Special to New Mexico Street Press
(This is an updated reprint of the original story published in the Navajo Times)
ALBUQUERQUE – After several hours of deliberation on December 8th and 9th, a 12-member jury found Alex Rios guilty on two counts of second degree murder in the beating deaths of Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, members of the Navajo Nation.
Their bloodied bodies were found in a west-side lot the morning of July 19, 2014.
A third man, Jerome Eskeets, also a member of the Navajo Nation, was beaten, but he was able to escape and flagged down the Albuquerque city police (APD) when they arrived.
Rios and his friends, Gilbert Tafoya and Nathaniel Carrillo, were indicted for the murders.
Thompson, Gorman and Eskeets were homeless in the city at the time.
On the morning of the murders, police followed fresh footsteps to Tafoya’s nearby home where they found what looked to be bloodied clothes, along with Gorman’s credit cards and driver’s license. They also noticed what looked to be blood on Tafoya’s pants.
All three Dine’ men were beaten so badly, APD detective Geoffrey Stone, stated that it was one of the worst crime scenes he had ever witnessed.
“It was horrible. They were completely mangled,” he stated during his testimony.
Rios, now 20, was the only teen over 18 at the time of the murders.
Before going behind closed doors to decide on a verdict, the jury listened to arguments and viewed evidence presented by state prosecutors Vincent Martinez and Michelle Plato and Rio’s attorney, Daniel Salazar.
Tafoya’s testimony against Rios seemed to carry the most weight during the four-day trial in Judge Briana Zamora’s 2nd judicial district court room.
Seventeen-year old Tafoya, who has pled guilty, agreed to testify in exchange for an amenability hearing, which will determine if he’s tried as an adult or a juvenile. If he’s tried as a juvenile, he could be out of jail in about four years when he turns 21.
“They are making a deal with the devil,” Salazar told the jury referring to the plea deal.
“Why would he (Tafoya) tell the truth; the truth doesn’t get him out of jail?” asked Salazar.
During his testimony, Tafoya recalled that he, Rios and Carrillo had returned from a party very drunk and decided to “roll” the men who were asleep in the empty lot by his house.
Jogging Tafoya’s memory, Salazar asked Tafoya if he remembered saying, “that beating people up is the only thing that gets stress off your mind?”
Responding quietly, Tafoya stated, “Yes.”
“Tafoya knew when he was hitting them over and over that they could die. He just didn’t care,” stated Salazar.
Salazar also brought the jury’s attention to part of a taped interview Rios had with detective Stone.
In it, Rios says that he was mostly “a look-out” admitting to pushing down and kicking one or more of the men when they tried to fight back. He also admitted to picking up a tree branch, but he says, “I couldn’t do it and threw it down.”
But, on direct questioning from prosecutor Martinez, Tafoya contradicts Rios.
With Rios sitting across from him in the courtroom, Tafoya spoke in soft, monotone voice and told the court that Rios joined in on the beatings using a table leg, a tree branch and a concrete block.
Martinez asked, “Do you remember a block being used?”
“Me and Alex used it,” he responded.
When Martinez asked him who was doing the stabbing, Tafoya stated, “Me, Alex and Nathaniel.”
He also told the jury that Rios took part in hiding evidence.
In addition to Tafoya’s testimony, Martinez and co-counsel Michelle Plato brought in several other witnesses, including homicide detectives, special investigators, a DNA analytic specialist, the pathologist who performed Kee Thompson’s autopsy and a neighbor who heard commotion during the middle of the night.
Showing a photo of Kee Thompson’s hand with what appeared to be several dark puncture wounds, Dr. Angela Miller, the state medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Thompson testified, “Most likely they are defense wounds.”
Miller testified that Thompson was beaten on every part of his body.
“The cause (of death) appeared to be a blunt object with force pushing down on it . . . with stab wounds going into the heart,” she told the court.
As part of their evidence, they also carried in bloodied materials wrapped in plastic bags found at the crime scene including a concrete block, a knife, a long metal pipe, 2 x 4s, a table leg, clothes and a pair of shoes.
In his closing argument, Salazar appealed to the jury that the prosecution hadn’t put forth the evidence needed to show that Rios deliberately and intentionally killed Gorman and Thompson and assaulted Eskeets.
“This case is about lack of evidence. (It is about) speculation. There is no physical evidence that Alex Rios struck either of these men,” he stated.
Showing a photo to the jury of the red and white tennis shoes Rios was said to be wearing at the time of the murders, Salazar pointed out that there wasn’t any blood on them. He also questioned why the tree branch that Rios was said to have used “like a baseball bat” wasn’t presented into evidence. Tafoya also testified that Rios changed his clothes that morning, moving Salazar to question why these clothes weren’t presented into evidence.
At one point, Salazar called a motion for mistrial after one of the city’s commercial broadcast stations aired footage that included photos of three jury members. Salazar argued that the exposure could danger the jurors and could deny Rios a fair trial. After broadcast executives appeared in court the next morning, apologized and promised that this would never happen again, Judge Zamora denied the motion and the trial continued.
Throughout the trial, the images and statements presented brought tears to the eyes of family members who sat in the visitor section of the courtroom. Others bowed their heads visibly shaken by the horrific treatment Thompson and Gorman suffered before their brutal deaths.
“Hearing the testimonies from the defendants on how they set aside their humanity and treated Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson as if they were lesser than animals, just because they were homeless. Homelessness is not an excuse to treat people as if they are not human,” stated Leonard Gorman, Executive Director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, in a formal release,
This has been hard,” said one family member after the verdict came in. She added that “It’s not over yet,” referring to Tafoya’s hearing in February and Carrillo’s trial next fall.
During the past year and a half since Gorman and Thompson were murdered, members of the Albuquerque community have expressed outrage. Thousands of people participated in several marches to bring attention to the murders and the vulnerability of unsheltered people, with many carrying signs that read, “Native Lives Matter!”
After the murders, Mayor Richard Berry assigned a task force to come up with recommendations to improve conditions for unsheltered tribal members in the city. Some of those recommendations have been acted upon.
Neighbors and friends of Gorman and Thompson also appear to continue to place multi-colored flowers and mementoes in the field where they were killed, even though it’s now guarded by three loose dogs that react aggressively to strangers.
In addition to 2nd degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon, Rios has also been convicted of tampering with evidence, contributing to the delinquency of minors and several other crimes.
Zamora advised the attorneys that sentencing will take place in about 8 to 10 weeks.