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Top 10 local stories of the year

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The top 10 news stories for 2018 were the hot topics of the year – from the opening of the CORE to the current state of the oil industry to a crying statue. One story, the accusation of former St. Helena priest Father Ricardo Bauza, returns to the top 10 stories for a second-straight year. The rise of oil production in Lea County continues to be talked about in Lea County’s coffee and doughnut shops, as well as its ripple effects including the need for more housing. With no sign of a downturn in sight, 2019 looks to be as bountiful as 2018.

In addition to the Hobbs News-Sun staff voting on Lea’s top stories, we asked the community to also have a vote. Here’s the list of the top 10 picked.

1. The opening of the CORE

After almost two years of construction, the $63.5 million Center of Recreational Experience (CORE) officially opened its doors during the first weekend of June. The facility offers a three-story tall play structure for kids, Olympic size pool, two water slides and a lazy river, volleyball/basketball courts, workout area, racquetball courts, indoor soccer field, walking/running track and therapy pool, among other amenities. The CORE is a collaboration between the City of Hobbs, Hobbs Schools, New Mexico Junior College, the JF Maddox Foundation and the University of the Southwest.

The City of Hobbs and its aquatics design team for the Center of Recreational Excellence (CORE) were honored with an award at the World Waterpark Association’s 2018 Symposium and Trade Show. The WWA board of directors recognized the City of Hobbs with a Leading Edge Award for its work on the CORE.

The Leading Edge Award honors individuals or parks for creativity in the development of new themes, facilities, programs, services or operational concepts in the water attractions industry; and to suppliers who have developed new concepts, products or services to the benefit of park members, their customers and the water attractions industry.

“The World Waterpark Association Leading Edge Award recognizes the CORE, our design team, and partners on a global scale,” said Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb. “With honorees from China, Pennsylvania and Texas, the CORE is in elite, worldwide company for its aquatics amenities, programs, events and activities.”

At a December NMJC meeting, it was reported that the CORE has seen an average of 18,000 visitors since opening. The number of memberships to the CORE through November is 2,674, which could range from individual to family or business memberships. Of those memberships, 6,787 people participate in CORE activities.

2. Hobbs boys soccer program

In September, a parent of a Hobbs student filed a federal lawsuit alleging a culture of sexual assault has existed within the Hobbs High School boys soccer varsity program in recent years, with players being assaulted as a method of hazing and coaches allegedly looking the other way.

The lawsuit alleges a video exists of soccer players sexually assaulting a younger teammate on a school bus two years ago during an away trip to El Paso. It also alleges the head coach of the boys varsity team, Jose Mares, told players to delete the video from their cellphones.

The alleged school bus perpetrator was allowed to remain on the team through his senior season, and the head coach has also remained in his post. The Hobbs Police Department in early 2017 began investigating a reported hazing incident that occurred on a school bus on Sept. 27, 2016, while the boys soccer team was on a road trip. The parents of the child involved in the 2016 incident said that their son was arrested and disciplined by the school. The charges were later dismissed.

As for the federal lawsuit, it is still pending.

3. St. Helena priest charges dropped

The criminal and civil lawsuits filed against former St. Helena Catholic Church priest Ricardo Bauza were dismissed following almost a year’s worth of controversy for the church.

Two law firms, Flores, Tawney & Acosta and the Law Offices of Brad D. Hall, filed the lawsuit in February that named the diocese, the church and Bauza as defendants in relation to sexual abuse allegations made by an adult male parishioner. Hobbs police filed a criminal sexual contact charge against Bauza in October 2017 and he turned himself into the department in February 2018.

The Fifth Judicial District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charge July 11 and District Attorney Dianna Luce declined to comment on the dismissal. His trial was scheduled to take place in Hobbs Magistrate Court later that month.

A month later, the civil suit brought forth by the defendant was withdrawn. Bauza’s attorneys sent a statement regarding the decision.

“Roman Catholic Priest Ricardo Bauza was falsely accused of inappropriately touching an adult male last year at the rectory of St. Helena Church in Hobbs, New Mexico,” it reads. “The allegations had no credibility, and therefore the criminal case, which was charged only as a misdemeanor, was dismissed by the Court. Now, the civil suit against Father Bauza has been withdrawn, never to be refiled.”

In a statement following the civil suit’s dismissal, Bauza stated he wanted “truth, justice and healing for all.”

4. Virgin Mary statue cries

When the bronze Virgin Mary statue at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church began to cry in May, it opened the Hobbs church to the world.

The statue began crying during a Mass Dec. 20 and through the next four months the statue cried a handful of times.

The news of the statue’s crying brought visitors from throughout the world wanting to set their eyes on what was called a miracle. Through social media posts, the popularity of the statue grew as did the questions of why and how?

In June, the Diocese of Las Cruces sent a team of investigators to Hobbs to examine the statue. Samples of the tears were also collected. In August, Diocese of Las Cruces Bishop Oscar Cantú announced the tears were an oil called the Sacred Chrism, mixed with a balsam, a scented perfume. Cantú stated there were no natural causes for the crying. No mechanical devices were used.

Cantú said the investigation into whether the crying is a miracle continues.

“If the cause of the phenomenon is supernatural, we must discern if it is from God or from the devil. I remind you that the Church believes in the existence of fallen angels, who at times try to trick us,” Cantú stated. Until that portion of the investigation can be completed, whether or not the weeping statue is deemed a miracle by the Catholic church is undetermined.

5. Increased oil production in Lea County.

New Mexico continued to be a major oil producer and Lea County is right in there in the

mix. In January, it was reported that if Lea County were its own state, it would rank 7th in the nation for oil production. The surge in oil production has reaped its share of benefits and hurdles, especially in the southern portion of the county.

Increased oil production has seen an influx of gross receipts funding to area communities. Jal saw its December gross receipts tax check of 13 times more than it was just nine years ago. In December 2009, Jal’s check was $48,672. In December 2018, it was $657,000. City officials said the money would be used to pay for infrastructure improvements, building improvements and to provide quality fire and police protection.

The industry brought added business to the area, in terms of new companies to new potential employees. That led to unemployment staying low throughout Lea County.

The United States Geological Survey reported in November an estimated 46.3 billion barrels of oil assessed in the Wolf-camp Shale and overlying Bone Spring Formation in the Delaware Basin portion of Texas and New Mexico’s Permian Basin. Also reported were 281 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 20 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.

Oil prices remained relatively high enough to continue to encourage investment in the oilfield. Several multi-million dollar projects for processing plants and pipelines were announced in 2018 as the network to get oil to market ramped up.

Earlier this year, a group of about 17 large oil companies organized as the Permian Strategic Partnership to help allay some of the infrastructure issues.

6. Hobbs school receives national award.

Broadmoor students, teachers and staff were recognized in November as the only New Mexico public school to receive a National Blue Ribbon School honor.

The honor comes after the school’s work in making “notable improvements in closing the achievement gap,” according to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. That work took place during the 2016-17 school year when current Broadmoor principal Galinda Everhart was a fifth-grade teacher at the school. She said the level of this accomplishment was not an easy task.

“It requires teamwork. It requires perseverance and it requires dedication,” said Everhart during a November celebration. “These are personal characteristics that are developed, in my opinion, through both effortless and then challenging tasks. Both of which are experienced on a daily basis and all schools across America. I am so proud of both Broad-moor teachers and students for having endured these challenges and come out of them stronger. So, kudos to our school and to our team. Thank you all.”

Gov. Susana Martinez was one of several state and local officials who attended the celebration. Everhart was one of a handful of Hobbs officials who traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend a ceremony honoring all of the Blue Ribbon schools.

7. Fight for the Ten Commandments

Local members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) requested religious items be removed from local government buildings. The group complained to the NMJC board about decorative crosses, which were removed. A member of the group, Jeremy Wood, approached the Hobbs City Commission during its Jan. 16 meeting and demanded the Ten Commandments located at City Hall be taken down. About a week later, a lawyer with the foundation sent a complaint to the City of Hobbs regarding its involvement in a Martin Luther King Jr. event that took place on Jan. 15.

That led to community members coming together in a formed religious group to fight against the FFRF. Through news accounts of the story, the group grew in numbers and held prayers and walks on and around City Hall.

The religious group packed the Feb. 22 city commission meeting asking for the Ten Commandments to remain. Of the 236 people who attended the meeting, 16 went before the commission to express their support on keeping the monument in its current location.

“I was raised (in Hobbs) all my life,” said Cassandra Lawson, “and I stand before you to say that the Ten Commandments is the decalog upon which our nation is founded. We stand upon our beliefs and as a body of Christ, we stand unified in one mind and one accord and we will not bow. I just pray that the monument stays standing where it is at.”

The FFRF never made another attempt and the issue faded away with the Ten Commandments staying near the City Hall building.

8. Housing boom

Not since the first oil boom in Lea County has Hobbs seen a influx of housing. Currently, there are five major housing construction projects taking place in and around Hobbs. The five are Zia Crossing west of town, The Meadows on College Lane, Tanglewood within the Ranchview addition, Homestead Estates and the manufactured homes at the Libba Land Subdivision.

“In the 35 years that I’ve been in the real estate business here, I don’t know of a time we had any more builders or any more directions than what we’ve got going right now,” said Bobby Shaw of Burkett-Shaw Realty.

The growth is helped by the City of Hobbs’ builder incentive program. The city reimburses builders for the cost of installing public infrastructure into subdivisions not previously served by the city.

The growth is due to the increased oil production activity in Lea County, creating jobs and bringing potential employees and their families to the area.

A Hobbs land developer told city commissioners his company plans to develop another 400 homes on the city’s northwest side as homebuilding continues to surge in the Zia Crossing subdivision.

9. Burglar of about 50 incidents captured

In August, Hobbs Police officers arrested Manuel Muro, 45, in their investigation of a serial burglar who is believed to have committed about 50 commercial burglaries over a 16-month period. Muro was charged with commercial burglary, breaking and entering, tampering with evidence and possession of burglary tools, all fourth-degree felonies, after he allegedly tried to burgle a West Marland business.

A 23-page criminal complaint filed by Hobbs police details numerous commercial burglaries, items taken, property damage reported in the incidents and physical evidence found at the businesses, such as shoe impressions. The incidents took place between May 2016 and August 2018, according to HPD investigators.

Businesses struck by the alleged serial burglar are located on North Lovington Highway, Sanger Street, Grimes Street, West County Road, Navajo Drive, Industrial Drive, Broadway Street, Carlsbad Highway and on Marland. Some of the businesses were burglarized more than once.

Hobbs Police Chief Chris McCall stated in August that Muro was arraigned in magistrate court and was being held on no bond. Muro’s court case is pending.

10. Seeking justice

A New Mexico woman is suing Lea County and the City of Hobbs after she was incarcerated for 49 days in two states on an Arizona bench warrant that resulted from identity theft. She claims her protests to law enforcement and jail officials about her wrongful detention were not heeded.

Valencia County resident Joy Morales seeks trial and damages against several defendants with Lea County and the City of Hobbs based on deprivation of civil rights and other “tortious” conduct in late 2015 and early 2016 following a Hobbs traffic stop. It claims Morales was wrongfully detained in Lea County for 42 days from Nov. 20, 2015, to Dec. 31, 2015, despite requests for authorities to check out her stolen identity situation.

Morales also filed a separate lawsuit in Arizona that was settled for an undisclosed amount.

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