Sandoval Signpost

 

An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Public Safety
 

School embezzlement, train fatality, and suspect’s death under investigation

—Bill Diven

Bernalillo Public Schools reports $68,000 dollars in school activity funds may be missing, and the District Attorney’s Office is reviewing the case of a man who died while being restrained by police. Meanwhile, a pedestrian wearing headphones is the latest person to be hit and killed by a train in Bernalillo.

While cocaine intoxication killed a violent man in Bernalillo eight months ago, how police handled the situation contributed to his death, according to the state Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI).

Ken C de Baca, 45, of Santa Fe died on the night of September 6 while in police custody after a disturbance at the Bernalillo Walmart. OMI’s investigation lists the manner of death as homicide, an open-ended term covering everything from first-degree murder to justifiable actions by police and citizens.

Rio Rancho police investigated the incident and have sent the case to the District Attorney’s Office for review.

Events began with C de Baca forcibly taking control of the car his wife was driving and ramming into a parked vehicle at a fast-food restaurant. From there, he ran into Walmart and began throwing TVs from shelves until employees and customers tackled him with one person sitting on him when Bernalillo and Santa Ana Pueblo police arrived.

Officers reported C de Baca resisted being handcuffed and continued to fight after being carried outside, biting an officer and having his legs shackled. Within minutes, he lost consciousness and couldn’t be revived.

The OMI report, however, adds that officers used a specialized shield on C de Baca’s head to keep him from biting or spitting, and that it might have been applied improperly. If so, it could have obstructed his breathing, according to OMI.

Bernalillo Police Chief Tom Romero told the Signpost he couldn’t discuss the case or the OMI findings since C de Baca’s family has served notice they intend to file a lawsuit over the death.

OMI’s autopsy found high levels of cocaine in C de Baca’s blood along with a byproduct indicating extensive previous use. He also was suffering from severe heart disease, hardening and narrowing of coronary arteries with one ninety percent blocked and showed signs of a previous heart attack.

The combination of cocaine, the heart condition, and stress from the confrontation with police all contributed to OMI listing the cause of death as “Excited delirium (cocaine intoxication) complicated by means of physical restraint.”

A diagnosis of excited delirium syndrome is not without controversy as law-enforcement critics have questioned the existence of the condition and whether it’s used as a cover for excessive force. A 2015 Washington Post report found more than one hundred civilian deaths since 2001, three-quarters involving police deploying Taser electronic darts, where excited delirium was cited as a factor.

A 2014 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin describes excited delirium as a real and serious medical condition needing a quick response from emergency-medical personnel. The emergency-medical physicians who wrote the FBI bulletin listed among risk factors for the syndrome being male (average age 36); use of cocaine, meth, PCP, or LSD; and acute binging by chronic drug users.

In the Bernalillo case, EMS personnel were dispatched to the crash about the same time as police. They diverted to the Walmart and took over from officers using CPR trying to resuscitate C de Baca.

• • • • • • • •

The Bernalillo Public Schools district is hiring an outside auditor to review an activities fund that may be short $68,000 dollars.

Superintendent Allan Tapia declined to identify the school or name the employee responsible for the account but told the Signpost the employee had been fired. The person has not been charged with a crime.

“It was student organizations’ money,” Tapia said. “That’s been real tough for me to swallow because it directly impacts students and those type of activities… We are working with the school to afford the students any field trips or other activities they were promised.”

Irregularities in the account led to an investigation that uncovered more problems. That’s when BPS notified the Office of the State Auditor, and the Bernalillo Police Department became involved.

The audit is expected to begin early in May, and the results will determine what happens next. The district also is looking into recovering lost funds minus a deductible from its insurance carrier.

• • • • • • • •

A man wearing headphones and walking on the tracks was struck and killed by an Amtrak train in northern Bernalillo on April 19. He has been identified as Quentin Kewanwytewa, 44, who is listed at a Bernalillo address but has ties to Zia Pueblo.

Bernalillo police reported he was walking north near the closed Centex wallboard plant when Amtrak’s Southwest Chief arrived heading south for its afternoon stop in Albuquerque. The engineer sounded the locomotive horn and applied the emergency brake before the collision, police reported.

Family and friends said Kewanwytewa was not suicidal, and investigators said he still had headphones on after the collision, Bernalillo Police Chief Tom Romero said. An autopsy will determine if alcohol was a factor, he added.

Kewanwytewa is at least the thirteenth pedestrian to die on the tracks in Bernalillo since 1995, according to Federal Railroad Administration statistics. One was a high school student with earbuds listening to music when he was hit from behind. Other fatalities have involved suicide and alcohol.

The town continues to seek funding to fence the railroad right-of-way and create a formal pedestrian crossing to replace current informal ones. The tracks owned by the New Mexico Department of Transportation and used by Rail Runner Express trains separate an extensive residential area from the business district and public services.

In April, NMDOT approved the project, which leads to a study that will determine whether the town can apply for upwards of $2.5 million dollars in federal funding in coming years.

The town has requested $540,000 dollars for the budget year beginning July 1 to install the pedestrian crossing, said Maria Rinaldi, director of community planning and development. The additional money would be use for fencing from Lucero Avenue at the south end of town to U.S. Highway 550 on the north, she added.

 
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