LAS CRUCES – Juan Gabriel Torres twice drank a beer in front of police officers while in possession of a knife in 2016. The first time, he was arrested. The next time, he was shot dead.
The first, in April, appeared to have been a cry for help. Torres said he was hooked on methamphetamine and wanted to go back to jail to get clean, a police report states. The second time, in August, he abandoned a stolen pickup in the middle of a busy overpass and was armed with a large hunting knife when he appeared to lunge at officers.
Torres, reportedly diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, spent the last years of his life in and out of jail and prison for crimes often tied to addiction and mental illness.
And now his three children are left without a father.
“I wish he was still here so he could see the kids, be there for them, see them grow up. It hurts, it hurts my heart,” said Maggie Calderon, Torres’ ex-girlfriend and the mother of his children. In June, Calderon and the three kids visited the bridge where Torres was fatally shot to commemorate what would have been his 37th birthday.
“I have to face the fact that he’s gone,” Calderon said. “… I just always had that hope in my heart that he would be here for them.”
The district attorney determined that the fatal police shooting of Torres on Aug. 21, 2016 was justified. But could it have been prevented? Programs in Houston and Santa Fe could be models for how area law enforcement agencies can respond to crises sparked by people whose actions are determined as much by mental illness and substance abuse as willful defiance of the law.
The system of care designed to help people dealing with mental health issues in Doña Ana County and New Mexico has taken many hits in recent years — most notably in mid-2013 when Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration abruptly froze Medicaid payments to 15 community mental health and addiction care providers across New Mexico, including four that provided services in Doña Ana County, over allegations of fraud.
The allegations disappeared in 2016 when the attorney general found no pattern of wrongdoing or fraud in any of the organizations.
But the damage was already done. The funding freeze caused chaos for health workers and thousands of patients in Doña Ana County alike. The system has not yet recovered.
Meanwhile, law enforcement is increasingly filling the societal need of dealing with people in crisis, an analysis of 911 call data shows. The year after Martinez’s Medicaid freeze, calls to 911 for behavioral health-related issues or suicidal ideations rose in Doña Ana County — and the number of calls climbed again in 2015 and 2016.
Such emergency calls to the Mesilla Valley Regional Dispatch Authority hit a six-year high in 2016 – with a total of 5,771, an increase of almost 20 percent since 2011.
Those calls place a heavy burden on law enforcement officers and other first responders. They tie up time and resources. First responders aren’t always trained or equipped to deal with such situations. And by the time society’s infrastructure to help people in crisis has failed, and officers with guns face people in crisis, all of their lives, and those of anyone else nearby, can be in danger.
That’s what happened the day Torres died.
He was supposed to be behind bars, but miscommunication between the court and jail allowed him to bond out days earlier. Then, on a Sunday afternoon when people in Doña Ana County were mourning a police officer who had been shot and killed days earlier, Torres carried out a violent crime spree in Las Cruces that ended in the middle of the Lohman Avenue bridge over Interstate 25. He was armed and shirtless.
Police video shows him taking a swig from the beer bottle while an officer commanded him to drop his knife. Seconds later, Torres lunged and two Las Cruces police officers fired seven bullets into his body.
A troubled life
Through dozens of pages of police reports and court filings, a portrait emerges of Torres as a man who failed to stay away from trouble or get control of his addictions, even though he at times expressed a desire to get clean.
Between 1999 and 2016, he was jailed 17 times at the Doña Ana County Detention Center, served seven stints in state prison, and violated parole/probation nine times, records show.
As a self-proclaimed gang member who went by the nickname “Chucky,” he also had at least 22 encounters with LCPD officers between 2003 and 2016 before the bridge shooting, according to police reports.
His first felony conviction came in March 2002, at age 21, when he pleaded no contest to aggravated battery against a household member. Then in 2004 he led LCPD officers on a vehicle and foot chase following an assault call. Torres, in 2005, pleaded no contest to 10 charges after that incident and received a partially suspended sentence and probation.
A judge revoked his probation in November 2006, and he served two years in prison. He was released in January 2008 and was out only five months before being accused of violently beating his then-girlfriend (not Calderon). He was charged with kidnapping and battery.
That girlfriend told police at the time that a drunken Torres – who was still on supervised probation – began punching her while she was sleeping on June 21, 2008. She yelled to wake up others, she told police. But Torres shot back, “Shut up bitch, or I’ll hit harder,” a police report stated. He pinned her and punched her repeatedly in the face and head, she said. She lost consciousness.
She woke up later that night in a “pool of blood on the bed,” she said. She walked into a bathroom and Torres attacked her again.
He pulled her by her hair into the bedroom, she told police, “where he threw her on the bed and began to punch her and knee her again,” according to the report. She said she woke up around 10 a.m. the next morning. Torres was gone.
A judge approved a warrant for Torres’ arrest three days later, court records show. But he wasn’t arrested in that case until about nine months later, in February 2009. Months after that, in August 2009, he pleaded no contest to the charges.
Torres was sentenced to nearly 15 years in prison but ordered to serve only four years behind bars, followed by two years of parole and five years of probation, according to sentencing documents signed by then-Judge Stephen Bridgforth.
With credit for good time, Torres was released from prison in June 2011 — on his 31st birthday — after serving less than two years. He was to serve five years of probation.
He didn’t have any criminal problems until 2013, at which time he began racking up probation violations and cycling in and out of jail and prison for the last three years of his life.
Torres served about four months in prison in 2013 for a probation violation before being released in October. The following month he tested positive for meth and opioids and admitted to drug use, according to a petition to revoke his probation that was later dismissed by prosecutors.
That was the year Martinez’s administration froze funding to the 15 behavioral health providers in New Mexico — a move that ultimately left many vulnerable residents without services.
It is unclear if Torres, whose mental state appeared to be deteriorating, independently sought treatment during that time. However, the Parole Board sanctioned Torres and ordered that he successfully complete a treatment program in Silver City.
That never happened.
Torres failed to report to the Yucca Lodge Chemical Dependency Treatment Center on Dec. 31, 2013 and again on Jan. 1, 2014, according to a report by Parole-Probation Officer Jacob Martinez.
Torres told Martinez on Jan. 1, 2014 that he was on the brink of relapse, the report stated. Martinez arranged for Torres to be picked up by police and taken to jail for an overnight stay.
The following day, when Torres reported to the office, he said “he was having bad anxiety” and did not want to go to Yucca Lodge for treatment “because he felt unsafe.” He said he thought someone was following him and two vehicles had been circling his house the previous night. Martinez described Torres as “anxious and extremely paranoid.”
A counselor determined Torres’ “mental state was not stable” enough to participate in the program at Yucca Lodge and offered other options, but Torres refused each one, according to Martinez’s report. Instead, Torres pleaded to go to jail because, Martinez’s report stated, “he felt better in a controlled environment and would know how to handle himself better.”
Torres could not resist using illegal drugs and was refusing help, Martinez wrote, so he was an “unsuitable” candidate for probation. He recommended that Torres be incarcerated so he could “participate in the many therapies and groups that are offered in the New Mexico Department of Corrections prison system and hopefully he will learn to make better choices.”
Torres was in prison from Jan. 30, 2014, until June 29, 2015.
A common problem
It’s not uncommon for people like Torres to end up in jail or prison. A 2006 study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that an estimated 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners and 64 percent of jail inmates nationwide have a mental health condition.
In Doña Ana County, about 40 percent of inmates at the county jail received treatment for mental health conditions in 2016, according to the Doña Ana Wellness Institute and Stepping Up Partnership, a group of judicial, medical, law enforcement and community stakeholders who work collaboratively to help people with mental health illness stay out of jail.
“In my 19-year career in law enforcement with LCPD, we’ve always (encountered) a large number of people that were dealing with mental crisis,” LCPD Deputy Chief Justin Dunivan said.
Dunivan, who represents LCPD on the wellness initiative, said the department has been tackling the issue head-on through crisis intervention training and community partnerships.
“We are now doing a better job, in my opinion, of working together not only with law enforcement and the medical field but within the community to try to help reduce these numbers,” he said.
As of October, 73 percent of commissioned officers at LCPD had been certified in crisis intervention training, according to spokesman Dan Trujillo. Cadets have been required since 2010 to earn such certification during LCPD’s academy by completing 40 hours of training. The eventual goal is training for all officers, Dunivan said.
Between 2006 and 2016, LCPD officers responded to 2,274 calls involving mentally ill people, according to department figures. They also responded to 3,182 incidents involving people with suicidal ideations and 2,841 incidents involving people who were taken into protective custody in that 11-year period.
For Dunivan, the keys questions are: “How do we try to reduce these numbers, and how do we get these individuals the appropriate treatment that they need?”
Torres was out of prison for only 10 days in June 2015 before police encountered him again. He called 911 to report that he was being followed. When police showed up, he fled into a hotel in Las Cruces and attempted to barricade himself in a bathroom. “Give me a gun so I can shoot myself,” he told officers, according to a police report.
LCPD officers used a Taser to subdue him so they could take him to MountainView Regional Medical Center for evaluation, according to a police report.
Torres was back on the streets less than a week later. He called 911 from various locations, claiming he was being followed, according to another report. Officers considered charging him with making false reports, but later learned that he was “bipolar and schizophrenic” and had been recently discharged from Mesilla Valley Hospital, the report stated.
Dealing with such situations can tax law enforcement resources. By law, officers taking individuals into protective custody must accompany them to the hospital and wait by their side until they are admitted into an emergency room. That could mean an officer is sitting at the hospital for anywhere from one to five hours, or sometimes longer, Dunivan said.
Detective Robyn Gojkovich of the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Department, which has been grappling with a deputy shortage for years, said such calls take resources away from other cases.
“We have other crimes we have to investigate, and instead we’re helping these families out, because who else can they turn to? Everybody else has basically shut the door,” Gojkovich said.
Dunivan said the process must be improved to shorten hospital waits because, “ultimately, that person needs medical treatment.” He is now looking to the Houston Police Department for a possible solution.
About 10 years ago, Houston established the nation’s first mental health division in a law enforcement agency, under the direction of then Commander Mike Lee.
The Houston model has teams of officers trained in crisis intervention and mental health care workers who respond to calls involving people in crisis. Houston police also rolled out a new diversion drop-off facility about 10 years ago. It’s a place officers can take mentally ill offenders instead of jail, Lee said in an interview.
“It started this huge cultural change, and change in the way of thinking for officers of how to deal with people who are committing offenses or acting out due to illness and not due to criminality,” Lee said. Today, he oversees the newly created Mental Health & Jail Diversion Bureau at the Houston-area Harris County Sheriff’s Office, where he is a major.
As part of their reforms, Houston police also streamlined the process of transporting mentally ill individuals to hospitals. What once took seven pages of forms and had to be notarized by a judge is now a one-page form, Lee said.
“Now, the officer can hand over the person quickly to the staff and help them get treated very quickly,” he said. “We a took a process that was taking four to six hours of frustration to the officers, consumers and hospitals and turned that into a process that was taking half an hour.”
Breaking the cycle
By the end of July 2015, Torres was back in prison after he was found at a gas station under the influence of a synthetic cannabinoid. He was released on April 25, 2016.
He was on the streets for only one day.
That’s when LCPD Officer Alejandro Rodriguez encountered Torres standing next to his cruiser holding a beer outside a Las Cruces convenience store. In the report detailing the incident, Rodriguez wrote that Torres refused commands to step away from the vehicle and taunted him.
Torres chugged the beer and tossed it in a trash can, the report stated. He then advanced on Rodriguez, appearing “high on something or just highly intoxicated” and asked the officer what he would do if he shoplifted beer or pulled out the knife that was in his pocket. Several times, Rodriguez asked Torres to walk away, but Torres didn’t.
Rodriguez called for backup. He and Sgt. Feliciano Garcia found a handmade shank in Torres’ pocket during a pat-down search.
Torres told Rodriguez he wanted to go back to jail because “he had just gotten out of prison and got immediately hooked on meth,” Rodriguez wrote in the report. Torres believed jail “was going to be his way away from it,” the report stated.
Torres got his wish. He walked into the nearby convenience store, grabbed a 24-ounce can of beer, left without paying for it and drank it in front of the officers, who then arrested him. He later told LCPD he planned to use the shank “as a tactic to go back to jail.”
Jail records show Torres was booked into the Doña Ana County Detention Center that evening on charges of public intoxication, shoplifting, carrying a deadly weapon and assault on a peace officer. He was released within two days.
A month later, on May 29, 2016, he was arrested yet again — this time on charges of shoplifting alcohol and drinking in public. His probation was revoked. That incident set in motion events that would eventually end with his death.
Some people like Torres struggle with life outside the structure of incarceration.
According to Dunivan, the Doña Ana Wellness Institute is working to keep people like Torres, who are in crisis, from reoffending by enhancing existing resources, such as services to help with re-entering society, and developing a comprehensive behavioral health crisis response system.
But affordable housing, transportation and jobs also are needed to reduce recidivism, he said.
Calderon, Torres’ ex-girlfriend, suggested that Torres had trouble finding stable housing and keeping on top of his medications when he was not behind bars.
“He was on medication when he got out of prison. He told me they had gave him a bunch of medication,” she said. “But when his mom kicks him out on the street and he has nowhere to go, where is he going to refill his prescription? How is he going to get anywhere but walking here and there? Of course you’re going to be depressed. And if you don’t take your medication, it does mess with your head.”
In fiscal year 2011, 3,440 inmates were released from the New Mexico Department of Corrections, according to a 2012 legislative report. Within three years of release, 46 percent were back in prison. Within five years it was 53 percent.
“It’s paramount if we want to break this cyclical pattern — not just specific to people if they have a mental health crisis but if they have a drug addiction — they have to have housing, they have to have transportation, they have to have a job to integrate back into society to become a productive member,” Dunivan said. Unfortunately, he said, finding funding for such resources is a challenge.
Dunivan is looking for solutions in other programs, like Houston’s, that have been successful in helping police departments address behavioral health issues. Another program he’s studying is Santa Fe’s LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program, which is based off a program that got its start in Seattle.
LEAD, which Santa Fe started in 2014, is a pre-arrest diversion program for people who have, as “the root cause of their criminal activity,” an opiate addiction, said Santa Fe’s LEAD Program Manager Shelly Moeller.
Instead of going through the cycle of arrest, incarceration and prosecution, offenders are diverted into heavily case-managed treatment programs and services to help with their addictions, Moeller said.
Santa Fe implemented the program in response to a spike in property crimes committed by people addicted to heroin and other opiates, said Jerome Sanchez, the former property crimes sergeant for the Santa Fe Police Department who co-chaired the task force that created the LEAD program. In an interview, he described discovering that the problem “wasn’t for a lack of law enforcement effort,” but instead due to addiction.
“Every single person we were running into on the streets is addicted to heroin. There’s not a single person — not one — that we’ve interviewed that has not been addicted,” Sanchez, who is now a consultant for LEAD, recalled telling the police chief.
In Las Cruces, property crimes declined by about 5 percent in 2016, according to data released this year by the FBI. However, drug offenses increased by about 15 percent in 2016, according to LCPD data. Moeller said she has been in discussions with LCPD and Doña Ana County’s Health and Human Services Department, among others, about establishing a LEAD program in Las Cruces. She said the stakeholders are planning to host their first meeting before the end of the year.
The LEAD program in Santa Fe starts at the first contact with law enforcement, Moeller said. Officers are trained to identify potential candidates for the program and ask them to participate.
From there, a case manager is called to the scene to provide “harm reduction” education, which emphasizes safe drug use. “Upon first contact with a client, case managers provide overdose prevention education and make sure the client has Narcan and access to clean syringes and other harm reduction services,” Moeller said. From there, participants begin individualized treatment plans and set goals.
Potential clients who do not agree to participate are arrested and charged for their alleged crimes. But that’s rare, Moeller said. Out of about 150 referrals, only two have been arrested because they declined to join the program.
Sanchez said one of the biggest challenges in Santa Fe was getting officers on board.
“It’s very difficult for officers to understand and to wrap their heads around not arresting people because it’s not something that they’re used to,” he said.
Still, Sanchez said the program has been successful. She recalled its second client, who came in barefoot. “I literally didn’t think she would last until the end of the day, and I honestly thought she would be dead,” Sanchez recalled. Today, he said, that client “has completely transformed her life. She’s no longer homeless, she’s working, she self-supporting herself and fully functioning.”
Another client, Sanchez said, had been to nine treatment centers and not had any success before LEAD. “She’s also completely turned around her life and we’re even considering hiring her,” he said.
Moeller said LEAD costs about $650,000 to operate per year. It is partly funded by the city of Santa Fe, with help from grants and reimbursements from Medicaid and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
According to the LEAD website, a cost-benefit analysis conducted in 2013 of 100 individuals arrested by Santa Fe police for opiate possession or sales revealed a cost of more than $4 million between 2010 and 2012, or an average of $42,000 per individual, for incarceration. The projected cost of a LEAD client, by contrast, was estimated at $34,000 per individual over a total of three years.
An improper release
No such program existed in Las Cruces to offer Torres when he was arrested in May 2016 for shoplifting alcohol and drinking in public. Instead, in June of last year, a petition was filed to revoke his probation. He remained at the county jail, held on a $5,000 secured bond, until he appeared before Judge Douglas Driggers in 3rd Judicial District Court on Aug. 11.
“The petition to revoke probation contains four separate allegations that you violated your probation,” Driggers told Torres, according to a recording of the hearing obtained by the Sun-News. “As to the allegations contained in this petition … do you admit or deny?”
“I admit the allegations,” Torres said.
“The court will accept your admission and hereby revokes your probation,” Driggers responded.
Before he was sentenced, Torres said he wanted to “thank the court for allowing me the opportunity” to be unsatisfactorily discharged from probation. He was sentenced to one year and 290 days in prison, the balance of his original 14-year term from the 2008 kidnapping case.
Torres should have been transported after that from the county jail to the state prison system. But the system failed that day — failed to protect Torres from himself, and the public from a man that law enforcement considered dangerous.
Torres shouldn’t have been allowed to post bond. But that’s what happened. He was released Aug. 12, 2016, the day after the hearing before Driggers, when the Socorro-based Priority 1 Bailbonds Inc. received funds to pay the $5,000 bond. The bond had remained in effect even though Driggers sentenced Torres to prison.
The mix-up is something Driggers said he had never before seen happen before in his 14 years on the bench.
“The jail is to hold the defendant until he is transported to the Corrections Department to serve his time,” Driggers said in an interview. But in this case, after Torres was sentenced to prison but before Driggers’ order was filed, Torres posted bond, according to Driggers. He blamed “a lack of communication between the court and the jail” for allowing Torres to get out.
To ensure an improper release doesn’t happen again, Driggers said he’ll issue a separate detention order in future cases to require that a defendant remain in custody “so that there isn’t a misstep.”
Driggers said he believes the error would have been eventually caught after Torres bonded out, and a warrant would have been issued for his arrest. But that hadn’t yet happened nine days after Torres’ release – when he caught the attention of police for the last time on Aug. 21, 2016.
The final encounter
It was a somber Sunday as thousands of mourners, including scores of police officers, gathered at the Pan American Center to bid farewell to Officer José Israel Chavez of the Hatch Police Department. Chavez had been shot and killed by an armed fugitive on Aug. 12.
Meanwhile, police say Torres stole a white Chevrolet pickup from an 86-year-old man around 3 p.m. near the intersection of Lohman Avenue and Solano Drive, west of the Lohman bridge over Interstate 25. Soon after, officers spotted and pursued the pickup near the intersection of Lohman and Foothills Road, on the other side of the Lohman bridge. They stopped the pursuit because of heavy traffic.
Around 4:30 p.m., police saw the pickup drive past the initial crime scene, back on the west side of the Lohman bridge.
Sgt. Michael Henke and Officers Johnathan Boehne and Christopher Gamez followed the pickup east toward the bridge, but they again broke off the pursuit near Walton Boulevard because of heavy traffic.
Less than a minute later, officers caught up with the pickup. It was abandoned on Lohman, in the eastbound lanes above the interstate. Torres was walking away from the truck, armed with a large hunting knife and carrying a bottle of beer.
A 26-second video recorded by Boehne’s lapel camera captured the encounter. Boehne swerved around traffic to get to the abandoned pickup. He stopped behind another patrol unit, stepped out and drew his firearm as he spotted Torres approach a blue Chrysler sedan. According to police, Torres tried to open the door to the car, which was occupied by a man and his 10-year son, but couldn’t because it was locked.
Boehne’s video shows the blue sedan slowly driving away while Torres walked west, took a swig from the beer bottle and held the knife. Boehne yelled:
“Drop the knife! Get out of the way! Drop the knife! Drop the knife, now! Drop the knife. Drop the knife! Put it on the ground! Drop the knife!”
Torres gestured at Boehne and said something as the officer issued two final commands. Then he appeared to lunge toward Boehne. Although the video cuts off at that point, LCPD said Boehne and Henke fired their weapons, striking Torres seven times.
The bullets ended a life plagued by substance abuse, mental illness and many years in incarceration.
A few weeks later, the district attorney determined that the shooting was justified under New Mexico law, clearing Henke and Boehne of any wrongdoing.
LCPD has declined to discuss the shooting, citing pending litigation. Less than a month after the shooting, an attorney representing Torres’ family, Gary Mitchell of Ruidoso, sent a tort notice to the city seeking damages for what he called Torres’ wrongful death. Mitchell has not returned calls seeking comment on the ligation.
Torres left behind a grieving family.
“This is where the father of my kids, Gabe Torres, got shot and died,” Calderon said while walking over the Lohman bridge in June, when she and her children marked Torres’ birthday at the spot where he died.
“Ever since then, it’s been really hard for the kids — and for me as a mother to see my kids hurt,” Calderon said.
She spoke as passing vehicles honked at the family. That brought back painful memories of a candlelight vigil the family held in 2016, soon after Torres’ death. During that gathering, Calderon recalled that motorists honked and some yelled things like, “He deserved it; go to hell.”
Calderon said she wishes people would be more sympathetic to families in such circumstances.
“Nobody knows what he was going through,” she said. “All they know is that, oh, he had a knife. He has tattoos. He has a bottle of beer, and basically they labeled him. And that’s what people do — is judge people.”
This article is part of a multi-newsroom investigative series that examines southern New Mexico’s struggling behavioral health system and explores solutions. Click here to read more.