Bizarre doesn’t even begin to describe the year that was.
It was a year in which Mike Melton kissed a pig, literally, and in public no less.
A year that Vegas residents awoke one August morning to the sounds of helicopters hovering above as agents in dark SUVs executed raids on houses throughout the city.
The year that Highlands University threw a $50,000 extravaganza for President Jim Fries, complete with a sultry Marilyn Monroe lookalike singing “Happy Anniversary, Mr. President” to Fries as he sat on a throne.
OK, those events I can explain.
But the Mora County sheriff’s deputy charged with ripping off a pair of green panties while responding to a call at a residence? Or the now former city employee arrested for stabbing another worker during a break from a city safety training?
And who could forget the secret recording of the Mora sheriff and his deputy angrily shouting at one another and nearly coming to blows over the sheriff’s order to release a suspected drunk driver?
It’s no wonder that television productions — “Longmire” and “Vegas” — set up shop in and around Las Vegas this year. Who needs Hollywood writers when you’ve got real-life drama like this unfolding around you?
What follows is a look at the top stories that dominated Optic headlines in 2012:
Smack City takedown
Federal and state law enforcement officers swooped in on helicopters and black SUVs at daybreak Aug. 8 and with the help of local police began executing a series of arrests and search warrants in Las Vegas. The event marked the culmination of a 10-month multi-agency investigation dubbed “Operation Smack City.”
The investigation targeted a heroin and crack cocaine distribution network operating in San Miguel County and was spearheaded by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The operation resulted in federal indictments against 25 people, most of them from Las Vegas. Those indicted are facing narcotics trafficking charges.
The carnage continued
Rudolph “Rudy” Muniz of Mora County ran a stop sign at the intersection of Lincoln and Grand Avenue on Feb. 3, killing his friend, Manuel Olivas, and severely injuring two others. Muniz’s blood alcohol content at the time was .25, more than three times the state’s presumed level of intoxication.
It was his seventh DWI. Muniz entered a guilty plea in the case and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Another high-profile DWI case is still making its way through the courts.
Zach Smith and his pregnant wife, Aileen, were driving on Interstate 25 near Las Vegas in June when they were hit by another suspected drunk driver, Ramon Hernandez, of Santa Fe, who has at least three prior DWIs. Their baby, Dimitri, died about a minute after being born at a Santa Fe hospital.
The Smiths have joined with Gov. Susana Martinez in calling for stricter DWI laws in New Mexico. Hernandez is facing a vehicular homicide charge.
Upset of the year
Rep. Richard Vigil, D-Ribera, lost his bid for re-election to the state House during the June primary. Vigil was ousted from the post he held for 14 years by retired Highlands professor Tomas Salazar.
Salazar, who had no Republican opponent in the general election, begins his four-year term on Jan. 1.
Sen. Pete Campos, meanwhile, staved off a challenge from Rep. Thomas Garcia to hold onto his Senate seat. Garcia was left without a seat in the legislature, thanks, in part, to redistricting.
Party of the century
Admittedly, it’s a young century. But this party is going to be tough to beat. The Wilson Complex was transformed from a basketball arena to an elegant ballroom in April for what was dubbed 2012 NMHU President’s Gala—Dollars for Scholars.
The event, emceed by actor and comedian Steven Michael Quezada, marked Jim Fries’ five-year anniversary as Highlands president and raised $100,000 for scholarships. A humble Fries played along as he was “roasted,” and he was even a good sport when Lisa Cisneros surprised him with a rendition of “Happy Anniversary, Mr. President,” a spoof of Marilyn Monroe’s infamous “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” performance.
Best of all, the extravaganza was organized by a 54-member committee of area movers and shakers, proving that it is possible to get something done in Las Vegas without the infighting.
It wasn’t all fun and games, at least not for disgraced former teacher Jay Quintana, who finally admitted to having sex with a Robertson High school student. He pleaded guilty in June to two counts of criminal sexual penetration by school personnel in a deal that kept him out of prison.
He cried during his sentencing hearing in November, apologizing to the victim and her family and telling the court that the ordeal had cost his family dearly. He was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to register as a sex offender.
Issue of the year
The issue that seemed to have everyone up in arms this year wasn’t DWI deaths or sex offenders. It was hydraulic fracturing or fracking, the process in which water, sand and chemicals are used to crack open rock deep below the surface to free oil and gas.
A sizable group of activists, fearful of the environmental consequences of fracking, has been fighting for an outright ban to the practice in Las Vegas and San Miguel County as the oil-and-gas industry appears to be taking an interest in this area.
The Las Vegas City Council passed a community rights ordinance in April that makes it unlawful for any corporation to engage in the extraction of oil, natural gas, or other hydrocarbons within the city and its watersheds. Mayor Alfonso Ortiz, who doesn’t have veto power, has refused to sign the controversial law, saying it’s unconstitutional and violates the city charter because it seeks to strip corporations of their rights — while activists have threatened to take Ortiz to court to force him to sign the ordinance. The matter remained unresolved as the year drew to a close.
San Miguel County, meanwhile, is in the process of developing an oil-and-gas drilling ordinance of its own. After holding hearings and listening to hours of public comment on the issue, the commission voted earlier this month to hire a Los Angeles attorney to draft an ordinance for the county. Robert H. Freilich helped draft Santa Fe County’s ordinance, which the industry has criticized as being much too restrictive.
Any way you look at it, 2012 was a bad year for Mora Sheriff Thomas Garza.
His troubles started on April 7 when he interjected himself into a DWI stop made by his deputies. Then-deputy Lee Allingham, who was fired by the sheriff that evening, got into a heated altercation with Garza. Allingham accused the sheriff of intervening in the DWI case in an effort to let the suspect, Patrick Trujillo, now 39, of Chacon, walk. Trujillo, who had a blood alcohol content that was about twice the state’s presumed level of intoxication, was eventually charged with DWI.
Part of the altercation between the sheriff and the deputy was recorded by another deputy. Captured on that recording, which was played on television newscasts statewide, is the sheriff saying he can do whatever he wants and ordering one of his deputies to let Trujillo go.
Garza claims that during the heated exchange, Allingham was poking him in the chest and that Allingham even pushed him. Allingham claims that Garza grabbed his arm and began twisting it.
The case against Garza was handed over to the Attorney General’s Office six months ago for a decision on whether the sheriff should be criminally charged. As of a few weeks ago, the AGs office had yet to make a determination.
The state Law Enforcement Academy board did, however, take prompt action against Garza, voting in July to suspend his law enforcement certification for 120 days. He continued to carry out his administrative duties during the suspension.
It was a year of leadership changes at two area school districts.
In October — less than two-and-a-half years after being selected for Mora Independent School District’s top post, embattled Superintendent Thomas Garcia resigned. Garcia’s resignation followed an overwhelming no-confidence vote against him from school employees, a protracted and nasty battle with many of the district’s parents and students over the suspension of the popular music teacher and dwindling support from the Mora community. The district hired Tom Sullivan as interim superintendent.
The West Las Vegas School District also experienced a leadership change.
Superintendent Ruben Cordova notified the board in August that he was retiring. The board promoted Associate Superintendent Gene Parson to the district’s top post.
Sheryl McNellis-Martinez, meanwhile, shed the “interim” from her job title in 2012.
The Las Vegas City Schools board voted to award her a two-year contract, ensuring that she will be the superintendent of the east-side school district through the 2013-14 school year.
Rivalry of the year
In city politics, Mayor Alfonso Ortiz and Councilwoman Tonita Gurule-Giron trounced six other mayoral candidates in March, becoming the first mayoral candidates in city history to face off in a runoff. That set the stage for an epic showdown as the two were bitter rivals at the time.
Ortiz garnered 54.3 percent of the vote in the April runoff to win a four-year term as mayor.
Vince Howell won the Ward 2 council seat in February while Joey Herrera was elected to the Ward 3 Council post in a runoff with Joseph McCaffrey.
If you’re a student at Las Vegas City Schools who loves long weekends, then 2012 was your year. Superintendent Sheryl McNellis-Martinez initially proposed the four-day week as a way to boost the quality of education, saying the proposal wasn’t being made to save money. But later, as a $1.2 million shortfall was being projected for the end of the current fiscal year if no changes were made, the superintendent argued that the four-day week was necessary to help the district overcome its financial woes.
The school board approved the change in June on a 3-2 vote.
New Mexico Highlands University regents voted in February to fire Makwa Builders LLC., the company that had been hired as the general contractor for the university’s student center. The building was supposed to have been completed in December 2011, and it’s $4.8 million over budget. The university and Makwa are in litigation.
Makwa filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October.
Franken Construction is the new general contractor on the project, and Highlands President Jim Fries said recently that the building is very close to completion.
Water rates hiked
After months of public meetings, the City Council voted in September to institute a series of rate hikes over the next four years. The increases will allow the city to raise $21.6 million in bond proceeds, money that will be used to pay for some of the major water system capital improvements that engineers said should be tackled within five years.
The rates approved are expected to increase water system revenues by 27.5 percent this fiscal year, by another 27.5 percent during the 2013-14 fiscal year and then by 3 percent in 2014-15 and another 3 percent in 2015-16.
Where is Cindy?
Cindy Rivera, 19, disappeared from her mother’s home on Peggy Lee Lane in the early morning hours of June 30 and hasn’t been heard from since. Left behind was Rivera’s 1-year-old son.
Rivera’s mother found her daughter’s slippers and her lighter on the ground outside the home along with signs that someone had been dragged. State police have executed a series of search warrants, but Rivera’s whereabouts are still unknown.
Local projects vetoed
Saying that the system for doling out capital outlay dollars in New Mexico is in “dire need of reform,” Gov Susana Martinez in March vetoed $2.5 million in funding earmarked for projects in San Miguel and Mora counties.
Taking the biggest hit was the unfinished Mora County courthouse, which had $1.5 million in funding slashed.
The Watrous area gained a wildlife refuge in 2012. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and a host of other dignitaries attended the dedication ceremony in September for the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge.
The 4,224-acre property — known as the Wind River Ranch — was donated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by the Thaw Charitable Trust.
The Plaza Hotel was thrown into receivership this past summer after Española-based Valley National Bank filed a lawsuit seeking to foreclose on the property. The bank claimed the owners had defaulted on a $5.5 million loan.
Pacific Pearl Hotel Management-Las Vegas LLC was appointed as receiver of the hotel, and the hotel has remained open for business.
Other notable news items
• 2012 was the year that most public employees — those who work at the city, San Miguel County and at Highlands University and Luna Community College — saw a compensation increase.
• Then-city utilities employee Christopher Gallegos was arrested in January for allegedly attacking another employee with a knife outside City Hall during a break from a safety meeting.
• The Rev. John Brasher was transferred to another parish in January after serving as pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows for nearly 10 years.
• “The Vow,” a movie based loosely the book written by former Las Vegas residents Kim and Krickitt Carpenter, premiered in February.
• The West Las Vegas School District regained its fiscal authority from the state in February.
• The Bank of Las Vegas changed its name to Southwest Capital Bank in March.
• Members of the Mora-San Miguel Electric Cooperative received more than $1 million in refunds from the co-op in April.
• Officers of the New Mexico Highlands University police and security department voted no-confidence in Chief Donato Sena in April.
• The Mora Independent School District was awarded a $1.4 million grant in April to help ensure that its students are prepared for college when they graduate.
• New Mexico Highlands University’s School of Education regained its accreditation from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education in May.
• A Mora County sheriff’s deputy was charged in June with a petty misdemeanor for allegedly stealing a woman’s green panties while on duty.
• Las Vegas police were called to Rodriguez Park in June after a La Plaza Little League official pulled a rifle during a game.
• After two years of negative audit opinions, the city of Las Vegas received a clean audit for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2011.
• More than 500 county officials from across the state gathered in Las Vegas in June for the 76th annual New Mexico Association of Counties’ Conference.
• More than 100 members of the New Mexico Association of Educational Retirees’ gathered in Las Vegas in September.
• Mora Magistrate John Sanchez was airlifted to an Albuquerque trauma center in July after he accidentally shot himself with a 30-30 caliber rifle.
• Mike Melton of Southwest Capital Bank won the honor of kissing a pig at the county fair in August. The Kiss A Pig fundraiser netted more than $6,000 for Samaritan House.
• District Judge Abigail Aragon took over as chief judge of the 4th Judicial District in August.
• Luna Community College was awarded a $1.1 million YouthBuild grant in August.
• United World College-USA celebrated its 30th anniversary in September with a community festival.
• The Salvation Army Thrift Store closed its doors in September.
• Team ropers Chris Francis and John Paul Lucero, who both have ties to Las Vegas, captured the 2012 Cinch United States Team Roping Championship in Oklahoma City in October.
• FBI statistics released in October showed that Las Vegas had the highest murder rate in New Mexico in 2011.
• The U.S. Court of Appeals in November shot down Alta Vista Regional Hospital’s attempt to nullify the vote taken by its employees more than five years ago to form a union.
• The city of Las Vegas announced in December that the Pecos League of Professional Baseball Clubs has chosen Las Vegas as a site for one of three expansion teams in the 2013 season.