Prosecutors in Albuquerque, New Mexico have amended charges against a 31-year old former city council member who was arrested on Monday evening after shooting a man during a rowdy protest aimed at tearing down a statue of a Spanish conquistador in the city’s Old Town.
Steven Ray Baca was originally charged with aggravated assault in the shooting, but for the moment anyway, District Attorney Raul Torrez has dropped that charge and instead filed charges of assault and carrying a concealed firearm without a license. Torrez says the investigation into the shooting continues, and it’s possible that Baca could soon face formal charges again in the shooting that left a protester wounded. .
Torrez said he recognizes that people are on edge and deeply divided over a number of issues. Much of the information provided by the community about Monday night’s protest and shooting seems to come from an ideological perspective, he said.
“Frankly, we’ve been put in a situation too many times in this community where investigations are rushed,” he said. “As prosecutors who have to uphold an oath to be objective and impartial, we can’t do that. We have to get it right, and more than anything we have to demonstrate that the criminal justice system works and that it’s fair and it’s impartial.”
There’ve been multiple videos that have emerged in the wake of the shooting which appear to show Baca running from protesters while being attacked. The shots were fired after a protester with a skateboard and what appears to be a knife tried to beat Baca with the long board, but longer videos show that moments earlier, Baca had shoved a woman to the ground in front of a statue that protesters were attempting to tear down.
KRQE-TV in Albuquerque has a pretty good timeline of the chaos on Monday night, which began when protesters once again gathered around the statue of Juan de Oñate and tried to tear it down. Members of a group called the New Mexico Civil Guard, many of them armed, tried to stand between the statue and protesters, while other protesters and counterprotesters engaged in some pushing and shoving.
cameras captured tensions rising between protesters and Baca, who was wearing a blue t-shirt and doesn’t appear to be a militia member. Cell phone video shows Baca standing around during the protest with his arms crossed, a gun not yet visible.
Then, Baca appears to yank a woman to the ground. That’s when a crowd starts after him. “Go home! Get his license plate!” Witnesses are heard shouting in the video. Witnesses told KRQE News 13 that the woman Baca threw to the ground hit her head on the pavement and that’s why the men chased after him.
One man is seen on video hitting Baca with a longboard. Baca shoots off some pepper spray while running away from the crowd. Police said after another man picked up the longboard and hit Baca again, that’s when Baca shot four rounds at the man, hitting him with multiple rounds in the torso.
Prosecutors say they continue to interview eyewitnesses and review video of the incident, and the D.A.’s statement about the need for a fair and impartial investigation is highly appropriate at the moment, given the fact that politicians from New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller have already weighed in with their version of what happened.
Calling it an “unacceptable act of violence,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller denounced a shooting that took place near a protest over a statue of Juan de Oñate. The Mayor says the investigation into what happened will also soon be turned over the New Mexico State Police.
The comments came during a Tuesday news conference hours after city crews removed the statue at the center of Monday’s protest and shooting. In his remarks, Keller blamed the shooting mainly on a single “agitator” that was part of the crowd gathered near 19th and Mountain, hours after a peaceful protest.
“The shooting last night in Old Town at the Oñate sculpture was horrific and unacceptable act of violence, this is something that despite all of that dialogue, should never happen,” Keller said. “Despite the peaceful and meaningful vigil that occurred before, a smaller group remained with very different intentions.”
To hear the mayor tell it, Baca fired shots in cold-blood, not self-defense. Could prosecutors prove that was the case? It’s doubtful at this point. Baca may have acted as an aggressor in pushing a woman down who was backing into him with her arms outstretched to prevent him from moving towards the statue, but once the crowd began to pursue Baca and chase him away, clearly the threat to the woman was abated. Rather than let Baca flee, several members of the crowd chased after Baca, continuing even after he deployed pepper spray to create some distance between himself and the protesters.
Baca drew his gun and fired only after several individuals closed in on him again, with one man swinging that skateboard at Baca’s head. Video of the shooting indicates that the guy with the skateboard also had at least one knife in his hand, further escalating the threat to Baca.
If prosecutors do end up filing charges against Baca for the shooting, they’ll have to show that not only was Baca the initial aggressor in the incident, but that Baca fired his gun with the intent of committing a felony, not defending his life.
Ironically, Baca was at the protest on Monday night to prevent the statue of conquistador from being torn down, but in the wake of the shooting the city of Albuquerque removed the statue that the protesters failed to tear down.
Cultural Services Director Shelle Sanchez said the city had begun calling for community input on Saturday about what should be done about the piece. Then, on Monday, one of the artists who had been commissioned to create it, Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera, contacted the city before the protest to request that the sculpture come down. He signed a waiver on Tuesday morning, which waives his rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act.
“This was out of his personal concern for community safety, as well as for the safekeeping of this sculpture,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said the city will store the piece in a secure location for up to 12 months.
“People are extremely passionate about this statue, and about Oñate, not only today, but for many, many years in our history,” Sanchez said. “Albuquerque, we are better than the violence that we saw last night.”
We’ll see just how much better Albuquerque is if the D.A. decides that aggravated assault charges aren’t appropriate after the investigation concludes. Thanks in part to the comments by politicians, many residents may have already made up their mind that Baca is guilty, and hopefully a decision by the D.A. that Baca was actually acting in self-defense won’t spur additional protests and violence on the city’s streets.