When it was announced Feb. 7 in Taos County Magistrate Court that Destiny Valdez, 23, had died of a gunshot wound sustained the night of Feb. 3, it became clear that suspect Brandon Lopez would pick up a murder charge. The degree of that charge, however, was still in question.
Lopez, 23, who had been incarcerated in the Taos County Adult Detention Center on nine other charges since his arrest, didn’t have to wait long for the other shoe to drop.
During a preliminary examination Feb. 16, Lopez was charged with first-degree murder — a capital felony offense of the highest degree. The charge alleges that Lopez killed Valdez as a deliberate, premeditated act, evincing a disregard for human life.
The court’s decision to levy a charge of this degree might come as a surprise to some, including certain members of law enforcement who have been involved with the case.
Taos Police Department Detective Barry Holfelder, for example, had previously speculated that the defendant would likely face a second-degree murder charge, a lesser offense defined in New Mexico as a murder committed in coincidence with some mitigating circumstance, such as becoming embroiled in a sudden fight, acting in the heat of the moment or being sufficiently provoked.
Holfelder has been investigating the incident since he was called to the scene of the incident and has been present during court proceedings.
His investigation began less than one hour after the shooting took place at the Shell gas station located at the bypass on the south side of Taos.
The alleged shooting took place around 9:30 p.m.
After rendezvousing with Taos Police Department Patrol Officer Austin Barnes around at Holy Cross Hospital around 10 p.m., where Valdez had been transported after sustaining a gunshot wound to the head, Holfelder began piecing together evidence.
Both the vehicle in which Valdez rode and the defendant’s vehicle were inspected from the outside that night, prior to their subpoena as key evidence in the investigation.
At the hospital, Holfelder first examined the vehicle Valdez had been riding in, which was parked near the entrance to the emergency room. Inside, he could see bullet holes in the back and front seats, as well as blood and what appeared to be strands of the victim’s hair.
Later at the Shell station, Holfelder noted .40-caliber shell casings in the filling area and locations on the exterior of the Giant mini-mart where bullets had struck. He also obtained video footage from a surveillance camera that captured the shooting.
Holfelder said the recording shows Lopez, one male passenger and the driver of the vehicle engaging in a verbal confrontation before Lopez allegedly fired eight shots from a .40-caliber handgun at the rear of the vehicle as the group prepared to depart. One of those bullets is thought to have struck Valdez in the head, causing her eventual death.
Following Lopez’s arrest in the Peñasco area later that night, Holfelder inspected the defendant’s vehicle, in which he could see a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson Hi-Point handgun on the front passenger-side floor, along with a 10-round magazine matching the weapon. Both pieces of hardware were found to be consistent with shell casings recovered from the scene.
A receipt was also discovered in Lopez’s wallet — dated Feb. 3 — which may have indicated the defendant’s alleged intent to purchase an additional handgun from Wild West Trading Co. in Taos.
With Valdez on life support in the days following the incident, Holfelder was asked to speculate as to the additional charges Lopez might face. “We’re debating that right now with the DA’s office,” Holfelder said the week of Feb. 5. “My guess is that it will be second-degree murder.”
The video evidence captured by the surveillance camera may play a key role as the case goes to trial, as there seems to be some evidence in the tape to suggest an altercation – or at least some preceding interaction – took place between the defendant and people in the victim’s vehicle that may have played a role in the alleged shooting.
Following a mental health evaluation, Lopez’s history of mental instability has also surfaced and will likely figure as a factor in the case.
When questioned following the incident, Lopez admitted to his involvement, but also said that he had felt threatened by the men in the other vehicle, though law enforcement has not indicated that anything more than a verbal altercation occurred between the men prior to the shooting.
Holfelder also told The Taos News that Lopez may have been distantly related to one of the men who rode in the vehicle Feb. 3.
While he awaits trial in Taos County District Court, Lopez remains incarcerated in the Taos County Adult Detention Center on a $90,000 cash-only bond. Nelson Abeyta, Taos County Adult Detention Center director, said he had asked Lopez why he had shot at the vehicle the night of Feb. 3, to which Lopez again replied that he had felt “threatened,” stating that he was being “followed” by certain individuals who had been riding with Valdez that night. No evidence presented thus far has validated that claim.
A trial date for the case has not yet been set.