Mary Anne Romero, a former Questa Municipal Court and Taos County Magistrate Court Judge, said she has watched the crime rate in Questa scale higher and higher over the past few decades, but it was not until Halloween night that she said this lawlessness arrived at her own front door.
Romero and her husband, Ernest, were traveling in the southern part of the state on Nov. 1, when they received word that their house at 64 Gallegos Road in Questa had burned on Oct. 31.
A neighbor, who was passing the scorched structure on his way to work the next morning, noted water pooled on the ground around the home and a fire truck parked at the property. The Romeros should return as quickly as possible, the neighbor told Mary Anne Romero in a phone call.
"We were in shock," Romero said. "You go into mourning for your property and are disgusted at what has happened."
The charred structure of the Romero home lies just across the street from the Questa Post Office, which had been scrawled with crude images and incoherent political statements Sunday (Oct. 29). A few weeks later, someone apparently attempted to kick in the glass on one of the post office windows on Nov. 19.
The incidents are among a string of vandalizations in the area, including at least one other recent instance of alleged arson reported not far away between Cerro and Costilla, where a thunderous explosion ignited after some cars were set ablaze at a property in early November.
Romero and her husband say there can be no doubt: their home must have been burned by arsonists, likely part of the same crew they believe has been causing chaos in this small mountain community 30 minutes north of Taos.
Their hope is that Questa and possibly Taos County law enforcement will investigate a connection and that they might eventually reign in what the Romeros and other Questoños say is a rising rate of criminal damage in the area.
Searching for answers
Once they received the news Nov. 1, Romero and her husband immediately picked up the phone and started dialing Questa officials in an attempt to confirm the fire, to rule out the remote possibility that there had been some mistake. But those calls went unanswered, Romero said. So she and her husband loaded their car and headed north to see for themselves.
Their first stop was the Village of Questa office where they met with Nicholas Maestas, village administrator. Maestas confirmed the fire and provided the Romeros with contact information for those who had responded to the scene that night. He also provided the name of the lead investigator, Jim Hill, one of just a couple investigators working for the New Mexico State Fire Marshal, Romero said.
Hill has picked up where local fire chief Mark Ortega left off once a local crew of Questa firefighters, with support from nearby fire departments, doused the blaze on Halloween night.
"It was a first-alarm fire," Ortega said, "which means that other fire departments were called in to support."
Teams from Latir, Red River, Costilla and Llama joined Ortega's crew to fight a blaze that flared out the windows of the home and licked at its exterior. Meanwhile, Questa Police officers controlled the area and blocked traffic as the fire teams kept working.
Sgt. Janni Davis, who works at Questa Police Department, said that her department's call logs show the fire was reported around 10:30 p.m. Davis said there were no suspicious persons spotted in the area that night, and would not comment as to a possible connection to other property damage that has been caused in the area – not until the state investigator comes back with an official finding on the cause of the fire.
The results of the investigation are still pending.
Hoping for change
Romero and her husband pulled up to their burnt home on Nov. 1.
Given the OK by law enforcement, they walked around the property, but did not enter the structure. The outside, Romero said, was mostly unscathed, but the windows were "smoked out." Some were broken. The fire must have been started from the inside, Romero thought.
Three days later, on Friday (Nov. 3), the Romeros returned – this time, with an investigator from Allstate Insurance, who, upon entering the home, confirmed their suspicion of arson, Romero said. They found the front door had been unlocked - something Romero said they never would have done when leaving for an extended stay elsewhere, she said.
Upon entry, they saw that their once colorful home interior had been blackened and gutted.
"It was horrible," Romero said. "It was so sad to see this structure that had been our home burned. You can't see the rooms anymore. The fixtures have all melted. The refrigerator was all melted on the inside and leaning to one side. The cabinets are pretty much all gone."
As a former judge, Romero knows that she has compiled a list of friends – as well as enemies. But the fire at their home, she believes, is part of a larger trend in Questa, one which she hopes law enforcement will finally take seriously as the reports of criminal damage continue to pour in.
"This country is changing," her husband, Ernest Romero said. "We're hoping that investigators will take this and move forward with it."