Felon in violent crime spree in Taos gets ‘second chance’

Taos District Court Judge Jeff McElroy granted probation this month to Martin Rivera, a 22-year-old Ranchos de Taos man who pleaded guilty in January to stabbing a man and robbing another person at gunpoint in 2017. John Miller

Updated April 15 at 10 a.m.

A Ranchos de Taos man who pleaded guilty in January to stabbing a man while attempting to steal his vehicle outside Smith’s grocery store in Taos was sentenced to five years probation on Monday (April 8), time that he will spend at one of the state’s top long-term drug treatment facilities, instead of in prison.

Known Taos-area gang member and convicted felon Martin Rivera submitted the guilty pleas for aggravated battery and attempted armed robbery as part of a plea agreement struck with the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. In exchange, the state dismissed three other counts of attempted armed robbery related to a string of violent crimes Rivera was charged with in April 2017.

At a sentencing hearing held in Taos District Court Monday (April 8), Rivera’s mother, accompanied by Rivera’s two sisters, made an emotional petition in Spanish to Judge Jeff McElroy, asking him to spare her son prison time.

“She thinks he deserves a second opportunity,” Rivera’s sister translated to the judge as her voice started to break. “He’s young and he deserves a second chance at life … He’s been here for two years and we’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting.”

Rivera, 23, has been locked up at the Taos County Adult Detention Center since April 12, 2017, six days after he carried out a methamphetamine-fueled crime spree in Taos that sparked a statewide call for his arrest.

The series of crimes began on April 6 that year, when Rivera, who was then 20, attempted to steal vehicles from shoppers outside Smith’s grocery store.

Court documents indicate that Rivera first approached a man at a gas station near the store and threatened him with a pocketknife. When the man refused to give up his vehicle, Rivera stabbed him in the abdomen, inflicting a nonfatal wound.

Failing to steal the man’s vehicle, he approached a man and a woman loading groceries into their car, but the man was able to push Rivera away with his car door.

Rivera was unable to steal a vehicle in either case, but was able to flee the scene before police arrived.

In a separate case that was later dismissed in Taos District Court, Rivera was charged with robbing a teenager at gunpoint near Walmart later that week and stealing a truck from a man, also at gunpoint, in the parking lot of the Ranchos de Taos post office, while accompanied by his then teenage girlfriend.

Fleeing in the stolen truck, Rivera led law enforcement on a high-speed chase southbound on State Road 68, before he crashed the stolen vehicle and hitchhiked south to Albuquerque, where he was arrested and the girl was taken into custody on April 12.

At Monday’s hearing, Rivera’s public defense attorney, Aleksandar Kostich, also made an emotional appeal to Judge McElroy, explaining that Rivera had become a changed man after two years locked up at the Taos County jail.

“Mr. Rivera and I have spent a lot of time together while we have been litigating these matters,” Kostich said. “I think he would surprise a lot of people in terms of how he’s conducted himself and how he’s matured.”

Kostich said that he had interviewed the man Rivera stabbed, who expressed great “sympathy” for Rivera, he said, and hoped the young man would not have to go to prison.

Throughout the hearing, Kostich noted that Rivera experienced significant childhood trauma, which he did not specify, and said he had been involved with gangs most of his life.

A sponsor for Rivera, who McElroy also invited to speak, said that programs in the New Mexico prison system are lacking in terms of their ability to rehabilitate inmates. He recommended Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services.

Rivera also addressed the court, saying he took responsibility for his actions, but explained that his status as a young gang member would make him a “torpedo” in the prison system, a term that refers to inmates who are ordered to carry out attacks on rival gang members in prison.

Representing the state, prosecutor John Lovelace said that Rivera’s crimes and past conduct warranted prison time.

“The defendant has a significant history of violent criminal actions against the community,” Lovelace stated. “He’s already had a second chance.”

Lovelace also made reference to another case Rivera picked up since he was incarcerated and two months after he accepted the plea deal with the state.

On March 18, Rivera was allegedly found in possession of a 4-inch "metal homemade knife" at the Taos County jail and battered a jail guard the same day.

Lovelace requested to show video of the incident at the jail, but was denied when Kostich objected on the grounds that it was unrelated to the case at hand.

Rivera also has a pending aggravated burglary and larceny case from 2015.

McElroy ordered probation, but warned Rivera that prison time was still a possibility should he fail to comply with the terms of his probation.

He acknowledged that offering such an alternative to a violent offender with past felony convictions is an opportunity rarely afforded under such circumstances.

“I generally don’t give probation to people who have offended the community in this way,” McElroy said.

“I’m not convinced that once someone has entered so deeply into the gang culture that you can never let it go,” he said. “But that’s pretty rare. That’s why they’re news stories and that’s why they’re books. I don’t have much conviction you can do that, but because of the way the case is lined up I can give you that.”

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