Updated May 5 at 10:54 a.m.
Prosecutors David Thomas and Meghan Hasser move on from the Eighth Judicial District Attorney's Office at the end of this week, leaving just three attorneys to cover the three counties under the office's jurisdiction - Taos, Colfax and Union – a territory that spans 9,803 square miles.
In an update released Friday morning (May 5), Gallegos said he's already expecting to be "fully staffed" by the end of the month, with "experienced prosecutors" picking up where the exiting attorneys leave off.
"Marcus Montoya will be starting with the office on June 5," Gallegos said via email. "He is a recent graduate of UNM Law School and will work in this office as a law clerk, pending his passing the bar exam. Should he pass, he will then be a full-time prosecutor."
Gallegos said that he is also expecting that a former prosecutor from his office, Tim Hasson, who is currently an attorney with Northern New Mexico Legal Services in Taos, may be returning. "He will hopefully be starting June 5 (possibly earlier)," Gallegos said, and added that a third prospect will be interviewed this coming Tuesday (May 9).
In the meantime, he said that John Lovelace – another attorney with extensive experience prosecuting felony drug cases – will be stepping in next week to help with the caseload and will start full time on May 15.
During their time in Taos, Thomas and Hasser covered everything from juvenile cases to violent felonies - the types the office's chief prosecutor, Donald Gallegos, has been dealing with for the past 16 years.
"David and Meghan will be moving on," Gallegos confirmed during an interview May 2. "I've also lost two in Ratón, and I'll be losing one in Clayton, and I also lost Cisco Gonzalez this year."
Gallegos says he's been here before. "Unfortunately, turnover happens here quite regularly," he said.
The seasoned prosecutor cited a few reasons why. "Sometimes it's the work," he said. "Sometimes they realize it's just not their cup of tea. Other times it's the pay - that's one of the highest reasons. What I'm able to pay them versus what they come out of law school owing, a lot of them on average have about $100,000 dollars in debt, and then you give them a job in the 40s or 50s or the 60s. But people also know they're going to get litigation experience here."
And Gallegos said that they get that experience fast. Lawyers sometimes come in fresh out of school and are often surprised, he said, to find that far-flung communities in Northern New Mexico experience many of the same problems big cities face.
Gallegos sits on the board of the National District Attorney's Association and said that work is being done to alleviate the debt law school students are burdened with right out of the gate, which might lead to higher retention rates in his and other offices.
Other challenges Gallegos mentioned surround disagreements with the local courts. "Sometimes people think our attorneys aren't doing their jobs, but our judges don't get the scrutiny," he said.
Gallegos described a trend of leniency among the courts, particularly in the Eighth Judicial District Court, where felons processed on felony drug charges are often released - sometimes even those with violent charges. He said it's another cause of frustration among his attorneys.
About 1,500 cases are shared through his office. "The recommendation from state experts is about 90-95 for a caseload," he said.
Gallegos says he looks for attorneys who are willing to stay on through all the hurdles that go along with working for his office, and may have found just the right crop during his most recent round of hiring.