Chapter 6: A Break in the Case
Lt. Garcia remained frustrated by the lack of progress in this murder investigation. He had welcomed Dudley’s information about the ceremonial knife used as the murder weapon, but was disappointed that Dudley hadn’t uncovered any more information. Garcia was sitting at his desk staring at the image of the knife on his computer screen when Tom Bowers, the forensic technician entered his office.
“I hope you have some good news for me, Tom.”
“Good news, bad news, Lieutenant. I was able to lift several prints from the knife. Some are really very old, so I focused on the newest ones and those are essentially complete prints. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I have been unable to find a match in any of our databases. It’s possible that our killer has never been arrested and printed, which is pretty unusual these days.”
“Is it possible, Tom, there’s some reason we can’t find a match? I can’t imagine that this guy hasn’t been in trouble before. Suppose he got in trouble as a minor and any arrest records are sealed. Would those show up?”
“Probably not. But, I didn’t look into that possibility. That might require a court order to gain access to that category of records.”
“Damn it, Tom, this is a murder inquiry and the knife is all we have to go on at the present. You get started on the search and I’ll have the paperwork on your desk within the hour.”
Garcia went to see Judge Fajardo in his chambers and was told to return in twenty minutes for the order. He went back to his office and continued to stare at the computer screen. Sergeant Bernadette Armijo arrived a few minutes later with papers in her hand and a big smile on her face. “I assume you’re looking for this. I’ll take it to Bowers and come right back. I see you’ve had that picture of a knife on your screen all morning. I assume that’s the murder weapon.”
“Yeah, and I’m hoping Bowers can identify the prints he lifted from it. He wasn’t able to find a match in the normal databases so the court order you delivered will let him have limited access to any records that are sealed. I just can’t believe that our killer hasn’t been in trouble in the past.”
“It looks like some kind of ceremonial knife,” commented Sgt. Armijo, trying to placate or distract Garcia until Bowers returned.
“That’s what I heard from Doc Dudley and Ray Little Feather. But, Doc also told me that there aren’t any Native Americans currently living at La Vida Aureo. So, that would make our killer an outsider and the other facts don’t support that theory.”
Tom Bowers could hardly hide the smug look on his face as he sauntered into Garcia’s’ office. “I got a match, Lieutenant! You were correct. The match was contained in a sealed case, but it wasn’t a minor like you suspected. It’s kinda strange.”
“Just tell me, Tom, before I come across my desk to rip that sheet of paper out of your hands!”
“OK, OK. The prints belong to a guy named Lucero Salazar and the case had to do with the alleged rape of a minor a few years ago. The case was in the small town of Las Colitas up north some place. Salazar was put on probation and that’s all that’s in the file.”
“I’ve heard of the Salazar family,” added Sgt. Armijo. “If it’s the same family, they are major power brokers in State politics. They operate mostly behind the scenes, but their name shows up in the Journal from time to time. And, if I remember, Las Colitas is one of those towns like Española that was founded a long time ago.”
Garcia was thrilled. Now, he had a name, but he still had to locate Salazar and find some way to place him at La Vida Aureo at the time of the murder. After a few minutes, he slapped himself in the forehead. “Stupid”, he said out-loud. “Why don’t I just call Isabella Duncan and ask if Salazar is a Resident? I might just get lucky. Besides, if that doesn’t work, I have other ways to find him.”
Garcia’s euphoria was temporary. Isabella Duncan told him that Lucero Salazar was indeed a Resident, but he was in the Memory Care Unit and was experiencing severe symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Garcia decided that this was his best and only solid lead and, after briefly describing the fingerprint match, asked Isabella to arrange a meeting with Salazar as soon as possible. Isabella suggested that Dudley also be present since he had retrieved Salazar from wandering the grounds and that might make the interview appear less threatening.
The interview took place that afternoon and was one of the most frustrating experiences of Garcia’s career. Through the session, Lucero Salazar never once actually looked at Garcia. Instead, he stared off at a point on the wall. Salazar claimed he couldn’t recall ever meeting anyone named Cesar Ramirez. Garcia showed Salazar the knife and Salazar remarked that “it was pretty”, but couldn’t recall ever seeing it before. Garcia told Salazar that his prints were found on the knife and Salazar’s eyes just wandered toward the ceiling with no verbal response. Garcia repeatedly tried to engage Salazar, but to little or no avail. His infrequent responses were irrelevant to the questions asked. In frustration, Garcia finally produced a fingerprint kit and retook Salazar’s prints. He could compare these fresh prints with those lifted from the knife; he wouldn’t have to relay of records that were years out-of-date.
Dudley escorted Salazar back upstairs to the Memory Care Unit. He found Lt. Garcia in the Dining Room nursing a cup of coffee. “I guess that went pretty poorly, Lieutenant. It didn’t sound to me like you got any useful information or even a mild response from Salazar. And, on several occasions, you went at him pretty hard, but got nothing.”
“Yeah, well at least I got a fresh set of prints. What do you think, Doc? The little bit of evidence we have points directly to him. It’s hard for me to imagine that he was mentally competent enough to plan and execute a savage murder just a short while ago and now be a total mental case and claim to have no memory at all.”
“I agree, Lieutenant.” Recalling the comments that Emilio Sandoval had made, Dudley said, “I guess it’s possible for him to be faking this whole thing, but I have to admit, he’s pretty convincing. I did notice one thing, however. You asked him the names of several people here at La Vida Aureo, to see if you got any reaction. I may be imagining this, but I believe I saw him actually focus his eyes when you mentioned Mrs. Torres. It’s probably a long shot, but she may be the connection between Salazar and Ramirez. I suppose jealousy could be an incentive for murder.”
“That’s not a bad idea, Doc. I’ll try to talk to her while I’m here. It can’t be any less frustrating. But, before I let go of Salazar as a suspect, I’m going to have him thoroughly examined by one of our doctors. I just don’t buy his act.”
Mrs. Magdalena Torres greeted Lt. Garcia abruptly. “Well, have you found Cesar’s killer yet? It’s been almost a month now.”
“We’re following up on some leads, Mrs. Torres. If you have a few minutes, I’d like to ask you some questions that might help in our investigation.”
“I’m sorry for being so abrupt, Lieutenant. I really miss Cesar and the thought of a killer running around loose makes me uncomfortable. Please come in and ask your questions. I assume you believe it was some jealous woman who did this horrible thing.”
“You know I can’t discuss the case with you, Mrs. Torres, but we’re pretty certain that the killer was not a woman. Anyway, if I could ask you if you know a man here at La Vida Aureo named Lucero Salazar.”
Magdalena Torres’ reaction surprised Garcia. “Oh, I know him alright! Despite all of my efforts to avoid him and repeatedly telling him to stop bothering me, he just wouldn’t take No for an answer. He kept following me around and showing up here at my casita. Finally, I asked Cesar to speak to him. Cesar told me that he tried to convince Salazar that there were plenty of other women here and to leave me alone.”
“Do you know if that helped?”
“No. It only made things worse. If I know Cesar, he probably bragged to Salazar about me and how fortunate he was to have me all to himself. Afterwards, Salazar showed up and tried to convince me that he was a much better catch and how foolish I was to be wasting my time with a loser like Cesar. He got pretty worked up about it and stormed out of here when I told him to get lost and never bother me again.”
“That’s very interesting, Mrs. Torres. In any of your encounters with Mr. Salazar, did he ever appear to have any memory problems or any other indications of mental illness?”
“Well, if you want my opinion, I think he was totally loco!”
“I’m sure. But did he ever seem like he couldn’t remember things or appear confused?”
“Look, Lieutenant, that guy was very insistent and very clear about what he wanted. I don’t think he was the least bit confused, about anything!”
“Thank you for your time, Mrs. Torres, you’ve been most helpful.”
“Like I said before, Lieutenant, just get Cesar’s killer, the sooner, the better.”
Lt. Garcia spent the next few days trying to think through the case. He was not at all surprised that the new set of prints matched those taken from the murder weapon exactly. He was more convinced than ever that Lucero Salazar had murdered Cesar Ramirez in a fit of jealousy, likely over the affections of Mrs. Torres. He just couldn’t figure out a way to break through Salazar’s act of Alzheimer’s. Garcia knew he had to proceed carefully to avoid Salazar getting away with murder because of his purported mental illness. The first step was to have Salazar examined by one or more competent physicians that were not under the influence of the powerful Salazar family.
Later that afternoon, Lt. Garcia went to the office of Assistant District Attorney Susan Otero to outline his approach and get her fully prepared to prosecute Salazar for murder. ADA Otero did not agree with Garcia’s approach and questioned whether he had sufficient evidence to secure a conviction. “Look, Lieutenant, you are aware that the Police are still under investigation by the Department of Justice for that case involving the homeless man who was severely mentally ill. We simply cannot afford any more negative publicity. Before you do anything rash like locking Salazar up on some unfounded suspicion, why don’t we arrange a comprehensive battery of tests to see if your suspect is faking it or not.”
Garcia was not pleased, but at least this seemed like a reasonable next step. In his gut, he didn’t trust Salazar. He feared that Salazar was a dangerous person and he cared too much for the people at La Vida Aureo to have him walking around loose as a potential threat to women.
Despite her promise to act quickly, ADA Otero had major misgivings about this case. It was not just the current problems of the Albuquerque Police, it was much closer to home. Otero’s own father had been exhibiting these same symptoms for several months, but her entire family was in denial. They simply could not accept that he had Alzheimer’s and consequently refused a formal diagnosis.
Garcia waited and waited, growing more impatient and frustrated as the days passed without any word from ADA Otero. His calls were not returned, nor were his emails. She never seemed to be in her office. He knew he could not act without having her on board, so he just waited.
Lucero Salazar was emboldened by the perceived success of his interview with Lt. Garcia. He was confident that the police would not be able to file any charges against him as long as he exhibited a diminished mental capability. He decided to treat himself to an extended walk around the grounds, perhaps he would venture across the busy street toward the strip mall. He had been practicing his helpless-old-man routine which always elicited attention, allowing him to get physically close and put his hands on the unsuspecting female Good Samaritan.
Dudley had called OJ Torreon earlier that morning and asked him to accompany him to Home Depot to purchase some fixtures needed for a few repairs. Dudley enjoyed OJ’s company and his pick-up truck was invaluable on these occasions. As they turned onto the busy street, a man darted out from between two parked cars and into their path. Neither OJ nor Dudley saw the man and the collision was unavoidable. They had just started to move and the impact wasn’t that hard; the man was simply knocked to the ground.
Dudley jumped from the truck and ran to the man, calling to OJ to dial 911. The man was lying on his back with his head against the curb. There was no visible blood and Dudley thought the man had just been stunned by the modest impact. Dudley was surprised as he looked closer; it was Lucero Salazar. “He must been wandering again and actually left the grounds through the main gate,” thought Dudley. Dudley felt for a pulse and leaned closely to check for breathing. Detecting no obvious life signs, Dudley began to administer CPR. OJ had moved his truck to the curb and ran toward Dudley and the fallen man. “I called 911 and the police and an ambulance are on their way.”
The police blocked the mid-morning traffic so that the ambulance could park a few feet away. Dudley and OJ backed away as the EMTs began to administer to Salazar. Without saying anything, they placed him on a stretcher and in a head restraint, loaded him into the ambulance and sped toward the University Trauma Center.
Dudley and OJ were both shaken by the collision but were able to provide details to the officer in charge of the scene. Dudley provided Salazar’s identity as well as information about his residence and his apparent mental condition. “We’ve had previous incidents of Mr. Salazar’s wandering about, but he’s never tried to leave the grounds before. He must have walked out through the main gate because there is an eight-foot high decorative fence around the entire property. If you have any further questions, Officer, please come to the Main Building.”
Dudley was still sitting in Isabella’s office with OJ describing the recent events when her phone rang. “Ms. Duncan, it’s Lt. Garcia. I assume you’ve already heard about the traffic accident involving Doc and OJ?”
“They’re both sitting here in my office, Lieutenant.”
“Well, I have to report that Mr. Salazar was pronounced Dead-on-Arrival when the ambulance reached the Trauma Center. Please tell Doc and OJ that I’ve met with the on-scene officer and there will be no charges filed against them.”
“It is a terrible thing for Mr. Salazar to be killed and I feel a certain responsibility that he was able to get out onto that busy street. But, I’m relieved that there won’t be any charges against Doc or OJ. I guess that’s some consolation. If you need any additional information from our files concerning Mr. Salazar, please let me know.”
“Thank you, Ms. Duncan. If I need anything, I’ll let you know.”
“Thank you for the call, Lieutenant.”
Garcia hung up the phone and went to the Morgue where Salazar’s body was just arriving. Dr. George Hernandez, the Bernalillo County Chief Medical Examiner was in his office completing the necessary paperwork from a recently-completed autopsy. “Well, if it isn’t my favorite Policeman. What brings you to my humble habitat, Señor Investigador?”
“George, I need to ask a favor.”
“Oh, you want me to solve another murder case for you?”
“Not this time. I’m saving your considerable expertise for a really complex case. There’s a dead body that just arrived from a traffic accident this morning.”
“Oh, I get it. A high-speed police chase resulting in a fatality and you want me to show that the police were not at fault?”
“Nothing that sinister. Well, maybe it is. This guy was hit by a pick-up that probably wasn’t doing five miles-per-hour and, according to witnesses, hit his head on the curb. My guess is that it was the impact with the curb, not the collision with the truck that killed him.”
“Well, if you already know the answer, you can just fill out the paperwork and I can knock off early for a change.”
“C’mon, George, I’m serious and there is something I need to know about this guy. While you’re in his head looking around for the cause of death, would you please note the condition of his brain?”
“No problemo. You want to tell me why you’re so interested?”
“Do you still prefer single-malt scotch?”
“Go home, Frank. I’ll be in your office in the morning for coffee. And, yes I do.”
Lt. Frank Garcia waited nervously the next morning, suspecting that Dr. Hernandez was deliberately pulling his chain, by making him wait. Hernandez entered the office and simply held out his hand. Garcia reached under his desk and handed Hernandez the brown paper bag containing the decorative box. “Your guy died of a head injury. As you suspected, it was not much of a blow. I’ve seen much, much worse around here. It just caught him in the wrong place.”
“What about the condition of his brain?”
“Oh, yeah, almost forgot. You did mention that you were interested in that. His brain was in perfect working order as far as I could tell. No damage, no deterioration, 100 percent there, etc. If you had given me a bit longer, I probably could have told you his IQ!”
“Not necessary. You’re certain that there was no evidence of deterioration?’
“Frank, look, I even cut a slice off to check, since I assumed you weren’t telling me exactly what you were looking for. There was no evidence of anything abnormal.”
“Thanks, George. I have one more favor to ask. In your formal report, don’t mention that part of your examination, just the analysis to determine the cause of death. OK?”
“Sure, that’s what I’m paid to do. Do you mind telling me why?”
“Let’s just say that he comes from a very important family and I suspect they would be upset if we discovered that he was mentally sound. I’d really appreciate it.”
“From the label on this box, I’d say you’ve earned that much. Have a nice day!”
There was one more thing Garcia needed to do before he could close the file on Cesar Ramirez’s murder investigation. Over coffee in the Dining Room at La Vida Aureo, he related the finding of the autopsy to Isabela Duncan, Matthew Dudley and Paloma Angostura. “I know I can count of your utmost discretion on this matter. I’m certain Lucero Salazar murdered Cesar Ramirez in a fit of jealousy concerning Mrs. Torres. I still need to figure out exactly how to complete the paperwork to officially close the case to the satisfaction of the ADA, but that’s my problem. As always, I appreciate your help in getting to the bottom of this.”
“You’re welcome, Lieutenant,” said Isabella. For our part, we’re carefully reviewing our own procedures. We must make the grounds more secure and we must be much more diligent about screening potential new Residents.”
“Well, it looks like we all have some work to do.”