APD was ‘mistaken’ about federal warrant for the man targeted in SWAT raid

People are often demonized when police actions go wrong, ACLU policy analyst says

By: - July 12, 2022 5:06 pm

Police cars followed demonstrators calling out the Albuquerque Police Department on Thursday, July 7, the day after SWAT shot munitions into a home that burned down with a teen inside. Police vehicles were present on every sidestreet as the march against police violence made its way through Albuquerque’s International District. Protesters shouted for them to leave their neighborhood. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

In the days following a deadly SWAT raid on a house that burned down in Albuquerque’s International District, police and local media repeatedly said that the man they were trying to arrest that night was wanted on a federal warrant.

The morning after the incident, Police Chief Harold Medina said at a news conference that the Department’s Investigative Support Unit (ISU) was searching for Qiaunt Kelley who “had some felony warrants, one from the state level, one from the federal level.”

Later in the same news conference, a lieutenant said they had found “two active warrants for Mr. Kelley” in an internal police database, one for a “federal probation violation for carjacking” and another for “unlawful taking of a motor vehicle out of the city of Santa Fe.”

Over the course of the next three days, local media including the Albuquerque Journal, KRQE and KOB uncritically repeated this false information.

However, a search of federal court records over the past month by Source New Mexico shows no federal warrant issued against Kelley or any property associated with him.

There were no federal warrants for Kelley in N.M. when SWAT was called out to the house Kelley was visiting on July 6, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Tuesday.

“In the district of New Mexico, there were no federal warrants at that time,” said Scott Howell, spokesperson for the N.M. District Office.

On Monday, the Journal, again citing police, reported that Kelley was wanted “on felony warrants.” That is also not true.

In reality, New Mexico Corrections Department Probation and Parole Division Director Melanie Martinez on March 21 signed a warrant for Kelley’s arrest, saying he violated five conditions of his parole.

Editor’s note on language

UPDATE: Thursday, July 14, at 2:30 p.m.

There’s no legal definition of a felony warrant, according to Jennifer Burrill, a public defender in Santa Fe. A warrant is a warrant, she told Source NM’s Austin Fisher.

In this case, Kelley was convicted for a carjacking — a felony — four years ago and has since completed his sentence. He was out on parole. In March of this year, the state’s Probation and Parole Division issued a warrant for his arrest for five parole violations. There was only one warrant out for Kelley last week, and that’s the one.

Because the carjacking conviction from four years ago is a felony, people could call the parole warrant a “felony warrant” — or as officials have and may continue to misstate “felony warrants,” plural.

But the term implies that a new felony has been committed, Burrill said. And as of right now, Kelley hasn’t been charged with any new crimes.

“We usually refer to them as a parole warrant because there’s not a new charge, right?” Burrill said. “If there was a new charge, then it would be a felony warrant normally.” 

We’re seeing a lot of sensationalism in law enforcement news releases generally, she added. “Even though it’s not technically wrong I guess,” she said, “a general description of a felony warrant does tend to mislead people if it’s really a parole violation warrant.”

Marisa Demarco, editor-in-chief

A parole violation is not a felony and is not handled by a criminal court. Instead, it is adjudicated by the state Probation and Parole board.

Kelley was on parole after having completed his sentence in a 2018 carjacking in Las Cruces, according to court records.

Albuquerque Police Department Det. Eric Endziel used the arrest warrant as part of his reasoning to ask Second Judicial District Court Judge Britt M. Baca-Miller for a search warrant, giving police legal authority to search the house where they found Kelley and 15-year-old Brett Rosenau and two cars parked in the driveway.

Source New Mexico reviewed copies of the arrest warrant and the search warrant.

Reached for comment on Tuesday, Albuquerque Police Department spokesperson Gilbert Gallegos said the references to a federal warrant were mistaken, and that detectives told him on Tuesday there is no federal warrant.

“There is an ongoing investigation by APD and a federal law enforcement agency that could result in federal charges,” Gallegos said. “I was under the impression on the morning of the incident that the investigation had resulted in a warrant.”

Gallegos did not respond to a question asking which federal police agency he was talking about.

Kelley was transferred from the Bernalillo County jail to a state prison on Monday and remains in custody as of Tuesday. He has not been charged with anything other than parole violations, according to a search of state court records on Tuesday.

Albuquerque police have also noted in news conferences and releases that Kelley is a “person of interest” in other crimes, but so far he has not been named as a suspect in any of them. His involvement in them, and whether he was involved at all, remains to be shown.

“In addition to being an absconder for the parole violation, our detectives wanted to get him into custody and attempt to question him for that investigation, as well as separate investigations into a homicide and an officer-involved shooting,” Gallegos said Tuesday. “The fact that he was considered a person of interest in three different violent crimes also led to making his apprehension a priority.”

After hours of SWAT tactics on Wednesday night, where officers launched cannisters of tear gas, pepper spray and flash-bang devices into the home where Kelley was, the residence caught fire.

Firefighters delayed entering the building because, Medina said, there were concerns Kelley was armed, and he was still inside. When he surrendered after the house was burning, Albuquerque Fire Rescue entered and found Rosenau dead, according to news releases.

Early reports from the Office of the Medical Investigator indicate the teen died of smoke inhalation, and police say investigators are looking into whether the munitions police used ignited the blaze. 

When things go wrong with police actions, folks are often demonized, said Barron Jones. He is a senior policy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and a former journalist.

“This is a situation where we want that person to look as bad as we possibly can, to either justify or mitigate the actions taken by APD that night,” Jones said. “I’m not saying that is the case, but that is a thing that happens.”

The fact that Kelley was wanted for violating parole is significant, because right now, the way the warrant is written, we don’t see that there was any immediate danger, Jones said. And the police response resulted in a tragedy — all over parole violations.

Community outraged after a SWAT standoff leaves a teen dead and a home destroyed

“It’s significant because we believe this is not an immediate call to where this person is in the community, wreaking havoc, where you have to take the steps that were taken that night that led to the tragic loss of life of a 15-year-old boy and the destruction of a person’s home,” Jones said. “If a little patience were exercised, I think there would have been a different outcome.”

It’s also an unfortunate example of how the media sometimes takes law enforcement’s statements as gospel, Jones said.

“Overpolicing of communities of color is a major problem,” Jones said. “And I just wonder if the approach would have been a little bit different if it was in another part of town.”

These kinds of SWAT callouts, he added, do not make us safer.

“The community is traumatized. A family lost their home. A family is displaced. A young child who barely started living lost their life, which is a horrible tragedy,” Jones said, “and there is a further erosion of trust between the community and APD.”

Source NM Reporter Patrick Lohmann and Editor-in-Chief Marisa Demarco contributed to this report.


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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.