An Española man was arrested on a charge of hunting with an artificial light. He also confessed to having participated in the illegal slaughter of elk and deer in the Tierra Amarilla area.
The temperature was close to zero. It was just before midnight on the last day of 2017, and New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Officer Ariel Perraglio was on patrol near El Vado Lake in the mountains of Rio Arriba County when she saw a light shining from a vehicle into a field, where one would expect livestock to be.
The officer approached the vehicle. Upon spotting a rifle and a spotlight on the rear seat, she ordered Jacob Leyba out of the car, according to a search warrant affidavit.
Leyba, then just two days shy of his 19th birthday, told the officer he was shooting rabbits.
But after another Game and Fish officer found a bag containing a "bloody saw and several bloody knives" in Leyba's car, the Española man was asked if the blood on them would match DNA taken from two headless deer carcasses found nearby.
Leyba, according to the search warrant affidavit, said it would, and after he was arrested on a charge of hunting with an artificial light, he also confessed to having participated in the illegal slaughter of two elk and more than 10 deer in the Tierra Amarilla area in the fall and winter of 2017.
According to the affidavit, Leyba told officers two Española brothers - Brandon Romero, 20, and Jonathan Romero, 23 - were with him when he killed the animals.
"Mr. Leyba stated that all three individuals were involved in shooting multiple animals and possessing the heads of these animals, leaving the meat to waste in the field," the officer wrote.
Based on Leyba's statement, Game and Fish officers obtained a search warrant for the Romeros' residence in Española on Jan. 1, 2018, and seized 10 skulls - three bull elk skulls and seven deer skulls - from the home.
According to the affidavit, Game and Fish officers suspect Leyba and the other men of violating multiple laws, including wasting game - a felony punishable by up to 18 months in jail, a $5,000 fine and forfeiture of the ability to hunt with a firearm.
But a year after Perraglio spotted the light in that field, only a single misdemeanor charge of hunting with the aid of an artificial light is pending against Leyba. None of the other men accused of illegally harvesting the animals has been charged, according to online court records.
Game and Fish spokeswoman Tristanna Bickford declined to the comment on the case, calling it an ongoing investigation. The state Department of Game and Fish heavily redacted transcripts of its interviews with the Romeros before releasing them to The New Mexican.
The criminal complaint against Leyba lists hunting with an artificial light as "Count 2" but does not list a "Count 1." District Attorney Marco Serna said in a text message Friday there should only be one count in the document.
But Leyba's attorney, Robert J. Aragon, said the state is pursuing another charge against Leyba.
"There are obviously two charges," Aragon said. "One is a misdemeanor and one is potentially a felony. But the state has not produced the evidence they need on that second case. We've been pushing to have all the info in one place so we can make a decision.
"I can't make any decision or put forth a proper defense until have the evidence from the state," he added. "To date there has been none forthcoming. But I have every confidence in [Serna] that he will do what is right and produce it, and if it's not there he'll dismiss."
Aragon said Leyba had already pleaded to one charge in the case, but a record of that plea agreement could not be found in online court files.
Serna said Friday his office has no record of a plea agreement, adding that his office has opened plea discussions with Leyba, but "nothing has been agreed to in writing and filed with the court."
"Game and Fish is concluding a final investigative report for my office ... and Mr. Leyba is the primary suspect," Serna wrote in a text message Friday.
A man who answered the phone at the Romero residence last week hung up after being asked to comment.
Game skulls, such as those found in the residence, are available for as little as $45 online. But stuffed and mounted animal heads with antlers can fetch $1,000 or more, depending on the species.
It's unclear from available records how or if the skulls Game and Fish seized from the Romero residence had been prepared or preserved.
The Romeros discussed prices, in text messages, according to a search warrant affidavit. In one message, the affidavit says, Brandon Romero texted Jonathan Romero: "It's a business we can't drop our prices for anyone 80 is standard for deer and 120 for small elk."
The men killed animals in the areas of Mud Spring, Echo Canyon, Regina and Youngsville, according to the affidavit.
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