All three teenagers charged in the July 19 murders of two homeless Navajo men in Albuquerque will be tried as adults.
A grand jury in August indicted Alex Rios, 18; Nathaniel Carrillo, 16; and Gilbert Tafoya, 15; on first-degree murder charges, plus lesser charges including tampering with evidence, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and robbery. If convicted of murder, they could face life in prison.
The teens are accused of killing Kee Thompson and Allison Gorman by smashing their heads repeatedly with cinder blocks and other items while they slept on mattresses in an open field. The incident shook Albuquerque, which already is under scrutiny for the way its homeless population is treated.
The case has gained national attention because of the ages of the teens and the brutality of the crime. Albuquerque Police spokesman Simon Drobik described it as “kids killing transients.”
“When all you know is that two people are dead and juveniles are in custody, it’s hard to wrap your brain around it,” he said. “It was such a heinous crime and the nature of violence was so traumatic.”
The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office brought the charges against the teens. A spokeswoman for that office said cases involving juveniles charged with first-degree murder automatically proceed through the district court’s criminal division – not the juvenile division.
“It’s state law,” said Kayla Anderson, spokeswoman for the Office of the District Attorney. “By statute, the crime is a serious violent offense, so that’s how they’re charged.”
According to estimates from the state Public Defender’s Office, about a dozen children every year are tried as adults in the Albuquerque area.
All three teens have pleaded not guilty, though they admitted to the murders in statements to police. Tafoya and Carrillo are in the Bernalillo County Juvenile Detention Center while Rios, who also faces charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, is at the Metropolitan Detention Center.
Despite the ages of the two younger suspects, all three will be tried as adults because their first-degree murder charges define them as “serious youthful offenders,” said Jeff Buckels, managing attorney of the capital crimes unit for the Public Defender’s Office of New Mexico. Buckels also is representing Carrillo in the case.
New Mexico law mandates that juveniles over the age of 15 charged with first-degree murder be transferred automatically to adult court, he said. Younger suspects or those charged with lesser crimes go through amenability hearings first.
“If the child is 14 or younger, even if convicted of first-degree murder, he has to go through a hearing to determine whether he’s amenable to treatment,” Buckels said. “If you’re 15 to 17 years old and charged with first-degree murder, there is no hearing. You go straight to adult court.”
Should the teens be convicted, their sentences could vary because of the differences in age, Buckels said. Adults convicted of first-degree murder receive mandatory life sentences, which are defined as 30 years without the possibility of parole, but judges have more leeway when sentencing juveniles convicted of the same crime.
The Albuquerque community has hosted several memorials and vigils to honor the murder victims. Gorman, 44, was from Shiprock, New Mexico, and Thompson, who was either 45 or 46, left his home in Church Rock, New Mexico, in 2005. Both men’s families said they went to Albuquerque looking for more opportunities.
Following the murders, Albuquerque’s nine-member city council narrowly approved an excise tax increase of one-eighth of one percent on gross receipts with the revenue earmarked for helping people struggling with homelessness, mental illness or addiction. The tax, which would add 12.5 cents to a $100 purchase, could generate as much as $16 million per year.
Councilors voted 5-4 on August 18 to approve the tax hike. Mayor Richard Berry will decide whether to sign or veto the legislation.