LOCAL Top 10
Editor’s note: The following is the list of top ten local news stories for 2023 as voted on by the staff at the News-Sun.
1. Turmoil in Tatum
In January of 2023, turmoil broke out in the governing body of the small town of Tatum and continued to brew throughout the year.
Accusations of nepotism, time card fraud and disloyalty to “team Gutierrez” led to the termination of Tatum police officers and the police chief in the first few months of the year. Residents swarmed into the council meetings, spilling out into the hallway and foyer of Tatum City Hall, necessitating a relocation of the council meetings to the Tatum Community Building.
The residents spoke out during the meetings, blasting the choices and behaviors of the former mayor and her husband, former police chief Kevin Gutierrez, who together decided to terminate 90 percent of the police force without consulting the governing council members.
In March, the council voted to terminate Kevin Gutierrez the last police officer employed by the town of Tatum. Tatum Councilor Carl Tennison resigned his position on the council.
It was later discovered then Tatum Mayor Amy Gutierrez had told another city hall clerk, Mandy Martinez to not cancel health insurance being paid out of the police fund for her and her husband Kevin Gutierrez, despite his being terminated.
After the Tatum council learned of the insurance fraud, they voted to have a lawyer start the process for the removal of Amy from the office of mayor for reasons of malfeasance. Amy settled with the court by agreeing to resign her position as the Tatum mayor.
Tatum continues to be without a sitting mayor and has a vacant council seat to fill.
2. Trial for teen who threw her baby in a dumpster
Anger spread like wildfire across social media as Lea County residents spoke out about the atrocity of a baby being thrown into a dumpster in Hobbs on Jan. 7, 2022.
Alexis Avila had given birth at home in the restroom, placed the baby boy into a trash bag and then took the trash bag with the baby inside and tossed him into a dumpster located behind the mall in Hobbs. A security camera from one of the businesses recorded the incident.
A jury trial was held and Avila was found guilty of attempt to commit first-degree murder and abuse of a child resulting in great bodily harm on April 14, 2023. Avila was sentenced to 18 years, with two years suspended and 475 days credited for her pre-trial confinement.
On May 1, an appeal was filed.
Avila’s lawyers filed with the Fifth Judicial Court for an order of release pending the appeal in the New Mexico Court of Appeals, and was denied. The NMCA overturned the decision and granted Avila’s release on Oct. 18, 2023, pending the trial in the court of appeals.
The actions of Avila prompted legislators and residents to push for more Safe Haven Baby Boxes around the state. Thanks to N.M. State Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, each of New Mexico’s 33 counties are scheduled to have at least one Safe Haven Baby Box installed.
Hobbs Fire Station One now has a Safe Haven box, which was recently utilized when another parent left a health infant inside, preventing a similar case to Avila.
3. Abortion access in southeastern N.M.
An abortion clinic in Hobbs was raided by New Mexico State Police on a sealed search warrant on Aug. 24.
The abortion clinic had opened for business in 2023 despite ordinances passed by the City of Hobbs, declaring Hobbs as a Sanctuary City for the Unborn. The building where the abortion clinic Freedom Care was located evicted the business because it didn’t pay rent and lied about the type of business it operated. There is ongoing litigation filed in the Fifth Judicial Court with a court date scheduled in the spring.
Democrat New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued two executive orders, one to shield patients and providers from out-of-state efforts to obtain medical records for purposes of prosecution and one to announce her pledge of $10 million to go toward building a full spectrum “reproductive health clinic” in Las Cruces. The Democrat-controlled legislature enacted, and she signed, a bill that made the shield order a law and the $10 million pledge became a part of the budget package in the 2023 legislature.
Lujan Grisham and Democrat New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torrez filed suit in the New Mexico Supreme Court to abolish the business ordinances citing the federal Comstock Act in the southeastern New Mexico counties of Lea and Roosevelt and the cities of Hobbs and Clovis. The hearing was held this month and the all-Democrat New Mexico Supreme Court ruled the ordinances would not be able to stand.
Lujan Grisham has made many public statements regarding the state of New Mexico being open for business for abortion and her desire to provide abortion through birth. But plaintiffs and residents in southeastern New Mexico have expressed their intent to appeal the N.M. Supreme Court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
There has been no word if or when the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the case.
4. Annular Eclipse brings crowds
Hobbs became an international destination Oct. 14 when an annular eclipse darkened the skies over a swath of the country that included southeast New Mexico.
Visitors started arriving early at viewing locations across the community. By the projected 9 a.m. start, the lawn of the Hobbs Public Library on Shipp Street resembled an astronomy convention, with telescopes, cameras and other viewing apparatus, all pointing to the southeast.
At New Mexico Junior College, math and physics professor Joel Keranen led a team monitoring the eclipse, sending data to a clearing house at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale, working under grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation.
And HPL made a day of the event, with games, crafts and storyteller and educator Eldrena Douma of Canyon, Texas.
An annular eclipse, also known as a “ring of fire” eclipse, occurs when the moon traverses between the sun and the Earth. Annular eclipses differ from a solar, or total, eclipse, where the shadow of the moon obscures more of the sun. In an annular eclipse, the moon is further from the Earth, leaving a small amount of the sun visible in a ring shape as it passes.
5. Baby found dead in trash at Covenant Health Hobbs Hospital
Hobbs Police have closed the case of an infant found dead at Covenant Health Hobbs Hospital in September.
According to an HPD report, an autopsy performed by Dr. Emily Helmrich at University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center showed the infant was between 25 and 30 weeks gestation when it died in the womb. The autopsy determined the infant was stillborn before it was allegedly left in a bathroom in the emergency department at Covenant.
“Based on the autopsy report, there is no evidence to suggest the infant was alive prior to the delivery,” the report concludes. “… the pathologist lists the cause of death to be intrauterine fetal demise therefor there is no crime.”
Hobbs Police were called to Covenant about 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 13 for a report a member of the housekeeping staff found a ‘large amount of blood” on the floor of the bathroom and saw what appeared to be “a baby’s foot in the toilet,” according to the report.
6. Lea residents get $1 for every $5.58 they send to Santa Fe
Lea County residents weren’t shocked to learn they get a short shrift from the state when it comes to a return on their tax dollars, but the findings from a study made public this year certainly brought the situation into stark contrast.
Commissioned by the Eddy County Board of County Commissioners, the study, conducted by New Mexico State University’s Arrowhead Center, showed that for every $5.58 Lea County residents send to Santa Fe in tax revenues, the county receives back only $1. The report also showed that Lea and Eddy Counties provided some 40 percent of the state’s revenues each year from 2015-2022.
A recent update of that study released last month shows an even more staggering imbalance with the amount of the state’s budget coming from Lea and Eddy moving closer to 50 percent. Not shockingly, when Lea and Eddy officials presented the new numbers to the state’s Interim Revenue Stabilization and Tax Policy Committee last month, they were treated poorly by Democrat leaders who didn’t seem to see a problem with the distribution system as it exists now.
Local leaders asked for a redesign of the distribution system that was more equitable and provide Lea and Eddy with more of their fair share in tax dollars.
“I am very reluctant to take on one-off approaches to address oddball situations,” said Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos. “Every community benefits from oil and gas and the equalization formula plays a role in that.”
7. Lea tops 1M barrels oil produced per day
Lea County started off 2023 on a high note, ringing in the new year with a new record for the history books — 1 million barrels per day oil production. The record was hit in October 2022, but the tallied numbers were not released until January where it showed the county logged almost 32 million barrels of crude oil in October.
Updates to a study of Lea and Eddy counties and their oil and gas tax revenues shows that 49 percent of oil and gas extraction revenues in the state came from Lea County, to the tune of about $4.6 billion annually. Eddy County came in second with around 42 percent of all oil production in the state.
According to the report, conducted by New Mexico State University’s Arrowhead Center, Lea and Eddy counties provided some 40 percent of the state’s revenues each year from 2015-2022. That number is now closer to 50 percent.
Lea County remains the most active county in the nation for active drilling rigs at 49, down from 69 a year ago. Nationally, there are 595 drilling rigs in operation, down from 749 a year ago. Texas leads the pack with 306 rigs (down from 366 in December 2022), 213 of those in the Permian basin and 97 of the Permian rigs operating in Lea and Eddy counties.
The year-over-year decline in oil rigs is often attributed to both the regulatory and poor economic climate in the nation.
Lea County’s oil production increased 534 percent from 5,031,012 barrels in November 2014 to 31,905,347 barrels in October 2022, which encompassed the four years of President Donald Trump’s administration 2017-2021. The Trump era set all time records for oil production.
8. Courts uphold congressional gerrymandered redistricting
It’s not a really crime if it’s just a little crime. It only counts if it’s a lot of crime.
That was the message both a district court judge and the state’s supreme court sent earlier this year when ruling that, while New Mexico Democrats rigged the state’s redistricting in their favor, it wasn’t enough to warrant an overturn of the new districts. The state’s Republican party has been fighting the state’s redistricting of the congressional maps following the 2020 Census in court for most of the year.
Democrats after the 2020 census did “dilute” Republican votes in the second congressional district — that included all of Lea County. However, he also rules the gerrymandered dilution didn’t rise to a level sufficient to overturn them. Republican leaders took the issue to a higher court — the state’s supreme court — and attempted to argue their case before the five justices last month.
Carter Harrison, attorney for the Republican Party, argued the majority Democrats at the time worked to co-op the election by splitting off parts of the 2nd Congressional District in New Mexico, including the Republican-leading southeast, into the 3rd District and rolling heavily Democratic areas in Albuquerque into the 2nd District.
But the justices were having none of it, saying the margin between the winner and loser in the second district race was too close — just 0.7 percent, to justify the gerrymandering claims. New Mexico Republicans are eying a push of the case to the federal supreme court, where they hope to get a fair shake, but whether the case moves ahead of not, it is safe to say the lasting effects of the new districts will be felt and argued for years to come.
9. Lea County Junior Livestock Show tops $1M in sales
The Lea County Fair and Rodeo Junior Livestock Sale had flirted with the mythical $1 million mark before — and with the Eddy County sale squeaking over the amount just before the Lea County Fair started in August, Lea County buyers felt the pressure.
For the first time, the Lea County sale topped $1 million, with the total for the sale on Saturday coming in at $1,013,500 — with add-ons collected after. Individual buyers, buyers clubs — groups of buyers who all donate money so they have more bidding power — businesses and even the county government all came together to make the sale a success for all of the Lea County youth who took part.
Some of the money will enable the kids to purchase animals for the next year, or to cover education expenses for those going on to trade school or college.
Every animal in the livestock sale sold for at least $5,000, and many were sold at $10,000 or more.
The top sale went to Noah Harris of Tatum FFA, at $20,000 for his Reserve Versatility Champion filly.
But Harris wasn’t the only one who’s horse went for more than $10,000. Five other horses sold in the $10,000-$17,000 range.
And horses weren’t the only animals fetching hefty sale prices into the five-figure area.
The market steer categories saw several brothers and sisters competing and selling against each other.
Jett Parker, of Monument 4-H, topped the market steer list with his Grand Champion selling at $18,500, followed closely by his sister, Jaylee Parker, also of Monument 4-H — in an almost repeat of what happened in the show ring — with her Reserve Grand Champion selling at $16,000. Many other steer and dairy heifer fetched prices in the $10,000-$15,000 range.
Sydni Rice’s, of Tatum FFA, first place market lamb was the top selling lamb at $11,750, but Oscar Mojica’s, of Hobbs FFA, first place market lamb sold for $11,500 and three other lambs went for more than $10,000.
Swine also did well in the sale with Johnna Butts’, of Jal 4-H, Breed Champion and Grand Champion market swine selling for $10,000 and Ava Griffin’s, of Tatum FFA, Reserve Breed Champion market swine selling for $13,000.
While only two goats had sales more than $10,000, goats overall did well in the sale. Diana Molina’s, of Hobbs FFA, third place meat goat sold for $12,500, while Max Alvarado’s, of Monument 4-H, fifth place meat goat sold for $15,500.
While chickens didn’t have a sale top the $10k mark, several got close. They ranged $5,000-$9,750.
Rabbits likewise did not see a $10k sale, but several were close, with a range of $5,000-$8,750.
T10. Governor issues gun ban
When Democratic New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an “emergency” public health order Sept. 8 suspending some U.S. Constitutional rights of New Mexicans, it was seen as only affecting those in Bernaillo County and in the city of Albuquerque.
But that’s not what the order actually did.
Much like her “emergency health orders” that practically closed down the state during the COVID pandemic — initially proposed as only two weeks, but ending up lasting around two years — the orders Lujan Grisham put in place on Sept. 8 cover the entire state.
Every city or county that met the thresholds put in place in the order are subject to that “emergency” order she set to expire in 30 days.
“Then, we’ll, like all the other public health orders, we will either amend, or renew or adjust depending upon where we are,” Lujan Grisham said during a press conference.
Lujan Grisham on Sept. 15 narrowed the order that broadly suspended the right to carry firearms to apply only to public parks and playgrounds where children and their families gather in and around Albuquerque.
The governor’s announcement came days after a federal judge blocked part of the Sept. 8 order with criticism mounting over the Democratic governor’s action and legal challenges by gun-rights advocates.
Lujan Grisham said she will continue to pursue a “framework that will pass legal muster” to “rein in” gun violence.
She has continued to renew her “emergency” order every 30 days.
T10. Voters approve new Hobbs middle school
Voters in the November General Election in Hobbs approved a $50 million bond issue for Hobbs Municipal Schools to build a new, fourth middle school and to replace one of the district’s three aging middle school campuses.
Total cost for the project is projected at almost $104 million for demolition and replacement of Heizer Middle School on East Stanolind Road and construction of the new campus at an as-yet to be determined location in the community.
The New Mexico Public Finance Authority — the state agency that assists school districts with capital and emergency facilities project funding — will cover about 44 percent of the expense, Superintendent Gene Strickland said. Proceeds from the bond issue will cover most of the remaining 56 percent of the costs.
T10. Hobbs boys soccer team wins state championship
The long wait was worth it for the Hobbs boys’ soccer team.
After 26 years, the Eagles finally won another state championship, and they did it in style, completing a perfect 23-0 season, all under the guidance of new head coach Reyes Marquez.
Over the course of the season, Hobbs blanked nine of its opponents. The Eagles had two games go to overtime, and they won both. In district play, the Eagles outscored their opponents 33-4.
And they won the long-awaited state championship on penalty kicks, against Atrisco Heritage at the University of New Mexico Soccer Complex in Albuquerque on Nov. 11.
About midway through the season the Eagles, then ranked No. 1 in the state, host the No. 2 team in the state, La Cueva, and won that game 2-1 in the final five seconds of regulation.
The Eagles scored 86 goals over the course of the season. Joshua Chavez led the Eagles’ offense with 24 goals and two assists while Franklin Ferrufino had 16 goals and eight assists. Juan Camacho also had double-figure goals with 10. Alexis Sanchez led the team in assists with 13.
The Eagles had five players earn All-State honors with Humberto Hernandez, Jorge Martinez, Chavez, and Ferrufino all being named first-team while Jordan Barron got second-team honors.