'Hands of a monster'

Police say slain teen whose body was found in plastic container was tortured, kept in dog kennel

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Jeremiah Valencia may have spent his final moments of life in a dog kennel – a victim, police say, of the kind of unimaginable abuse and torture that brought even hardened law enforcement officers to tears.

Evidence in the case and comments from police and prosecutors at a Tuesday (Jan. 30) news conference focused on Thomas Wayne Ferguson, the boyfriend of the teen boy's mother, as the main suspect in the killing at a home near Nambé.

"It's a gruesome case. I can honestly say, probably, that this poor child suffered at the hands of a monster," Santa Fe County Sheriff Robert Garcia said during the news conference, at which he became teary along with relatives of the victim.

Ferguson, 42, as well as the boy's mother, 35-year-old Tracy Ann Peña, and Ferguson's 19-year-old son, Jordan Anthony Nuñez, are all being held on charges including child abuse resulting in the death of 13-year-old Jeremiah, who investigators believe was killed in late November and buried in an area off N.M. 503 near Nambé.

Sheriff's deputies said they learned of the death recently after Peña told a fellow inmate in jail that Ferguson had killed her son. According to court records, both the mother and Nuñez have told investigators that they had remained silent about what happened because they were afraid of Ferguson, who has a record of violent offenses. Peña was incarcerated in January for failing to appear in court related to a cocaine-related charge.

New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas called Ferguson a "career criminal."

"The individual that's responsible allegedly is Mr. Ferguson," Kassetas said. "We have to ask ourselves 'why are these evil people in our community walking around with the rest of us?' "

The way Peña told it to police, she came home from a late November stint in jail to find her son's lifeless corpse on a bed at her single-story home – his eyes wide open with a blank stare, his body wrapped in a blanket.

An arrest affidavit says the victim's now-13-year-old sister told police that Ferguson had punched Jeremiah numerous times while his mother was in jail. He began bleeding, his sister said, and Ferguson and Nuñez placed him in a dog kennel.

Valencia might have died in that kennel, the girl told police, before Nuñez and Ferguson moved him to a bedroom.

While no cause of death has been confirmed for the boy, District Attorney Marco Serna said at the news conference he expects autopsy results to confirm the boy's death "was the result of prolonged abuse to this poor child, torture to this child."

Jeremiah's sister told investigators that Ferguson had physically abused the boy to the point that he needed a cane to walk and sometimes used a wheelchair, an affidavit says.

She also told authorities that Ferguson would put her brother in the kennel and that when Ferguson wasn't around, her mother would feed Jeremiah and give him water while he was still in the kennel.

Court documents say that although Peña initially told police that Ferguson disposed of the body, in a follow-up interview she changed her story. Interviewed on Monday, Peña told investigators that her son's body was stored in a garage for three days before she watched as the two other suspects wrapped Jeremiah's body in plastic sheeting and placed the corpse inside a storage container, according to the document. Then, she told police, Ferguson, Peña and Nuñez drove down N.M. 503 to a site where Ferguson and Nuñez buried the body, the affidavit says.

Over this past weekend, two months after her son's death, Peña led authorities to an area off N.M. 503. Using a cadaver dog borrowed from the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office, law enforcement officers found a suspected burial site that had tree branches piled on top. They excavated the area on Sunday, according to an affidavit, and discovered a plastic storage bin with human remains inside.

Documents say Peña told investigators that Ferguson has an "extensive history of violence and being physically abusive."

A review of court records shows Ferguson was an absconder from parole at the time of Jeremiah's death, serving a five-year probation sentence for kidnapping and aggravated battery against a household member involving a different woman.

The district attorney said Jeremiah had not been reported missing to law enforcement agencies in the two months after his death. They also do not believe the boy was enrolled in school.

Henry Varela, a spokesman for the state Children, Youth and Families Department, said the agency's last interaction with the family, prior to learning of Jeremiah's death, was in 2011. Following a CYFD investigation into concerns about the children's care, a judge had placed Jeremiah and his sister in the custody of relatives, Varela said.

The department had not received any more reports of abuse related to the family since, Varela said.

"When a case finishes on our end, we no longer have the legal jurisdiction to continue to follow a family," he said. "The only time we can follow up is when we receive a new report of abuse or neglect."

Court records indicate that the custody arrangements lasted for a year.

After last weekend's arrests, Jeremiah's sister was taken into state custody and currently is in the care of a non-family foster parent, Varela said.

Serna did not have an expected timeline for the prosecution against the three suspects. His office will seek to keep the suspects in custody pending trial, he said.

Kassetas on Tuesday emphasized Ferguson's lengthy criminal history, reading through 20 years worth of charges, including counts related to kidnapping, domestic abuse, and abandonment or abuse of a child, as well as a charge of criminal sexual penetration that was later dropped as part of a plea deal.

In 2003, Ferguson was found guilty of battery on a household member in Santa Fe and sentenced to unsupervised probation for six months on condition that he begin court-ordered counseling within two weeks of establishing a new residence in Texas, where he was set to move.

In 2014, a grand jury in Santa Fe indicted Ferguson on felony charges of criminal sexual penetration, kidnapping, aggravated battery against a household member and interference with communications. His public defender filed a motion to review Ferguson's release conditions while he was in jail awaiting trial.

The motion said that since being arrested, Ferguson was studying anger-management and co-dependency issues and had extensive ties in Santa Fe, including a mother, brother and two sisters. A prosecutor responded that his $250,000 bond was reasonable "given the extremely violent nature of the crime and the Defendant's prior felony conviction."

"The evidence presented in support of his detention includes the fact that Defendant was convicted for a similar series of crimes in Texas and violated his parole in that case by acquiring these new charges," the prosecutor wrote. "His behavior shows a disregard for the court-ordered conditions of release, parole and the law in general."

"During this incident, the Defendant tried to kill himself rather than be taken into custody," the prosecutor wrote.

In a 2015 plea agreement, Ferguson pleaded guilty to kidnapping and aggravated battery against a household member. The plea agreement stipulated that his conviction be classified as "non-violent."

State District Judge T. Glenn Ellington sentenced Ferguson to 10 years and eight months in prison. But the judge suspended nearly seven years and eight months of the sentence and credited Ferguson with 495 days of pre-sentence confinement. He was released on five years of supervised probation and ordered to stay on electronic monitoring for two years.

In February 2016, a Santa Fe prosecutor filed a motion to revoke Ferguson's probation after a criminal complaint was filed in Sandoval County that said when a probation officer went to check on Ferguson, his girlfriend, a different woman than Peña, answered the door and "appeared to have signs of battery," the complaint says.

Ferguson admitted to violating his probation by "having negative contact with police," according to a court order in which Judge Ellington found that Ferguson violated his probation. Ellington allowed Ferguson to remain on probation, despite a state probation officer's recommendation that he serve the remainder of his sentence in prison.

On Nov. 20, about a week before Jeremiah was found dead, a deputy district attorney under Serna filed another motion to revoke Ferguson's probation, calling Ferguson an absconder for failing to report to his probation officer in June and failing to follow court orders for obtaining permission to move.

A November 2017 report by Ernest M. Duran, a probation officers in Las Vegas, N.M., said Ferguson failed to report to Duran but instead sent a text message saying he was residing in Pojoaque. On July 25, two probation officers from Española attempted to make contact with Ferguson at his residence, according to Duran's report, but were "unable to make contact with anyone," according to Duran.

"There were several large dogs in the yard, the gate was locked and there was a beware of dog sign on the fence," Duran's report says.

Duran on Tuesday referred a request for comment to his supervisor, Michelle Varela. Varela said she was not authorized to speak to a news reporter and referred a reporter to S.U. Mahesh, a Corrections Department spokesman, who did not return several calls and an email. Ferguson was arrested on Jan. 18 on a warrant for violating his probation, and the District Attorney's Office on Monday charged him with violating his probation terms.

Duran had written that in August 2016, Ferguson moved to Las Vegas and got a job at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, but quit after a few months. He said Ferguson was unable to find another job, wanted to move to Santa Fe and would frequently miss appointments with Duran.

In November 2017, the probation officer wrote: "He has demonstrated that he is capable of completing supervision and doing the right thing. However, he has now failed to make himself available for probation supervision. Ferguson has yet again demonstrated that he is unwilling to change his negative behaviors. He has been declared an absconder from supervision."

Contact reporter Sami Edge at sedge@sfnewmexican.c­om or 505-986-3055. Justin Horwath can be reached at 505-986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexican.com.

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