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Santa Fe police, DA Serna clash over 2005 death inquiry

Rebecca MossMay 16, 2019

The Santa Fe Police Department and First Judicial District Attorney Marco Serna are at odds over when prosecutors obtained a case file for a 2005 suspicious death investigation that has languished in the legal system for nearly 14 years.

Police say a succession of four district attorneys failed to act for more than a decade on the case of Walter Donlon, 87, a wealthy Santa Fe property owner who investigators believe was killed in his north-side home. Police said they suspected an employee may have been responsible for the death.

James Hallinan, a spokesman for Serna, said the Donlon case was closed by the two former prosecutors before Serna took office in 2017.

Serna, he added, has agreed to reopen the case, but he said there was no Donlon case file at the office when Serna took office.

“Any other assertion is false,” Hallinan said in an email. “We have repeatedly asked SFPD [Santa Fe Police Department] for the entire case file, and as they continue to share the complete case file it is being reviewed.”

Detective Tony Trujillo said Santa Fe police have presented the entire case to each new administration, listing a trove of financial documents, forensic evidence and phone call recordings he said have long been in the possession of the District Attorney’s Office.

“It wasn’t that we [investigators] or the police department failed to provide the DA anything,” Trujillo said. “They had everything we had. There was no question.”

Trujillo and Attorney General’s Office spokesman David Carl independently confirmed a 2017 meeting involving the Attorney General’s Office; the police department; Serna; and his predecessor, Jennifer Padgett Macias.

At that meeting, “The DA or PD already had this case,” Carl said. “We offered our help … to offer resources, and it never went further than that.”

The controversy has received renewed attention following a report this week on KRQE-TV highlighting the 2005 case and raising questions about why legal action was never pursued against Marvin CdeBaca, a property manager who was named as a person of interest by police after Donlon’s death.

Following a two-year investigation, a grand jury hearing was scheduled, but it was then postponed due to a family emergency and never rescheduled.

Henry Valdez, the district attorney at the time of Donlon’s death, said he could not recall specific details without referencing the case file, but he said it took about two years for police to turn the investigation over to his office. Valdez said it is possible there were concerns about the evidence, which he recalled being “largely circumstantial.”

“Whether you can overcome those concerns, that is the critical decision,” he said. Valdez said it is possible his office waited for the new administration to pick the case back up after it was postponed.

Angela “Spence” Pacheco, who took office after Valdez, did not return messages seeking comment.

Current and former police officials told The New Mexican there was evidence to indict CdeBaca in Donlon’s death. CdeBaca was never arrested or indicted.

Trujillo said the caretaker would have been arrested on a grand jury indictment if the District Attorney’s Office had gone forward with the case.

CdeBaca, who lives in Rio Rancho, did not return a message seeking comment.

In a 911 call in late 2005, the property manager reported his employer, Donlon, had fallen and hit his head on a television set, Trujillo said. Donlon, a former Christian Brother and history professor at the now-defunct College of Santa Fe, according to his obituary, died in the hospital from head injuries several days later. News reports at the time said the state Office of the Medical Investigator determined Donlon died from blunt-force trauma.

Paul Chavez, a retired state investigator brought in to reconstruct the crime, said evidence pointed to homicide. He determined Donlon was attacked while sitting in his armchair “and received multiple events of blunt force trauma to the head which resulted in his death.”

Police also said there was a clear motive connecting the caretaker to the crime.

Over roughly 20 years, the property manager was suspected of taking around $1 million from Donlon and his wife, Theresa, while working for the family, police said. The Donlons were reported to have a net worth exceeding $10 million, yet were bouncing checks for their utility bills, Trujillo said.

Theresa Donlon died in 2006. The couple did not have children.

Chris Dietlein, 75, one of Walter Donlon’s nephews, who lives in Houston, said he knew few details about his uncle’s death but thought it was likely the family chose not to pursue the case, or “squelched it,” after the Donlon assets were liquidated. He and his family chose not to tell their own elderly mother about the situation surrounding Donlon’s death.

“I found it funny that nothing ever happened; I guess I watch too many murder mysteries on TV,” Dietlein said, adding, “if someone is responsible, I hope they get it.”

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