By Taos News staff
Locally, the final year of the last decade began with a tragic avalanche at Taos Ski Valley and ended with the first change in the New Mexico Senate seat representing Taos County in decades. In national events that had ripple effects felt in Taos, the year began with the longest shutdown of the federal government still underway and ended with the impeachment of the United States president, Donald J. Trump. In between, in the beautiful communities of Taos County and around the Enchanted Circle, the days were filled with a lot of laughter, tears, political battles, tragedies, comic moments and everything in between.
Following are the staff’s picks for the top local stories of 2019.
Fatal inbounds avalanche at Taos Ski Valley
Stories: Jan. 19 and Jan. 25
The tragedies that often hit the hardest are the ones you don’t see coming, and that certainly was the case when two vacationing skiers – Matthew Zonghetti and Corey Borg-Massanari – lost their lives in an inbounds avalanche near Kachina Peak in Taos Ski Valley in January. News that the two skiers had been buried spread rapidly, running parallel with panic from the ski community over who was under the snow. Staff photographer Morgan Timms happened to be off from the Taos News skiing when she saw the snow slide into a massive heap below the mountain’s highest slopes. Simultaneously taking photos and conducting interviews, Timms provided information from the scene to reporter John Miller. The Taos News staff followed up with several stories over the following days, detailing the avalanche, the rescue effort and features about the two young men who died doing what they loved.
District Court Judge Sarah Backus retires
Story by John Miller, Jan. 10
The first of two Taos District Court judges to retire in 2019, Sarah Backus left her position after more than seven years in February, before the expiration of her second term. Backus heard a variety of felony cases throughout her tenure, but one of the most controversial landed on her docket in August 2018, when five adults were arrested and 11 children were rescued from a squalid compound near Amalia. While two other district court judges heard child abuse cases originally filed against the five adults, it fell to Backus to decide whether they would be released pending trial. In a decision that drew widespread controversy and even death threats from members of the public, Backus ruled that the state had failed to prove that any of the five were sufficiently dangerous or posed serious flight risks to hold them in jail. While Backus acknowledged her decision was “controversial,” she did not waver from her courtroom explanation that she had properly applied the law. While the child abuse cases were ultimately dropped in Taos County, the five adults were charged early this year with terrorism-related offenses in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, where they remain incarcerated pending trial.
A serial burglar finally busted
Story by John Miller, Feb. 28
After a series of commercial burglaries mystified law enforcement and victimized business owners throughout Taos County in 2018, Taos Police arrested Carl Ervin Gage with assistance from the Taos County Sheriff’s Office in February of this year, charging him in five cases. Gage, now 46, was also charged with attempting to chisel his way out of his cell at the Taos County jail in August. Gage also faces an extradition charge for violating his parole in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Divisive resolution over gun control
Story by John Miller, March 7
According to data compiled by the Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University, there were 41 mass shootings that resulted in 211 deaths in 2019 – the most ever, the report concludes. The country, however, continues to be divided over what exactly to do about the violence. In March, Taos County joined myriad other areas around the country and state to discuss a resolution that would shield gun owners from some of the gun control legislation proposed last year. One of the main proponents of the resolution, Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe joined gun rights activists throughout the county and state in opposition to proposed legislation they argued unfairly burdened law-abiding gun owners and and violated their rights. While the Taos County Commission initially passed the proposed resolution, they later repealed it, replacing it with another that expressed a commitment to Second Amendment protections and to taking steps to reduce gun violence.
Taos County Sheriff’s Office receives Medal of Valor
Story by John Miller, May 16
Members of the Taos County Sheriff’s Office received one of the highest honors for law enforcement officers when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham awarded them the Medal of Valor for their 2018 armed raid of the compound near Amalia. Other recipients of the award included members of the New Mexico Office of Superintendent of Insurance, who accompanied specially trained deputies and Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe to storm the compound on Aug. 3, 2018. The tactical team arrested five adults that day who are currently in federal custody facing terrorism-related charges. Eleven children were also rescued from the compound, where investigators with the FBI also later recovered numerous firearms, a stockpile of ammunition and documents that appeared to indicate the adults were planning a terrorist attack.
Beloved banker accused of embezzling $100K
Story by John Miller, May 23
Longtime patrons of the US Bank branch located on Taos Plaza were stunned when news broke that its popular manager had been charged with embezzlement in May. The accused, Rose Vargas, was indicted by a grand jury on two second-degree felony counts of embezzlement, which accuse her of stealing more than $100,000 from two account holders between 2015 and 2018. Vargas was scheduled for a trial this month that was delayed.
Taos DA resigns
Story by John Miller, June 6
Donald Gallegos announced his early retirement as 8th Judicial District Attorney in June with a little over a year and a half remaining in his fifth term. In 2018, Gallegos and his prosecutors handled initial charges against five adults arrested at the compound near the Colorado border, where 11 children were also rescued. After missing a critical deadline imposed by the state to hold preliminary hearings, however, the cases were thrown out, causing an uproar in the community. Gallegos said his early retirement had nothing to do with the bungled cases. Instead he said he was looking forward to spending time outdoors and was considering entering private practice. Local prosecutor Marcus Montoya was appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in July to finish out Gallegos’ term.
Kit Carson Park Concert kerfuffle and The Paseo/La Pocha Nostra lighting rod
Stories by Jesse Moya and Rick Romancito, Sept. 5, Sept. 19, Sept. 26
Summer concerts and fall festivals have become the norm for Taos but Meow Wolf and La Pocha Nostra have shaken the boundaries of normal for this art town.
Meow Wolf’s second Vortex concert caused a stir about what is and isn’t allowed in the historic Kit Carson Park. Campers converged on the facility for a three-day fest of music, art and experience causing residents and neighbors to call the town’s ordinances into question. Many said the music was too loud, too late and that camping was not allowed in the park.
La Pocha Nostra stole the show of this year’s Paseo festival by hosting an interactive art exhibit many observers thought was too explicit for Taos standards. The performance art show held outside along Civic Plaza Drive included images of crucifixes and sexual depictions that caused outrage among some.
Both events called into question the meaning of art and what is and isn’t acceptable in Taos. La Pocha Nostra was criticized for its adult content in a public place while Meow Wolf took the heat for loud music and rowdy festivalgoers.
World Cup owner reported missing, found dead
Stories by John Miller, Aug. 29 and Sept. 19
The alleged murder of World Cup Café owner Patrick Larkin by his tree-trimmer neighbor was one of the biggest crime stories of the year in Taos County. Rumors first began to swirl when Larkin was reported missing from his home in Llano Quemado on Aug. 27, a day before his body was found in the brush to the side of the road about a mile away. Gregg Steele, 51, was charged in mid-September in connection to Larkin’s death. A major twist came in the case when the state released evidence claiming that Steele had confessed to his landlord that he had killed Larkin, but that he had done so only in self-defense. Steele is currently being held at the Taos County jail, where he awaits a status hearing in the case set for Jan. 7.
Questa schools weather year of turmoil
Stories by Doug Cantwell, Jan. 8, June 22, Aug. 2, Aug. 12, Sept. 5, Sept. 6, Sept. 16, Sept. 19, Oct 10, Oct. 18, Nov. 6, Nov. 8, Nov. 18, Dec. 19, Dec. 26
Embattled throughout 2019, the Questa district’s future looks brighter in 2020. New board members Rebecca Griego and Juan Cisneros took their seats on Jan. 1 following landslide victories in the Nov. 5 election that ousted Daryl Ortega and Ellis Garcia. The board’s authority was reinstated on Jan. 1 as well, following Secretary of Education Ryan Stewart’s Nov. 12 suspension, which cited unstable leadership, inadequate special education services and improper conduct of meetings.
The district lost another two superintendents with the board’s Jan. 8 termination of LeAnne Salazar and Michael Lovato’s resignation on Sept. 4. Before departing, Lovato ordered the temporary closure of Río Costilla Southwest Learning Academy, citing safety and health hazards. An industrial hygienist found conditions that needed urgent attention but didn’t declare the school uninhabitable. Following a spirited parking lot rally in support of Río Costilla, the board voted 3-2 on Sept. 17 to close the school permanently.
Meanwhile, board member Garcia alleged that board member Tammy Jaramillo and former board president Bernie Torres had offered him money and political favors to vote against closing Río Costilla – which they denied. The board hired a private investigator to look into the bribery allegations.
It came to light before the Nov. 5 election that Garcia had a felony conviction in his past, which, according to state law, disqualifies him from serving in an elected office. Garcia insisted he had fulfilled the terms of a deferred sentence and ignored an Oct. 23 order from Attorney General Hector Balderas to step down.
When it became clear that Ortega intended to hire yet another superintendent and that Garcia had no intention of stepping down before their terms ended, Secretary Stewart suspended the board’s authority until the new board members could take their seats.
On Dec. 19, Ortega and Garcia were granted a hearing to appeal Public Education Department’s suspension of the board, but later walked out in protest. Independent hearing officer John Ziegler ruled to uphold the board’s suspension.
Sen. Carlos Cisneros dies
Story by Staci Matlock, Sept. 19
After over 30 years serving District 6 in the New Mexico Senate, Carlos Cisneros passed away from a sudden heart attack. His vacancy left many questions in the district, mainly who would fill his position. After gaining the support of two counties, Rep. Robert “Bobby” Gonzales was chosen by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to take the Senate seat.
During his time, Cisneros built a steady and lasting relationship with the people of Río Arriba, Taos, Santa Fe and Los Alamos counties.
Gonzales was sworn in December to his new Senate position. Taos Mayor Dan Barrone was approved to serve out Gonzales’ term in the House.
Hip-hop artist Wake Self dies
Story by Jesse Moya, Nov. 5
New Mexico native Andrew “Wake Self” Martinez was involved in a fatal accident involving a drunk driver who collided with his vehicle in Santa Fe shortly before he was scheduled to perform in Taos. Martinez was days away from releasing his new album “Ready to Live” and was set to play a number of shows promoting it. Martinez broke boundaries of hip-hop by encouraging love and growth with his lyrics and even dedicated an album to Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. Martinez was known throughout the state as a figure of New Mexico music and frequently had Taos on his tour schedule. His most viewed video on YouTube has over 210,000 views and is a tribute to his home state titled, “New Mexico.”
National Christmas tree cut and delivered to Washington, D.C.
Story by Cindy Brown, Nov. 7
The Carson National Forest was selected to provide the annual Capitol Christmas Tree for Washington, D.C. The tree was taken from Taos County to sit on the U.S. Capitol lawn for the holiday season – and brought together the community for its journey.
First, the tree enjoyed a ceremony at its harvesting and was paraded across the state in November. Once it reached the capital, the tree was trimmed with various ornaments made from Taos County artists and children.
This was the third Capitol tree selected from New Mexico and the second from Taos County.