Local case drew national attention

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By David Giuliani

Las Vegas has its divisions, but it generally enjoys “relative harmony,” a local historian said at a banquet Friday.

But from time to time, things come to a head, Las Vegas attorney Jesus Lopez said at the annual banquet of the Citizens Committee for Historic Preservation.

Lopez, who has a local history program on KFUN every Monday, was the banquet’s keynote speaker. The committee honored property owners who have improved their historic buildings in recent times.

Lopez told a story of a famous dispute involving freedom of speech and of the press that happened in Las Vegas in the 1920s. Few people at the event seemed to know about it.

Here’s the story as recounted by Lopez:

Carl Magee, a partisan Democrat and the editor of the Albuquerque State Journal, railed against the state’s corrupt Republican machine, based in Las Vegas and run by Secundino Romero of the local Romero dynasty.

“Many of those individuals attacked by Carl Magee took it in stride. It was politics after all. Not Secundino Romero. Not the man whose family had ruled Las Vegas and San Miguel County and New Mexico for the last 50 years,” Lopez said.

All of the local officials were picked by Romero, including District Judge David Leahy and District Attorney Luis Armijo.

In 1923, Romero asked Armijo to do something about Magee, saying the editor had violated the criminal libel law.

Armijo was reluctant to move on Romero’s request, recognizing the slippery slope he was on.

But Magee was charged anyway and San Miguel County Sheriff Lorenzo Delgado went to Albuquerque to apprehend the editor.

“It became, to say the least, a cause célebre. The headlines of the day were about how could this be happening in the United States of America. They (press) pointed out that it was this backward New Mexico that had only been a part of the country for 11 years,” Lopez said.

Magee got a team of lawyers, including Dennis Chavez, later a U.S. senator — “the greatest Hispanic leader in the history of the United States, in my opinion,” Lopez said.

The 12 members of the San Miguel County jury could only speak Spanish, so the proceedings had to be translated.

“Dennis Chavez and the other attorneys argued that Judge Leahy shouldn’t even let the case proceed another moment. The Constitution of the United States protected Carl Magee,” Lopez said.
The jury quickly returned a guilty verdict.

Leahy sentenced Magee to 364 days in jail. But the state’s Democratic governor, James Hinkle, pardoned the editor.

Romero was disappointed that Armijo hadn’t been more aggressive with Magee, particularly perturbed that the DA had arranged for security for Magee while he was in Las Vegas.

The two men parted ways, and Armijo ran against Leahy for judge and won. He served on the local bench until 1965.

In 1925, Magee attended a convention in Las Vegas and stayed at the Meadows Hotel (now El Fidel). He was seated in the lobby talking to others when Leahy walked up and attacked the editor with a cane.

Magee pulled out a pistol and shot the former judge in the arm. But that didn’t stop Leahy, whom Lopez called a “crusty Irishman.”
Magee fired a second shot, but a bystander had tried to intervene to stop the two. That person took the bullet and died.

Magee was charged with manslaughter, but Armijo refused to let the case go to the jury.

“He announced from the bench that it was self-defense and that Magee couldn’t be, under any circumstances, found guilty,” Lopez said.

Armijo served as the “de facto patron of San Miguel, Mora and Guadalupe counties.”

“Nothing could be done without the express permission of Louie Armijo. He had succeeded the great Secundino Romero,” Lopez said.
Romero died in 1929 and was the “last of the great patrons of New Mexico.”