Prosecutors trade attacks while family grieves

Family slams district attorney and attorney general for ducking responsibility

By: - April 1, 2022 4:00 pm

Supporters gathered at a vigil for Valente Acosta-Bustillos on Wednesday night to demand Second Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez reopen the criminal investigation into two Albuquerque police officers. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

The family of a father killed by Albuquerque police criticized the local district attorney and New Mexico’s top prosecutor on Friday after the two officials each tried to say the other had the power to take another look at the killing.

Surviving members of Valente Acosta-Bustillos’ family and supporters held a news conference and a vigil on Wednesday, the second anniversary of his death, calling for Second Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez to reopen a criminal investigation into two officers: Edgar Sandoval and Joseph Bush.

Torrez’s special prosecutor on the case in January 2021 wrote that he was closing it and that criminal charges against Sandoval, who fired the fatal shots that killed Acosta-Bustillos “are not warranted.”

The DA’s spokesperson Lauren Rodriguez said in an interview with New Mexico’s largest newspaper on Wednesday that only the state Attorney General’s Office has the authority to re-investigate the case.

Father killed by APD part of a long history of deadly wellness checks

“The family and community knew this was a lie and was a blatant attempt to ‘pass the buck’ in front of renewed media scrutiny,” Valente Acosta-Bustillos’ family said in a written statement on Friday. “In his attempt to dodge responsibility, DA Torrez improperly threw blame on New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas.”

The DA’s spokesperson also said in an emailed statement to Source New Mexico on Wednesday that “it’s not a matter of the attorney general overturning the special prosecutor’s decision, but that he has the authority to make an independent decision.”

The attorney general wrote a letter to the DA on Thursday about his false claim.

“As the currently elected district attorney for the largest judicial district in the state, employing roughly 281 people, you are responsible for prosecuting all crimes occurring in the Second Judicial District,” Balderas wrote.

That includes prosecution of homicide, “over which my office does not have concurrent statutory jurisdiction,” he stated.

“Ms. Rodriguez’s aforementioned statement to the press is concerning, as state law does not confer upon my office authority to reopen criminal investigations for which local district attorneys have already acted upon and reached the informed decision to not move forward,” the attorney general wrote.

The house where two APD officers killed Valente Acosta-Bustillos in March 2020. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

But the family also disputes the attorney general’s claim that he can’t reopen the case.

“When a district attorney fails or refuses to act in any criminal case, the attorney general has the authority to act,” they said

DA Torrez is running for Attorney General in the Democratic primary. Balderas has served two terms and cannot run for the attorney general’s seat again.

He told the DA that his special prosecutor’s recommendation does not stop him from trying to pursue other courses of action, if he wants.

“For instance, you could hire another special prosecutor to re-examine the evidence or even re-review the case yourself,” Balderas wrote. He added that if Torrez concludes that the officers didn’t break state law but perhaps violated the victim’s rights under federal law, he could refer the case to federal prosecutors.

A son of the man who was killed, Rafael Melendez, said he only found out about the case being closed by reading it in the media. He said he was not notified by the DA’s Office.

“I found it online,” Melendez said. “And I had questions, so I reached out and to get a better understanding on what was actually going on.”

Seeing that the case was closed and not being aware was hurtful, Melendez said.

“It’s careless,” Melendez said. “They just pretty much see us as like ants, roaches, you know? One’s gone and it doesn’t matter. You know, we have a heart, we have a soul, we have something in us that is — something that’s strong.”

DA Torrez and his office have refused to address unconstitutional policing, failed to uphold the reforms of the Consent Decree, cost Albuquerque taxpayers millions of dollars, and have ultimately failed to prosecute APD officers Sandoval and Bush for the killing of Mr. Acosta-Bustillos. The time for action is now.

– The family of Valente Acosta-Bustillos

Balderas wrote that given the recent outcry by the community looking for answers from the DA’s Office, Torrez should directly meet with the family “to thoughtfully articulate your potential conflict and your final decision not to prosecute officer Edgar Sandoval.”

“However, it is not appropriate for members of your office to perpetuate the false hope that the attorney general can or should resurrect a case that you have declined to prosecute after careful evaluation,” Balderas wrote.

Reached for comment on Friday, the DA’s spokesperson reiterated that he has accepted the special prosecutor’s decision that there was not enough evidence to charge the officers.

“Should the attorney general wish to reopen this investigation, he has the statutory authority to do so,” Rodriguez said.

Valente Acosta, another of Acosta-Bustillos’ sons, said at the vigil on Wednesday night that the DA “wants to pass the blame along.”

“He wants to pass the buck,” he said. “But what he should be saying because he says he’s a man of the people: The buck stops here.”

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

MORE FROM AUTHOR