Taos officer cleared in shooting

A body camera worn by Taos Police Department Officer Luke Martinez captured the moment he fired shots that wounded a civilian at Fred Baca Park in Taos on Aug. 28.
John Miller
Posted

Taos Police Department Officer Luke Martinez has been cleared of criminal wrongdoing following an interdepartmental investigation and a separate examination by the Eighth Judicial District Attorney’s Office into an Aug. 28 officer-involved shooting that left a 20-year-old Taos woman wounded.

Martinez fired the shot that struck victim Elizabeth Maestas in the lower abdomen as she rode in a vehicle driven by parole absconder Requildo E. Cárdenas, 36, at Fred Baca Park in Taos. Cardenas was allegedly attempting to flee and strike officers as they tried to serve a warrant for his arrest.

He was arrested following the shooting, and Maestas was rushed to University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, where she underwent surgery to remove her spleen. She recovered from her injury in the days that followed.

According to the investigation, neither Maestas nor Cárdenas were engaged in criminal activity prior to the officers’ arrival. Nor were they in possession of any weapons, narcotics or drug paraphernalia. A search of public court records also did not reveal any criminal history for Maestas.

New Mexico State Police compiled evidence of the event and recently released videos captured by body cameras worn by Martinez and  Taos Police Chief David Trujillo, who was recently appointed as the head of the department.

The footage appears to match the narrative contained in police reports released following the event, but a question remains as to whether the charges Cárdenas picked up on Aug. 28 – including three counts of aggravated assault upon a peace officer – will hold up as his case moves through court.

Video evidence

According to police reports, Martinez was called to assist probation and parole officers Gabriel Martinez and Augustine Pacheco, who had followed a teal Saturn sedan into the park’s north side parking lot. Upon identifying Cárdenas behind the wheel, they called for backup to make the arrest.

Martinez’s body cam starts rolling just as he arrives at the parking lot, where he exits his vehicle, draws his sidearm and begins shouting commands at Cárdenas. “Get your [expletive] hands up right now,” he repeats several times. Cárdenas initially complies as Martinez approaches the open driver’s side window.

Simultaneously, Gabriel Martinez and Pacheco approach and open the passenger-side door. They are attempting to remove Maestas from the vehicle, when Cárdenas lowers his right hand, places the vehicle in gear and quickly reverses into a car behind him. Cárdenas then drives forward as Luke Martinez holds his weapon on the vehicle and shouts, “Stop.” Cárdenas ignores the command and continues driving as Martinez fires two shots.

Maestas screams, “He just shot me” after the second shot goes off.

The officer then reaches for the radio and reports, “shots fired, shots fired,” to Taos Central Dispatch. He keeps his weapon held on Cárdenas as the Saturn rolls backward to a stop.

Additional support from Taos Police Department, New Mexico State Police and the Taos County Sheriff’s Office arrives on the scene within minutes.

While sirens grow in the background, Martinez moves to the passenger-side of the vehicle to administer first-aid to Maestas. Police say the young Taos woman was struck by a bullet “fragment," not directly by a round.

Trujillo arrives on scene, removes the officer’s body camera and weapon and places both pieces of equipment into evidence bags.

Martinez was temporarily relieved of duty immediately following the shooting.

Investigation

District Attorney Donald Gallegos said that after reviewing the evidence and documentation compiled by state police, Martinez did not commit a crime.

“The closest crime that could have been committed would have been aggravated battery with a deadly weapon,” he said. “With that, we have to prove intent. We have to consider if there was justification for the shooting. Given that [Martinez] was trying to protect other officers, there’s just no way that we could have met our burden at trial.”

If and when the case does go to trial, however, the prosecution will also have to meet the burden of evidence to prove that Cárdenas was attempting to cause bodily harm to the officers, and not just attempting to flee.

Trujillo reflected Gallegos’ statements, adding that every situation a police officer faces is unique. Given the same circumstances, and citing what he referred to as “reasonable objectivity,” Trujillo said that he would have taken the same actions as Martinez. “There are a lot of dynamics in these situations,” he said, “and there are a lot of human dynamics.”

Trujillo said that Martinez has been working as a police officer for approximately two and a half years. Trujillo has worked as an officer for 18 years. He said he’s never fired a shot on duty.

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