Alan Maestas, a private defense attorney in Taos known for taking on tough cases, has withdrawn as counsel for a man charged in 2019 with shooting and killing his neighbor, the owner of World Cup Café.
"The attorney-client relationship has broken down and counsel can no longer represent the defendant," Maestas wrote in a motion he submitted to Taos District Court on April 3.
Six months earlier, he had appeared in court for the first time alongside Gregg Steele, who is accused of murdering Patrick Larkin early the morning of Aug. 27 in a rural community several miles south of Taos.
Maestas' motion was approved Friday (April 24) after Steele obtained a new attorney, Tom Clark, who is a partner in a private practice in Santa Fe and has a contract with the New Mexico Public Defender's Office.
Speaking with the Taos News via phone this week, Clark said he was still getting up to speed on the case. He had not heard of it prior to being contacted by the public defender's office. The case file, he said, reached his desk for the first time on Friday morning.
"I understand there has been some degree of notoriety," Clark said, adding that when he is assigned to a case, that's usually because it's not an easy one to handle. According to the bio listed on the website for his firm, Clark, Jones & Pennington, Clark began practicing law in Santa Fe 25 years ago. He said defending homicide suspects is one of his specialties.
"I've had a homicide contract exclusively and have handled cases at both the state and federal level," he said. "When people are fighting for their lives, they deserve the best possible defense they can get."
He's picking up the case seven months after Steele was first arrested for Larkin's murder. According to an arrest warrant affidavit, Steele admitted to his landlord that he had killed Larkin and later hid the body on Cuchilla Road. But he also said that Larkin had crossed into his property shooting at him with a .22-caliber rifle. The pair had an ongoing dispute over Steele's dog harassing Larkin's goats, one of which was found mauled to death the morning of the shooting. From the start, Maestas framed it as "a self-defense case."
While it's not extraordinary to see a defense attorney drop out of a case, it's not a move Maestas is known for. He usually takes a case and sticks with it - sometimes for years as he seeks the best possible outcome for a client.
A week before Maestas filed his motion to withdraw, he filed a new motion to review Steele's conditions of release from the Taos County jail. His argument included the heightened risks of the COVID-19 pandemic in the close quarters of jails like the one in Taos County.
Earlier this month, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered the New Mexico Department of Corrections to commute the sentences of some prisoners and release them early to help reduce risks associated with overcrowding. Steele seemed like a long shot.
Maestas withdrew the motion to consider Steele's release four days after filing it, stating that "the matter is not ripe for consideration at this time." Four days after that, he filed the motion to withdraw from the case, suggesting something had gone awry.
While he declined to say what exactly that was, the basic reason given in his motion - that their relationship went south - isn't unusual with Steele. Evidence at a pretrial detention hearing last fall indicated that several other people had their run-ins with Steele. Some said he was known for making threats and seemed capable of violence.
Some former employees who had worked for Steele in a tree-trimming business said that he had described wanting to "burn down houses of those he perceived to have wronged him," according to an arrest warrant affidavit.
The 52-year-old's ex-fiancé testified at the hearing that Steele had stalked her on multiple occasions and told her about how he had once planned to murder a past girlfriend and hide her body where no one would ever find her.
Two other cases filed against Steele last year - for receiving or transferring stolen vehicles and altering engine numbers - were dismissed without prejudice in March. The 8th Judicial District Attorney's Office said the cases were dismissed, in part, because Steele had agreed to cooperate further with the ongoing investigation into Larkin's death. District Attorney Marcus Montoya said Steele helped identify some "new items" relevant to the investigation, but said those did not include the handgun Steele allegedly used to kill Larkin.
A trial date in the case has been set tentatively for Sept. 21.