By Joline Gutierrez Krueger
State Police have agreed to re-examine the 1998 hit-and-run death of a Bernalillo man and say other old cases may get a second look as well.
The news comes two days after 24 families banded together as the New Mexico Justice Project to demand better accountability from law enforcement agencies they say have botched investigations into their loved ones' deaths.
"The response from the public and law enforcement has begun," said Gabino Venegas Jr., spokesman for the group and father of the man killed in the crash six years ago this month. "That was the big plus for me this morning," Venegas said Thursday. "I am very excited about the fact that they have reopened my son's case."
Venegas' 34-year-old son, also named Gabino Venegas, was killed as he was riding his bicycle home at night. State Police decided to take another look at the Venegas case two weeks ago but had not contacted his family until now, said Lt. Pete Kassetas, head of Criminal Investigations.
Kassetas said he was convinced the case should be reopened after talking with a private investigator hired by the family. The investigator, Mike Corwin, said he tracked down three witnesses who identified one of the cars leaving the scene as a law enforcement vehicle. Physical evidence also indicated that a second vehicle was involved, Corwin said.
"He dug up some information that really does need to be looked at further," Kassetas said. "We're going to give this case a review or assessment and see whether we can further the investigation."
Kassetas warned he still might not be able to bring a killer to justice but said his department owes the family and others like it a second chance. "I tell my officers to put themselves in the family's shoes," he said. "No one wants their case files in the closet with the doors shut. If it's solvable, we need to do that. If it's not, we need to help the families face reality."
Kassetas said he is willing to talk to other families who were dissatisfied with the way their cases were handled by the State Police years ago. Most of those cases occurred before he assumed his role within the State Police, he said.
"We're definitely going to look at the cases if they want," he said. "No one will be turned away." Old cases, he said, might be solved with new forensics technology. Reopening them, however, is an intensive process that takes time and manpower away from an already busy caseload, he said. "But if we can make the effort, we will try," he said. "It just takes one small break."
He cited the case of Stephanie Houston, a 28-year-old
Socorro woman who died at age 28 on
Since Monday's news conference, Venegas has heard from other families with similar concerns about the way their cases were handled. He is writing to Gov. Bill Richardson's criminal justice policy adviser, Bob Schwartz, to see what the governor might do to help.
Family members who spoke Wednesday said change is necessary
to uncover corruption within law enforcement agencies and improve a system that
occasionally makes crucial missteps in its investigations. The agencies include the Albuquerque Police
Department, Rio Rancho Department of Public Safety, State Police, Sandoval
County Sheriff's Department and the police departments of Socorro,
Venegas said families like his would be happy for any new law enforcement help even if the results are not what they hope. "I think what the families are looking for us some cooperation, for understanding," he said. "I think they'd like to hear the truth."
If you believe your loved one's death was improperly investigated, contact Gabino Venegas Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or the New Mexico Justice Project Web site at www.realcrimes.com.
For support in dealing with a loved one's violent death, contact the New Mexico Survivors of Homicide at www.nmsoh.org or 232-4099; or the New Mexico Victims' Rights Project at www.nm-victimsrights.org or 292-2838.
If you have information on the 1998 Gabino Venegas hit-and-run death or want to discuss a different homicide case, call State Police Lt. Pete Kassetas at 841-9218.