SANTA FE (KRQE) - In a long and distinguished career Father Reynaldo Rivera served the Roman Catholic faithful in New Mexico parishes large and small until 1982 when he was lured to his death by a killer whose identity remains a mystery.
"What a violent, hideous crime," Archbishop Michael Sheehan of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe said. "To ask a priest to come and do his ministry and then at that moment to take him and kill him.
"Evil thing. Evil thing."
On a warm summer night-- Aug. 5, 1982--Father Rivera, 57, was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
At 8:30 p.m. he answered the phone in the rectory of the Santa Fe Cathedral. A mysterious stranger calling from a pay phone said he needed a priest.
"Father Rivera was told that the caller's grandfather was requesting last rites be administered as he was sick and dying," Agent Paul Chavez, a New Mexico State Police criminal investigator, said. "He told Father Rivera he was in a blue pickup truck, and Father Rivera had agreed to meet him at the rest stop on top of La Bajada hill."
Father Rivera rushed out of the cathedral at 9 p.m. It was the last time he would be seen alive.
Two days later, the priest's body was discovered in a remote pasture two miles southwest of the rest area on Interstate 25 south of Santa Fe. He was on his back with one arm extended. He had been shot in the chest.
Autopsy results suggested the priest had been bound and tied. Then-Archbishop Robert Sanchez arrived at the crime scene to offer comfort as city and state homicide detectives fanned out looking for evidence.
"There was some personal effects that were missing from Father Rivera's person which consisted of his eyeglasses, his wallet and his sacrament kit," Chavez said.
The father's 1974 Chevrolet Malibu was found abandoned with its gas tank empty gas about 110 miles from the crime scene at a rest area on Interstate 40 near Grants. Crime lab investigators examined the vehicle for fingerprints.
A man of god had been lured to his death. And no one knew why.
"People just flocked to him," Helen Rivera, the priest's sister-in-law, said. "He was kind and very pious."
Rivera remembers clearly the sad day Santa Fe said farewell.
"When he died there was a procession on foot from the cathedral to the cemetery, Rosario Cemetery," she said. "The procession was a big procession. The streets were full, and the sidewalks were lined with people that stood there."
Investigators believe the murderer was someone with a grudge against the church. The man who called the cathedral that August night was carrying out a plot to kill a priest.
Father Rivera was likely not the target, but when he took the phone call, it became his death sentence.
"It's such a hideous thing," Sheehan told KRQE News 13. "That someone would do that, it's incomprehensible.
"To call the cathedral in Santa Fe and to ask the priest to come and then kill him. That's the most outrageous horrible thing."
There were precious few clues to the killer's identity. Nearly 50 suspects were investigated, and the case was even featured on the network TV show "Unsolved Mysteries."
But over time the trail grew cold. Eventually new leads dried up. Yet despite the passage of time, Father Rivera has not been forgotten. Not by his family or his church and not the police.
"It wasn't an easy case 28 years ago, and it certainly is not an easy case today," Chavez, who is actively working the cold case, said. "This is a solvable case. It could be as simple as shaking the right tree.
"We're not giving up on this case."
Evidence now decades' old is being reevaluated.
"We have some evidence that we do possess that due to technology advances will be beneficial to this investigation even possibly solving it," New Mexico State Police Deputy Chief Scott Ford said. "We would like to be able to solve this and bring some closure to Father Rivera's family, to the archdiocese."
Last year, the archdiocese dedicated a new wing at the cathedral to the memory of the slain priest.
"He was a much beloved pastor of the cathedral church," Sheehan said. "Highly respected Franciscan priest with his own Hispanic roots here in New Mexico. Much loved and much grieved.
"There is still grieving in Santa Fe about his wonderful life and ministry and then his tragic murder."
At the remote spot where Father Rivera died there are no reminders of the horrible crime of 28 years ago. A simple cross once marked the spot, but it's gone now.
Today the site is just an old cow pasture.
Father's Rivera's death was hardest on his family. For Helen Rivera there are the photographs and the memories still so vivid despite the passage of time.
Helen will never forget the day her daughter was born with a tragic disability. Reynaldo Rivera held the fragile infant in his arms.
"I remember him just holding her, just holding her, looking at her," she said. "Didn't say much or anything. He just held her."
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