AP NEWS

Menace of Madrid finally caught?

March 31, 2019

For years, it seems, Edward Laird roamed around the country — from the Southwest to New England, Oregon to Florida — brazenly breaking into homes and stealing valuables. He made headlines nationwide a decade ago, when he was accused of nabbing what was purported to be a valuable van Gogh sketch from a Santa Fe home.

Described as homeless in recent court documents, Laird, 53, continued on a path of high-dollar serial burglaries despite multiple arrests and convictions, time in prison, skipped court hearings and repeated probation violations.

Until, that is, Santa Fe County sheriff’s deputies caught up with him earlier this month at what they say was a vacant home on rural Red Rock Road. Laird was arrested on several active warrants and now faces new charges accusing him of burglarizing homes in Cerrillos and Madrid, including charges filed Thursday in a case that dates to 2016.

As he remains in the Santa Fe County jail, residents of the communities say he has been menacing them for at least a couple of years, prompting homeowners to beef up security by installing cameras or even buying a gun.

This time, they hope authorities succeed in keeping Laird behind bars.

“We’re all trying to do what we can to keep him in jail,” said Joyce Hood of Madrid, who suspects Laird burglarized her home last year. She is a member of an online group of area residents who have been posting updates about Laird and the ongoing burglaries.

“He’s just wreaked havoc in the community,” Hood said.

Caught on camera

Homeowners’ surveillance cameras might have helped lead sheriff’s office detectives to Laird, who had been sought by law enforcement “for several months,” according to a statement of probable cause filed this month in Santa Fe County Magistrate Court.

A ghostly image of a person resembling Laird — a thin man with wispy, blond hair — had been captured one night by a surveillance camera at a home in the area. A camera installed inside a shed on another property caught a close-up of a man’s face the night of March 5 — thin gray beard, horseshoe mustache and eyeglasses. The burglar was wearing a floppy brown cap.

A week later, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office was called to the vacant home on Red Rock Road. Neighbors complained Laird had been staying there and was burglarizing area residences, according to the statement of probable cause.

Deputies surrounded the house the afternoon of March 12 and demanded over a speaker system that Laird come out. A half-hour passed with no response, a sheriff’s office detective said in the statement, so the officers — with permission from the homeowner — went inside.

In the living room, under a small bed, they found a sleeping bag that appeared to be occupied. They ordered the man to come out with his hands up, according to the statement. Several minutes passed with no response.

A detective pulled back part of the sleeping bag. Laird still refused to get up and show his hands, the statement said, so a deputy stunned him with a Taser and placed him in handcuffs.

A sheriff’s office report of the arrest says deputies found several items inside the home they believe had been stolen from residences in Cerrillos and Madrid over the past two years, including tools, rugs, decorative items, vacuums, power tools and DVDs, as well as eight marine batteries found in a white pickup locals said Laird had been driving.

Deputies discovered that the white Toyota pickup, parked outside the Red Rock Road home where Laird was arrested, had been stolen in Madrid. Another pickup on the property had been dismantled, with its license plate missing, windshield gone and fenders removed.

According to a separate statement of probable cause accusing Laird of vehicle theft, an Albuquerque man who owned the white Toyota pickup later told the sheriff’s office that was the second time his truck had been stolen, and both times it was taken by the same person.

Laird appeared Wednesday at a Magistrate Court hearing on three cases filed in March. He fidgeted with the chains attached to his handcuffs, and whispered to his newly appointed public defender that he had been living in the abandoned home for 2½ years when sheriff’s deputies found him.

“These folks came and shot me, kicked me out,” Laird said.

‘The guy keeps coming’

A handful of Cerrillos and Madrid residents showed up for the brief court hearing. In an interview afterward, they spoke passionately about their communities. Some said they came to the area, a former hippie enclave where many residents live off the grid, to be somewhere quiet, safe and beautiful.

Their encounters with Laird have affected them, they said. Most declined to give their names, saying they fear retaliation if Laird is released from jail.

The residents believe Laird is the thief behind tens of thousands of dollars worth of valuables stolen from their homes, such as pricey solar batteries and other goods. Some of them have since recovered belongings from the sheriff’s office. Still, the rash of break-ins has left residents fearing for their safety.

One man, who has lived in the area for 32 years, said his home was burglarized in January. He bought a handgun recently and sleeps with it close by. He called Laird “a calculating pro … without any remorse” and said the character of the area has forever changed.

“It broke my heart,” the man said. “I almost wanted to sell my ranch. It’s consistent. The guy keeps coming.”

Donald Stepanovich said in an interview that Laird is suspected of burglarizing his home on Rogersville Road twice on the same day in August 2017. That case is still pending in court.

Stepanovich had been out of town at the time, he said, but discovered the first break-in while viewing video from his security camera. The camera captured footage of a man trying to open the door to his home, and then the camera was disconnected. Sheriff’s deputies who responded saw no signs of forced entry but found a number of valuables stacked in a wooden bowl inside the home, a box of solar batteries open in the garage, and the internet and security modems unplugged.

Stepanovich told deputies he had not done any of this before leaving on his trip. Deputies collected evidence, plugged the modems back in and left.

An hour later, Stepanovich called them back, saying there were flashlights shining around the home and the security cameras had gone down again. This time, a court document says, deputies found Laird lying under a solar panel outside, with a rug, blankets and pillows taken from the home.

A charging document says Laird told the deputies he had never entered the home. But deputies found the wooden bowl and valuables nearby, and the home’s internet and security modems had been disconnected again.

Laird was arrested but later released.

Stepanovich said he believes Laird had burglarized his home previously, in 2016, but Laird was never charged with that crime. However, Stepanovich said, he received a call from the sheriff’s office informing him about stolen items found during Laird’s recent arrest. Stepanovich was able to recover “irreplaceable” items from Zimbabwe and Bolivia, he said.

Stepanovich, a practicing attorney in Indiana, applauded the quick response of sheriff’s deputies who arrived at his home, which is difficult to access, and arrested Laird.

But he said he blames Laird’s continued release from custody on a bail reform measure approved by New Mexico voters in 2016. The intent of the constitutional amendment — which Stepanovich called “commendable” — was to ensure that nonviolent defendants are not jailed while awaiting trial simply because they don’t have money for bail, and to provide a way to keep defendants behind bars if they pose a threat to the public, including those who have the financial means to post bond set in high amounts.

However, Stepanovich argued, a better version of the law would allow those charged with nonviolent crimes to be released from jail only if their attorney can prove to a judge they don’t have similar charges pending or a history of failing to appear in court.

“That should be pretty darn simple for the defense counsel to show,” Stepanovich said in an email.

A life in court records

Much of the story of Laird’s life is hazy. No relatives for the man could be found, and his public defender said he did not have any information about him.

Court records, however, portray a criminal history that dates back to the 1980s — when Laird was a young man living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — and spans more than a half-dozen states. Online records show he faced an array of charges in Florida between 1986 and 1997, ranging from burglary, grand theft auto and drug possession to prowling, extortion and shooting into an occupied building.

According to Florida court records, he was born in Glendale, Calif., outside Los Angeles.

Oregon court records show Laird was charged in multiple burglary and theft cases between 2004 and 2006.

He first appeared in the New Mexico court system in 2007, when he was cited for speeding. His driver’s license listed an address in Watson, Ore., described in an online forum as a “ghost town.”

Later cases list an address for Laird in Albuquerque, while previous news reports have called him a resident of Raton, Santa Fe and Abilene, Texas.

The Albuquerque Journal reported in 2007 that Laird was accused of burglaries in Angel Fire and at a ranch outside Trinidad, Colo., and said he was wanted on suspicion of crimes in Oregon, Florida and Maine.

According to the Pueblo Chieftain, Laird was accused of stealing $40,000 worth of trophy animal mounts, two elephant tusks valued at $40,000, jewelry and other items from the southern Colorado ranch.

In Texas, Laird was charged in 2009 with burglary of a motor vehicle, criminal trespassing and marijuana possession, court records show.

He gained notoriety nationwide for the 2009 incident in Santa Fe in which he was accused of burglarizing an art collector’s home and taking, among other items, a piece of art believed to be a sketch by Vincent van Gogh of his 1888 painting The Night Cafe, with an estimated value of $250,000 to $1 million, according to news reports.

The stolen sketch was found at consignment shop in Raton, with a price tag of $250. Laird was arrested on a warrant in the case in 2010 in Vermont, where he was suspected of burglarizing condominiums at a resort. He was extradited to New Mexico and convicted of the art theft.

Laird served nearly two years in prison, from 2011-13, according to the New Mexico Corrections Department.

A few years after his release, a probation and parole officer reported in a court document that he had repeatedly violated the drug testing requirements of his parole due to a “severe substance dependence.”

Laird is now facing charges of breaking and entering, resisting officers, larceny, criminal damage to property and criminal trespassing in connection with burglaries of homes on Red Rock Road, Paseo Sudeste and Camino Cerro Chato in southwestern Santa Fe County, as well as charges of receiving a stolen vehicle and tampering with a vehicle.

He also faces charges of larceny and resisting an officer in a Jan. 18 incident in which the sheriff’s office says he was stopped and questioned by a deputy about a gasoline theft on Bisbee Court, a road off N.M. 14 just south of Santa Fe, and fled the scene in a pickup. Court records say he reached speeds of up to 100 mph as he drove southbound on N.M. 14, eventually evading the deputy.

Detectives executed a search warrant March 13 for samples of Laird’s DNA in an attempt to match it with samples collected from two other crime scenes in 2018, according to court records. One was an another attempted gas theft in July at the same location on Bisbee Court; the other was a smashed window of a van at a nearby site on Bisbee Court in November.

Sheriff’s office spokesman Juan Ríos confirmed Laird is a suspect in at least eight other burglaries going back years. Detectives are working to collect evidence necessary to prosecute the additional cases, Ríos said.

On Thursday, Laird was charged in the most recent case: the burglary of a home near Madrid on Camino Cerro Chato over the Christmas holiday in 2016.

According to an arrest warrant affidavit in the case, the resident returned home Dec. 26 and found tire tracks in the snow, his back door open and nearly $17,000 in valuables missing. A deputy who arrived the next morning saw a single set of shoe prints leading to the back door. In addition to valuables, the affidavit said, the resident’s snow boots and slippers had been stolen.

In a March 18 hearing, a county magistrate ordered Laird held on a $2,500 bond and described him as “a definite flight risk.” Laird has multiple bench warrants for failing to appear in court, the judge said, and he has been using a false date of birth and Social Security number and eight aliases.

A week later, a state District Court judge imposed a $2,500 cash-only bond for Laird in two cases from 2017. If he is unable to post bail, according to the District Attorney’s Office, his public defender may file a motion seeking his release to an inpatient substance abuse treatment program.

But James Hallinan, a spokesman for District Attorney Marco Serna, on Thursday said prosecutors were still assessing Laird’s case and could file a motion “at any time” seeking to detain him until trial.