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Law-enforcement officers mounted

'full-on assault' during Oct. sting, lawyer says

By Jason Auslander

The New Mexican

The family of a Santa Fe man fatally shot by drug agents in October after he allegedly sold about a pound of cocaine to an undercover officer plans to sue city, county, state and federal authorities.

"They killed this guy," said defense attorney Dan Marlowe, who filed notice of a wrongful death claim Monday on behalf of Matthew Romero's parents, girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter. "They intentionally killed him. This is basically an excessive force. And by the time I'm done, I think I can prove conspiracy to commit murder."

Romero, 23, was shot in the head Oct. 27 at the intersection of Beckner and Cerrillos roads -- near the Fashion Outlets of Santa Fe shopping center -- by law-enforcement officers working under the state police-run Region III Narcotics Task Force.

Authorities said Romero was leaving the parking lot after selling a half-kilo of cocaine when several agents jumped out of a minivan and tried to arrest him. Romero attempted to flee, hit an officer with his truck and was killed.

Meanwhile, a state police detective has finished investigating the shooting and forwarded his approximately 250-page report to the Santa Fe District Attorney's Office, said Peter Olson, state police spokesman. Newly elected District Attorney Angela "Spence" Pacheco said Tuesday that her office has received the file and is reviewing it.

In the past, the District Attorney's Office has presented such reports to a grand jury, which determines whether the shooting was justified or not.

The report, obtained by The New Mexican through a public-records request, says five task-force agents -- two state police officers, two Santa Fe County sheriff's deputies and one Santa Fe city police officer -- fired their weapons when Romero attempted to flee. The report redacted all the names of the police officers involved in the incident.

The investigators recovered 28 casings from .357-caliber handguns and three .223-caliber rifle casings from the shooting scene, according to the report. Romero's red GMC pickup had six bullet holes in the front windshield, seven bullet holes in the back window and back end of the truck, and 14 holes in the passenger side, the report says.

Romero was shot three times, according to an autopsy report. The shot that killed him entered his skull behind his right ear and came to rest in his left frontal lobe. Another winged his right ear and scalp but did not penetrate his body, while the third entered and exited his right shoulder, the autopsy report says.

The undercover Santa Fe police officer who bought the cocaine from Romero on Oct. 27 told state police investigator Eric Schum he bought 15 ounces -- or just under a pound -- of cocaine from Romero in three separate transactions between July 2008 and the October incident. He and another city officer said the FBI became involved because Romero displayed a handgun with a laser sight during the first transaction; at least one of the transactions took place on federal land; and the amount of drugs Romero sold "met the federal threshold," the report states.

The nonundercover agent from the Santa Fe Police Department characterized Romero "as a mid- to high-level drug dealer," according to the report. Agents later found more than 4 pounds of cocaine and 11 firearms in a safe at Romero's home.

Asked if the "high-level" characterization was accurate, Marlowe said, "I would say that's true."

FBI agents authorized the so-called "buy-bust" on Oct. 27 and, in fact, had planned it for the week before, but it fell through. All involved in the Oct. 27 operation attended a briefing two hours beforehand, then staked out the outlet mall, the report says.

By the time Romero arrived at the mall parking lot just before 5 p.m., four unmarked surveillance cars -- including the so-called "takedown vehicle" with six agents inside -- had the area staked out, according to the report. Romero arrived and told the undercover agent to get into his pickup. The agent asked if he had the cocaine, and Romero said, "No, but it's on the way," the report states.

The agent then gave Romero $11,700 in cash. Romero drove around the mall and recognized one of the police surveillance vehicles -- a gray pickup.

"Mr. Romero pulled a handgun with a red laser out of his waistband and stated something to the effect of 'those trucks are shady,' and 'I don't go out that way,' " according to the report. "Mr. Romero became very agitated and started talking 'crazy'; at one point he told (the undercover agent) that he knew someone who killed an undercover police officer in Colorado."

Romero calmed down a bit soon after, then spotted his girlfriend's white Volvo, which followed Romero's truck and came to a stop. Romero got out of the truck, walked to his girlfriend's car and came back with a gift bag containing the cocaine, the report says. The girlfriend, Sherrie Herrera, had the couple's 4-year-old daughter with her in her car at the time.

Romero then dropped the undercover agent off and drove out of the parking lot in his truck.

When Romero pulled up to the intersection of Beckner and Cerrillos, the gold minivan was in front of him and the gray pickup he recognized earlier was behind him. His girlfriend's Volvo was next to the gold minivan, while a blue Jeep with two state police officers inside was behind her, according to the report.

Six agents -- wearing ski masks and jackets with police markings -- then poured out of both sides of the minivan. Romero tried to get away by crashing into the Jeep to his left, hitting his girlfriend's car in the process, then U-turned over the median and attempted to drive back toward the outlet mall. All six agents in the minivan opened fire, according to the report. A Chevrolet Suburban containing two FBI agents then crashed head-on into Romero's truck.

Schum, the state police investigator, determined from audio recordings of the incident that agents never identified themselves as police officers, though he could hear one agent say "hands up" and another say either "stay" or "state," according to the report.

When agents dragged an unconscious Romero from the truck, approximately $8,900 worth of blood-splattered cash poured out with him. Agents found the .357-caliber handgun with laser sights on the floorboard.

Marlowe criticized police for not immediately arresting Romero after he sold the drugs to the officer, saying it would have been safer for nearby civilians and his client. However, a state police officer said the FBI's audio reception from the undercover agent's transmitter was poor, so FBI agents didn't radio other agents to make the arrest until Romero had already exited the rear of the mall and was driving through the parking lot, according to the report.

"The fact is they were in a full-on assault at the time," Marlowe said. "According to my witnesses, they hit the ground shooting. They came out with guns blazing."

Spokesmen for the city, county and state police departments said Tuesday that internal-affairs investigations into the incident are still ongoing, though all officers who were involved returned to work months ago. All said they expected the shooting to be ruled justified.

Olson said Herrera -- Romero's girlfriend -- may face any number of charges related to the incident, and likely will be charged by the District Attorney's Office and not the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Contact Jason Auslander at 986-3076 or
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Publication:The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, NM)
Date:Jan 28, 2009

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