scheduled to take a filmed deposition of Ortiz’ father, Manuel Ortiz Sr., last September, but the father died before an interview could take place.
Gallegos said the forgery charge was dropped as a part of the deal struck with Ortíz, though there is no reference to the count in the written agreement.
Gallegos also said his office had considered adding a stipulation in the plea that would have required Ortíz to file a statement with the county clerk acknowledging that he had no legal claim to property in the grant based on the 2010 deed. Such a stipulation was not included in the final written plea.
To download a copy of the plea agreement, find this story at www.taosnews.com.
Following Monday’s proceedings, some were critical of the reduced charges, contending that the punishment was light and would not serve as a deterrent to other land grant activists who might consider similar actions.
Gallegos countered that the criminal counts brought against Ortíz combined with the various civil suits against the board would be enough to dissuade other land grant boards from following in the Hondo board’s footsteps.
“I don’t know of a single land grant association that’s going to follow this path,” Gallegos said.
Last August, members of the Ojo Caliente Land Grant board filed a deed for that land grant that was almost an exact copy of the documents filed by the Hondo board. The Ojo deed was also aimed at tying up real estate sales within that grant. Members of the Ojo board told The Taos News they were well aware of the legal attacks against the Hondo board, and the Ojo board felt filing a deed was worth the risks.
The timing of the Hondo deed was central to the criminal charges brought against Ortíz. The deed and related documents were in filed in October 2010 on the same day that a home owned by Ortíz was scheduled to be auctioned as part of a foreclosure.
Santiago Juárez, the attorney who represented Ortíz in the criminal case, said in a phone interview his client chose to plead to the fraud charge because a jury may have found that Ortíz filed the deed to avoid losing his property, implying ill intent.
However, Juárez was adamant the guilty plea did nothing to affect the credibility of the deed or the documents themselves.
Several civil suits have been brought against the Hondo board, all of which are asking a judge to expunge the deed and remove the cloud. Juárez is defending the Hondo board in those cases as well, and he insisted that the board does not intend to back off its position that the deed is a valid claim to land that has always been the legal property of the heirs of the grant’s original settlers.
Juárez said he believed this week’s guilty plea would not affect the outcome of the civil cases.
Eliu Romero disagrees. Romero is a lawyer bringing a case against the Hondo board on behalf of three property owners in the grant, and he argues that the fraud conviction will help his clients. “Of course it will help. It tells the whole word this is a big joke” said Romero.
A Feb. 6 hearing in Romero’s case was postponed and a new date had not been set as of press time. A hearing in a separate civil case was set for Jan. 30 but has been moved to Feb. 26.
In April 2011, Ortíz’ sister, Palmela E. Ortiz-Reed, brought her own case against the board, asking a judge to lift the cloud off her half-acre property and expunge the deed. In October 2012, Judge John Paternoster quieted title to the sister’s property, but refused to invalidate the deed because he said it was possibly beyond his authority in the case.