Santa Fe police: Homicide cases ‘moving forward’

August 26, 2018

For the handful of detectives who investigate violent crimes for the Santa Fe Police Department, every homicide is personal, says Lt. Paul Joye, who supervises the investigations bureau.

“The detectives, we get to know [a victim’s] families, we get to know their friends,” Joye said. “We take this stuff home with us.”

In the past decade, department records show, local police have opened 41 homicide cases. They’ve solved 27 of them. Fourteen cases remain open, with no arrests made and no suspects charged.

Among those unsolved cases are the three homicides Santa Fe police have responded to in 2018.

• In May, James Babcock, 45, died a day after reporting to police that a neighbor had attacked him with a baseball bat. He declined medical treatment. Police opened a homicide investigation into Babcock’s death after a state medical investigator classified the death as a slaying in an autopsy report, Joye said.

• In June, police found Michael Willms, 58, stabbed to death in his midtown apartment, records show. Willms was a well-known Southern California event planner who had moved to Santa Fe in 2012 and attended a local Episcopal church.

• In July, 52-year-old mountain bike enthusiast, husband and father Robert Romero was fatally shot during an altercation in his backyard. In a search warrant affidavit, police suggest an unknown suspect was in Romero’s yard in the early morning hours of July 30 and shot him during a fight.

Officers have identified “persons of interest” who might be tied to the Babcock case — they even took DNA samples from a man identified by Babcock as his attacker and searched the man’s house — but have not named a suspect. Joye said they have identified no suspects in the deaths of Romero and Willms.

While police have not made arrests or asked the district attorney to pursue criminal charges in any of these cases, Joye said detectives are making progress on all three.

“Everybody’s moving, everybody’s busy,” Joye said. “… I’m positive right now that all the cases are moving forward.”

On average, it takes Santa Fe police officers about two and a half months to solve a homicide, according to the department’s caseload over the past 10 years.

But, as Joye is quick to point out, every case is unique. Two of the homicides solved by city police last year took a single day to crack. One homicide in 2013 was solved three years after the crime.

The process of investigating homicides is as variable as the crimes themselves, Joye said.

When detectives arrive on the scene, he said, they dive straight into what he calls the “information gathering” phase: “Can we see what happened? How obvious is the scene to us? Are there witnesses? Are there possible witnesses?”

They talk to family, friends and witnesses, Joye said, and pound the pavement, knocking on doors to ask neighbors if they saw or heard anything suspicious.

When detectives speak with neighbors and possible witnesses, he said, they’re often looking for anything out of the ordinary that might lead them to a suspect or a piece of evidence.

“A response that’s not uncommon at all is people will have seen something and say, ‘Yeah, I thought that was weird, but I don’t want to bother you guys; you guys have other things to do, it’s not your job,’ ” Joye said. “No, no — that is our job. That’s what we want. … I always encourage people to call us if they see things that are out of the ordinary.”

In their attempt to solve Romero homicide, for example, police asked residents of the surrounding area to go through their home surveillance video to look for anything unusual around the time of the shooting.

Joye said he doesn’t think anyone one submitted video.

However, he said, the public has been helpful in assisting with the recent cases. And officers have done their own surveillance, too — sometimes openly patrolling the area surrounding the site of a homicide. Other times, he said, their operations are more low key.

An investigation goes far beyond what detectives discover at the scene.

Investigators send evidence they’ve collected to the state crime lab for forensic testing, for example, and they often prowl through potential cyber-evidence on computers and cellphones. Search warrants in the Willms investigation show police asked Facebook and the dating app Grindr for information related to Willms’ social media connections and correspondence.

As forensic test results come back from crimes labs, detectives complete interviews with family, friends and neighbors, and members of the public call in with useful tips, Joye said, he checks in daily with his investigative teams to see what’s been accomplished and what steps they plan to take next.

Homicide detectives collaborate with crime scene technicians, other investigators and experts across the department, Joye said. And the teams aren’t shy about asking for help from other agencies or critiquing one another’s work to get to the bottom of a case.

“There’s no room for ego in cases like this. You have to put all that aside,” Joye said. “… All we’re trying to do is solve the case and get whoever is responsible.”

Overall, the city police department is slightly better than the average law enforcement agency when it comes to solving homicides. Sixty-six percent of Santa Fe cases have been solved in the past decade, police records show. The national average in 2016 was closer to 60 percent, according to FBI data.

Inform Santa Fe police

See anything suspicious in your neighborhood? Call 911 or nonemergency dispatch at 505-428-3710.

With tips about the city’s three unsolved homicides of 2018, call Santa Fe Crime Stoppers at 505-955-5050.

Santa Fe homicides, 2008-18

2018: 3 homicides, 0 closed

2017: 6 homicides, 5 closed

2016: 2 homicides, 2 closed

2015: 1 homicide, 0 closed

2014: 2 homicides, 1 closed

2013: 2 homicides, 2 closed

2012: 4 homicides, 4 closed

2011: 3 homicides, 3 closed

2010: 8 homicides, 3 closed

2009: 6 homicides, 4 closed

2008: 4 homicides, 3 closed

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