Pulling the Trigger

Caption: Dashcam video from New Mexico State Police shows Officer Gene Gonzales at left and Sgt. Robert Carrejo at right. Rodney Applewhite, center, had been kneeling with his hands up, but stood up when the police told him to. Carrejo then approached him with handcuffs.

A New Mexico State Police officer killed two people in crisis within five weeks, and demands for accountability are mounting

By Austin Fisher | Santa Fe Reporter (New Mexico)
May 26, 2021

Read the story, see more photos and watch video clips at the source.

Officer Gene Gonzales drew a bead with his AR-15 rifle on Richard Romero after a long vehicle chase. Romero had fired a gun at law enforcement. Gonzales, a 12-year veteran of New Mexico State Police, pulled the trigger eight times, striking Romero with all but one of his bullets.

Romero, who was 49 and from Los Lunas, was likely living with an undiagnosed mental illness and suffering from suicidal ideations. He died at the scene along Interstate 40 near Laguna Pueblo.

A fellow officer said Gonzales appeared “tense” after the exchange of gunfire on Oct. 17. As is common practice, he was placed on paid leave after the shooting to gather himself and let an investigation proceed—but only for about three weeks, a relatively short period of time, experts say.

He was back on patrol by Nov. 13.

Six days later, Gonzales fatally shot Rodney Applewhite, a 25-year-old Black man who was traveling through New Mexico from South Bend, Indiana. The case grabbed national attention and, initially, few answers from the consistently transparency-averse State Police.

Though Romero was allegedly armed, there are similarities in the two cases.

Applewhite, who was unarmed during his traffic stop, showed signs of living with mental health problems after five years in the Indiana prison system for taking part in a robbery. A forensic toxicologist found methamphetamine in his body.

SFR is revealing for the first time that Gonzales had killed another man just weeks before he fatally shot Applewhite twice, including once in the back. And it was, in fact, Gonzales’ third on-duty shooting at State Police, the first in 2010.

A two-month SFR investigation that included numerous interviews, and a review of hundreds of pages of police documents and more than 10 hours of video released by State Police in response to a records request, as well as consultation with police practices experts, raises several troubling findings.

It is not clear, for example, whether State Police offers the sort of robust training for its officers in how to deal with people in mental crises that other departments require—let alone how much counseling, time off and other services are provided to officers after they shoot people, which can be traumatic experiences for police. That’s because State Police refuses to make interim Chief Robert Thornton available for an interview.

Further, SFR has found that State Police apparently violated several of its own policies during officers’ encounter with Applewhite. And details of the subsequent investigation of that shooting were leaked to one of the officers, potentially compromising the case that a special prosecutor may use to determine whether the shooting crossed the line into a crime.

How the shooting will be reviewed for possible criminal prosecution is in limbo because of the state’s hodgepodge of secretive systems for such reviews—despite recent efforts from lawmakers and even the state’s Attorney General to create a more transparent, uniform system.

And finally, according to SFR’s review, Officer Gonzales’ supervisor who was on scene offered a disturbing response to a question from investigators when asked why he broke from State Police policy when trying to arrest Applewhite.

“You know, the guy was Black, you know, the coverage in the media,” he said. “Um, he gave no indication that he was gonna fight.”

The comment came five months after George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by white Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin—and six months before Chauvin was convicted.

Joseph Cotton, state president of the New Mexico NAACP, says he had a “very good conversation” with Thornton and interim Public Safety Secretary Tim Johnson on Nov. 23 to discuss Applewhite’s mental health and to ask why the officers didn’t take more time with him before using force. Just one minute and 20 seconds passed between the time officers got out of their cars and when Gonzales shot Applewhite.

Cotton says he initially felt empathy for Gonzales, but after hearing more of the evidence in the case in a May 4 interview with SFR, he wants both officers fired and to lose their police certifications. He also wants another meeting.

“It’s about changing the way the policing [is done] and holding policing accountable in this state,” he says.

Edward Molina, a Phoenix-based attorney who represents Applewhite’s family, tells SFR he’s put State Police on notice that he intends to sue the department for wrongful death.

“It seemed pretty insane that this guy [Gonzales] killed someone, gets reinstated a month later, and then immediately kills somebody,” Molina says. “If they just let this guy go right back to the streets again, like, oh my God.”

The officers’ attorney Luis Robles has 30 years of experience representing cops. He says the most important piece of the case is that Applewhite tried to grab the weapon of the officer responding with Gonzales, Sgt. Robert Carrejo.

That action left Gonzales “no other choice but to shoot him,” Robles says.

“I cannot imagine what crime Sergeant Carrejo committed trying to keep Mr. Applewhite from disarming him,” Robles tells SFR. “I don’t know what drove him to do this. Something did. But certainly, Gene Gonzales didn’t know what that was. And neither did Sergeant Carrejo.”

It’s unclear whether Carrejo or Gonzales have ever been disciplined for on-duty conduct at State Police, because the agency refuses to release their discipline records.

‘Is this my house?’

Applewhite reportedly left the Indiana National Guard in 2015. While a student at Indiana University South Bend, he was convicted of being the getaway driver in a robbery and was incarcerated at a “community-based residential facility” that provides inmates with programming in job readiness, substance use disorder and cognitive skills.

“Rodney was not a killer or a person that would hurt somebody,” his mother Katrina Cox told a TV station in South Bend. “He was trying to get his life together.”

Court records show he failed to return from work release in 2017 and a judge sentenced him to three years.

“Going to prison is clearly going to have a negative impact on anyone,” Molina says. “From there, that was it.”

Indiana prison officials refused to release any records of Applewhite’s time inside to SFR.

He got out in January 2020. That fall, he set out to see his mother in Phoenix for Thanksgiving. He had spotty cell phone service during the trip, Molina says.

Applewhite ended up in Belen, New Mexico. A woman told detectives he had grabbed a tool from the back of her house around 8 am on Nov. 19, a Thursday, and walked into her living room through her unlocked back door. She asked him, “What are you doing here?”

“Is this my house? Where’s my house?” he asked.

“I don’t know where your house is. Where do you live?”

“South Bend.”

“Well, this isn’t South Bend, and you need to get outta here.”

Applewhite calmly turned around, left the way he came, dropped the tool on the back porch and quickly drove away. The resident initially decided against calling 911, but a relative convinced her otherwise.

“And I’m like, ‘He didn’t do nothing,’ you know what I mean?” the resident said.

Arrest broke with policy, training

About 30 minutes later, Gonzales was on traffic patrol when he pulled over Applewhite for speeding. Applewhite stopped, but then drove away.

Video shows Applewhite speeding on the wrong side of the highway toward an oncoming truck, swerving just in time to miss it and a spike strip laid by Carrejo.

“Oh my God, he’s gonna try to—he’s trying to kill this person, or, I don’t know,” Gonzales recalled thinking to himself during his statement to detectives.

The officers called off the chase, checked on the truck driver and headed back to their office. They restarted the chase when two more 911 calls came from farther up the highway, in the direction Applewhite had fled.

They found Applewhite in the middle of the road and immediately pointed their guns at him after exiting their police vehicles. He was on his knees with his hands up, and the officers watched him gesture with one hand as if he was pulling the trigger of a gun to the side of his head.

“I think if it were any other officer, number one, he probably wouldn’t have had his gun drawn out when he stepped out,” Molina says. “That elevated the level of fear or whatever in [Applewhite] at that point.”

Carrejo has 20 years of experience at State Police. When detectives asked him about stops like this one, he told them he was trained to “have the suspect prone out” before handcuffing them.

Seth Stoughton, a former police officer turned law professor, agrees. He says police are trained to get a person subject to arrest into a “tactically disadvantageous” position, usually lying face-down on the ground with arms and legs spread out.

Instead, as both men stood, Carrejo grabbed Applewhite by the webbing of his hand and slapped the handcuffs onto his wrist. At that moment, Applewhite tried and failed to grab Carrejo’s handgun.

The autopsy and dashcam video show Gonzales shot Applewhite twice, first in the legs and then in the back as he was falling down.

The Office of the Medical Investigator found that Gonzales’ first shot went through Applewhite’s left thigh and then his right thigh, and the second shot went into his back, broke one of his ribs and tore through his liver, diaphragm and right lung.

That is “the shot where he’s falling down and the tussle was clearly over,” Molina says.

A toxicology analysis also found amphetamine and methamphetamine in Applewhite’s blood.

Molina says he’s not aware of Applewhite ever being diagnosed with any mental illness but his aunt, Sherian McCray, tells SFR he was never the same after he got out of prison.

State Police policy advises against touching someone who shows signs of mental illness, including homicidal or suicidal intent. Most officers know not to touch someone with handcuffs first, Stoughton says, because that is one of the points when people are most likely to transition from compliant to resistant.

When detectives asked why he broke with his training, Carrejo said, “Well, just uh, the sensitivity of the situation.” Then he made the comment about Applewhite being Black.

Cotton says Carrejo’s comment is a clear statement that he would treat Black citizens differently than anyone else.

“That’s who [Carrejo] is. He’s already told you, this officer has already made a statement of the type of person he is and the type of law enforcement officer he is, which tells me that there’s no room in law enforcement for this individual,” Cotton says.

Robles says Carrejo was trying to be sensitive to Applewhite’s fear of being shot.

“Of course, the specter of being involved in a shooting of an African American would be daunting for any law enforcement in this country,” Robles says. “So there was a break from his standard, but you have to admit that this was anything but standard.”

Gonzales told investigators he was not carrying his Taser during the shooting and he had tried to get its holster fixed a month earlier. As they approached Applewhite, he asked Carrejo for his Taser, but Carrejo ignored him. Policy requires them to carry their Tasers at all times while on duty. Robles says the Taser is irrelevant.

Molina says it’s key: “If he would have had a Taser, number one, he wouldn’t have killed him.”

Carrejo told detectives he and Gonzales were “not a hundred percent successful” in trying to help Applewhite. Immediately after the shooting, video shows they waited four and a half minutes before Gonzales asked Carrejo where to find his first aid kit. Carrejo said Applewhite “wouldn’t let us put on bandages” and “was just moving too much.”

Robles says the officers fulfilled their duty to ask for the serious medical aid that could address the situation. Gonzales can be heard on video asking for an ambulance as soon as he shoots Applewhite, who died that day at a hospital.

Gonzales said his body camera was malfunctioning on the day of the shooting. He said it was supposed to turn on automatically whenever he turned on his lights and siren, but it was not, so he had to turn it on manually.

Carrejo did not turn on his body camera at all—a violation of a state law passed in 2020.

Organizers soon staged simultaneous protests in New Mexico, Indiana and Arizona calling for State Police to release information.

“I can’t sleep, I can’t eat. I’m heartbroken,” Applewhite’s mother said at the time, according to a media release by Faith in Indiana, a racial and economic justice organization. “Why is it always shoot to kill? Because he’s tall and he’s a Black man?”

Two killings in five weeks

Outside a gas station on the morning of Oct. 17, Belen police allegedly spoke with Richard Romero, who told them “federal agents followed him from Arizona and he wanted to report them for harassment.”

Later that morning, Romero reportedly shot a woman in the arm outside a restaurant in Belen and fled from Valencia County Sheriff’s deputies. A dispatcher and a crisis negotiator got him on the phone and convinced him to throw a handgun out of his car.

Police allege he led them on a chase back and forth along the highway until they stopped him. That’s when he shot at them with a hunting rifle. They shot back, killing him instantly.

Gonzales fired eight rounds and hit Romero seven times. Afterward, Officer Leo Palmer tended to Gonzales and noticed he was “tense” and still holding his rifle. Palmer told him to put away his rifle and belt in a police vehicle to make him “more comfortable.”

Romero’s mother told detectives “he has been acting very weird for the last couple weeks.”

“She said she tried for a long time to get Richard to see a doctor, but he never would,” State Police Agent Brandon Murphy wrote after interviewing her. She told him her son had an undiagnosed mental illness and a history of drug use and threatening suicide.

Robles says Gonzales saw a psychologist once after each shooting—all that’s required by policy—but declined to say whether he received additional treatment. Reached for comment by phone on May 12, Gonzales referred all questions to Robles.

Typically, departments will reassign an officer away from interacting with the public during an investigation into a deadly shooting, acknowledging that it will end at some point, Stoughton says. Officers at most large agencies are also now required to go through psychological screening, and those agencies are increasingly recognizing that a single session with a mental health provider does not count as a screening, he says.

“A single session is a check-in,” Stoughton says. “But officers or anyone exposed to a traumatic event, even a completely unavoidable, totally legally justified traumatic event, may require more than that.”

State Police spokesman Officer Ray Wilson ignored SFR’s emails from April 8 and May 10 seeking to discuss the findings of this story. On May 18, he confirmed by email Gonzales’ additional on-duty shooting from 2010.

State Police records custodian Regina Chacon told SFR over the phone that it is policy to release records showing the fact of discipline, but never released discipline records for Gonzales and Carrejo in response to requests filed in February and March, respectively.

Witness statements leaked

State Police failed to immediately separate Gonzales and Carrejo, another violation of department policy. The pair rode together in a police vehicle with Capt. Leonardo Ornelas from the scene to the district office in Los Lunas. Carrejo told detectives he and Gonzales weren’t separated until they reached the office.

“They all know they’re not supposed to talk about it,” Robles says. “That’s why you had a supervising officer transport them where they would be processed.”

Ornelas did not document the trip, according to the Department of Public Safety’s response to a records request.

“What’s troubling is that the officers are not being treated as other homicide suspects would be treated,” says Barry Porter, an attorney with decades of experience practicing criminal defense and constitutional law. “They’re getting special treatment. They’re being put in a situation where they can get their stories straight, which doesn’t happen for suspects in other cases.”

Two weeks passed before the officers gave formal statements to detectives. It was during that period when someone leaked information from witness interviews to Carrejo.

Gonzales and Carrejo had abandoned their initial pursuit of Applewhite, but went out searching for him again after a second series of 911 calls. When they pulled up on Applewhite, who was outside his vehicle in the roadway, it appears the officers weren’t certain it was the same car they’d been chasing before. But Carrejo learned sometime between the shooting and the day of his 47-minute interview that Applewhite had tried to get witnesses to pull over. “That’s information we learned after,” Carrejo said, noting someone who saw Applewhite just before police arrived had talked with other agents immediately after the shooting.

The investigators did not follow up by asking Carrejo how he learned the information. Robles says he doesn’t know who divulged that detail to Carrejo.

Other homicide suspects don’t get information about parts of the investigation that will help them justify their conduct, Porter says.

“The idea with holding police accountable is that although a great deal of police officers are well-trained and follow [standard operating procedures] and certainly do important work protecting the community, they shouldn’t get special treatment when it comes to the death of another human being. And they did,” Porter says.

The leak could jeopardize both the internal affairs and criminal investigations into the shooting.

Within hours of the Applewhite shooting, Johnson wrote to Gonzales to place him on “off-site duty status.” Then on Feb. 1, Johnson and Thornton brought Gonzales back on duty, records show. They temporarily reassigned him to State Police’s “community engagement” team.

“He should not be doing anything that has anything to do with any community anything,” says Cotton of the NAACP. “This man has shot two people within five weeks of each other, and killed ‘em. Both of ‘em are dead. This man should not even be walking around protecting and serving anything.”

Accountability questions

State Police detectives completed their review of the Applewhite shooting and sent their findings to 13th Judicial District Attorney Barbara Romo’s office on April 12, says Melissa Howden, her chief of staff. Howden says Romo’s office forwarded the case to a special prosecutor, citing a conflict of interest because they work so closely with police. As of May 11, the special prosecutor had not decided whether to take on the case, Howden says.

The status of detectives’ review of the Romero shooting is unclear.

An SFR and New Mexico In Depth investigation in 2019 found that the way district attorneys decide whether an officer’s actions cross over into criminal conduct in a shooting differs from one district to the next, and the processes are secretive. Shooting reviews also can drag on, sometimes for years, and once they’re done, those making recommendations to a DA aren’t required to describe how they reached their decisions.

Criminal prosecutions of cops are rare in New Mexico, despite the state consistently ranking among those with the highest rates of police killings in the country. The only one in recent memory is the trial of former APD officers Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez in the killing of James Boyd, which resulted in a hung jury.

And many legislative efforts at the state level get little traction. For example, out of seven bills related to police use of force and misconduct introduced in the Legislature in 2021, just one was passed, while the rest never reached a full vote.

On May 18, Molina filed a notice of tort claim alleging wrongful death in the Applewhite case.

“He was a person in crisis, and unfortunately police officers are not equipped or trained to help people in crisis because this is what they do,” Molina says. “They’re too authoritarian, unfortunately. Even if we don’t get a dollar out of this thing, what we want is for somebody to be held accountable, and for people to change the way that they approach these people. Because people dying in the road is not how this stuff should be. It is really not OK.”

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