Taos DA to retire early

Donald Gallegos faced criticism over handling of high-profile cases last year

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 6/2/19

The district attorney of Taos, Colfax and Union counties has announced he will retire at the end of July, with a little over a year and a half remaining in his fifth term in office.

"I just …

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Taos DA to retire early

Donald Gallegos faced criticism over handling of high-profile cases last year

Posted

Updated June 5 at 4 p.m.

The district attorney of Taos, Colfax and Union counties has announced he will retire at the end of July, with a little over a year and a half remaining in his fifth term in office.

"I just decided it was time," said Donald Gallegos, who has served with the 8th Judicial District Attorney's Office since 1993 and was elected DA in 2001.

In a sardonic response to a Taos News editorial that criticized his office for missing a critical deadline in the 2018 "New Mexico compound" cases, Gallegos had previously announced in October that he would not seek re-election in 2020.

The cases originally accused five adults of abusing 11 children found at a squalid compound near Amalia, but were eventually dropped after prosecutors failed to hold preliminary hearings within time frames defined under state law.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, then-gubernatorial candidate Michell Lujan Grisham and other state officials publicly blamed Gallegos’ office for the case dismissals.

Federal prosecutors in Albuquerque quickly intervened, however, and have since filed terrorism charges against the five, accusing them of plotting Islamic extremist attacks on government institutions.

While Gallegos said his announcement in response to the editorial was sincere, he has maintained that the opinion was unfair to his office.

Commenting on his early retirement Sunday (June 2), Gallegos said there was more going on with the high-profile cases than had been reflected in the media. He indicated that the federal charges were the result of cooperation between his office and federal prosecutors.

"The public never really gets a handle on what goes on behind the scenes and we can't really talk about that," he said.

After 25 years at the office, including 18 years as DA, Gallegos said he's no stranger to public pressure. He said the heat he took for the case dismissals did not factor into his early retirement announcement, which takes effect July 31.

"I've been through big cases before," he said. "I've handled media controversy before and handled media before. I'm not going to squawk and cry about it."

In March 2016, the New Mexico Supreme Court reprimanded Gallegos and a former prosecutor-turned-district-court-judge, Emilio Chavez, for illegally issuing subpoenas in an armed robbery case at Kit Carson Electric that was reopened in 2018.

But Gallegos has also recorded many victories throughout his long career with the district attorney’s office.

In 2018, Gallegos’ office obtained a first-degree murder conviction against Brandon Lopez for the 2016 murder of Destiny Valdez. Last month, Lopez was sentenced to life in prison for the crime.

While many defendants have been sentenced through plea agreements – which the public often believes are overused by the DA’s office – plea deals are a common method used to resolve a majority of cases not only in Taos County, but throughout the state and country, as well.

Gallegos was also not the only one to receive criticism over the compound cases.

In February, Sarah Backus, a former Taos District Court judge who denied a motion to hold the five defendants in jail before trial, also announced her early retirement after receiving a string of death threats for a ruling many people thought was incorrect.

Gallegos said he still expects his office will refile charges against the five after the federal cases are resolved.

Although law enforcement agencies in Taos County have sometimes clashed with Gallegos and his prosecutors over their handling of cases their officers investigate, law enforcement heads said they wished Gallegos well in his retirement.

“We would like to congratulate Donald Gallegos on his service to the community of Taos and the State of New Mexico,” said Edwardo Martinez, the commander of the New Mexico State Police district in Taos.

“Donald Gallegos has served his community well,” said Taos Police Chief David Trujillo, adding: “Our hope is for the appointment of an individual who has the knowledge and expertise to effectively manage the district attorney’s office and to guide everyone who works there into positive change. We will always support their mission as they support ours.”

Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe, who criticized Gallegos’ office for their handling of the compound cases last year, also wished Gallegos well in retirement and said he hopes Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will appoint someone quickly. “I hope, too, that the next DA will support Taos County in seeking out funding and services for a local detox center,” Hogrefe said.

According to Tripp Stelnicki, director of communications for Grisham’s administration, there is no set timeline for appointing Gallegos’ replacement, but said the office would move “expeditiously” to find the right candidate after consulting with local bar associations and other stakeholders.

“We’re seeking someone with extensive practice who has ideally managed prosecutors, who is clear about our public safety and criminal justice reform priorities,” he said.

Gallegos said he will recommend Marcus Montoya, a young prosecutor at his office who started as an intern while he was completing law school.

"He's been very good in the office," Gallegos said. "He understands all aspects of the office and he's asked me a lot about the way things work. I'm hoping he gets strong consideration."

If Montoya is selected to take his place, Gallegos said he would make himself available to offer guidance on difficult decisions.

As for what's next, Gallegos said he's considering moving into private practice. In the meantime, however, he plans to take time off to spend some time in the outdoors, working with the acequias and going fishing where he lives in Costilla.

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