A KRQE Investigation: The Case of the vanishing murder

Larry Barker

Walter Donlon, 87, was a wealthy retired educator. In October 2005, an employee, Marvin CdeBaca, reported an emergency at Donlon’s Northside Santa Fe home.

“We need an ambulance,” CdeBaca told the 911 operator. “Walter is 88 years old … he fell and cracked his head,” CdeBaca said in the recorded phone conversation.

CdeBaca later claimed Walter Donlon fell in his study and hit his head on the television set. Bleeding and unconscious, the elderly homeowner was rushed to the St. Vincent’s Emergency Room.

According to Santa Fe Police Detective John Boerth, while Donlon was on the hospital bed being sutured and stapled for injuries to the top of the scalp, he woke up and said: “They beat me.”  

“They asked him ‘Who beat you?’ and he just said again, ‘They beat me.’ After that he lost consciousness again and never regained consciousness,” Detective Boerth says.

Ten days later Walter Donlon died from his injuries.

Was it a household accident or something else? Detectives launched a sweeping two-year investigation amassing boxes of financial records, a room full of physical evidence and detailed forensic analysis. The conclusion? Walter Donlon’s death was not an accident.

How Did Walter Die?

Almost from the beginning detectives were suspicious of the claim that Walter Donlon injured himself in a fall. “Was this an accidental fall or was it something else?” says Santa Fe Police Detective Tony Trujillo.

Marvin CdeBaca told detectives Walter Donlon had apparently been sitting in his chair when he stood up, fell, and hit his head. 

Detective Trujillo says the autopsy results were not consistent with the victim hitting his head on a TV. “He had a linear skull fracture. There were three lacerations to the top of his head,” Detective Trujillo says.

State Police Investigator Paul Chavez (now retired) was called in to analyze the crime scene. Among his findings? No blood on or near the television set. In fact, a bloodstain pattern analysis revealed Walter Donlon was savagely assaulted in his chair. “Mr. Donlon without a doubt was beaten to death in his home,” Chavez said.

“The findings of the analysis was that Walter was seated in his chair at the time the blows were delivered to his head which subsequently killed him,” Detective Trujillo says. “Walter Donlon was murdered.”

Who Killed Walter Donlon?

Who would brutally murder a frail, elderly man sitting in his chair? 

Walter and his 94-year-old wife Teresa had accumulated a net worth valued at about $10,000,000 from investments and Santa Fe rental properties. Shortly after Walter died, police investigators discovered suspicious transactions involving the Donlon’s financial accounts. A team of state accounting specialists from the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department were called in to analyze the Donlon bank and investment records. Their findings? Someone had been stealing large sums of money from Walter and Teresa. The primary suspect was Marvin CdeBaca. CdeBaca was the Donlon’s property manager, and, he is the same man who called 911 in October 2005 claiming his employer had fallen in a household accident.

“There was an extensive history over possibly a 20-year time span of Marvin CdeBaca embezzling funds from the Donlons’ bank accounts as well as investment accounts,” says Santa Fe Police Detective John Boerth.

Detective Boerth says evidence indicates, “Marvin CdeBaca was funneling money out of the Donlon banking and investment accounts and putting it into his own accounts … hundreds of thousands if not over a million dollars. It was a lot of money.”

Armed with a mountain of evidence that included the financial audit, crime scene analysis, witness statements, and search warrants, detectives named a suspect in the case: Marvin CdeBaca.

Detective Tony Trujillo summarized the findings of the two-year investigation based on the evidence. “Marvin CdeBaca made a career out of … taking money from the Donlons. It got to a point where his luck ran out in that Walter found out he was doing this. Walter was going to fire him because of it. Marvin CdeBaca saw his cash cow walking out the door, and he was not going to let that happen,” Detective Trujillo says.

“I think what happened was, Walter had to die. I have no doubt about that,” Trujillo said. The Santa Fe Police detective says he believes the motive for Donlon’s murder was, “pure greed.”

The Prosecution

Detectives turned their investigation over to the Santa Fe District Attorney for prosecution. However, days before the case was scheduled to be heard by a Grand Jury, the proceeding was postponed due to an emergency in the prosecutor’s family. That was in 2007. The case never got re-scheduled.

Over the course of the next 12 years, the case would be shuffled from prosecutor to prosecutor. Eventually, the file disappeared, and a succession of District Attorneys lost track of the Walter Donlon murder case.”It was never brought to my attention,” says Jennifer Padgett Macias, who served as Santa Fe’s District Attorney in 2016. She told KRQE News 13 she never saw the police case file and no one on her staff brought the Donlon case to her attention.

In an April interview, Santa Fe’s current District Attorney Marco Serna said, “We are still looking at this case.” However, the D.A. admitted, he had not seen the police file. “I can tell you my office doesn’t have the case file,” Serna said in April.

Serna claimed his office has “…never received a full case file from the Santa Fe Police Department.” SFPD detectives say the complete evidence file on the Donlon case was turned over to the District Attorney’s office in 2007.

Shortly after Marco Serna took office in 2017, he convened a meeting with the Attorney General’s office to discuss the Donlon homicide. Serna said he was looking for additional resources to help prosecute the case. A spokesman for the Attorney General tells KRQE News 13 there was a 2017 meeting with Serna and his staff. However, A.G. Spokesman David Carl says the Santa Fe District Attorney never followed up the meeting with a formal request for assistance.

Retired career prosecutor Steve Suttle says its “incomprehensible” that a District Attorney would lose a major case file. “You would think that would be a priority file,” Suttle says. “Especially in a smaller office where they don’t have a lot of homicide cases. It’s not like New York or Chicago or Los Angeles where they have thousands of pending cases.”

“It’s a matter of public duty,” Suttle said. “There’s a neglect there. There can’t be any other explanation that I can think of for a case to go through three or four different District Attorneys and have never gone through a … presentment to the Grand Jury,” Suttle says.

Following the April interview with KRQE News 13, D.A. Serna finally retrieved a copy of the Donlon case file from Santa Fe Police. Serna says the matter is now under review.

Because of the 12-year delay, none of the financial crimes alleged in the police investigation can be prosecuted due to the statute of limitations.

In a 2007 news report, the primary suspect in this case, Marvin CdeBaca, maintained his innocence saying, “I’m not guilty.”  Today, CdeBaca lives in Rio Rancho where he reportedly works as a handyman. To date, no charges have been filed against Marvin CdeBaca.

Santa Fe Police Detective told KRQE News 13 he is “hopeful” justice will be done in the Walter Donlon murder case. He says New Mexicans have been waiting for 12 years.

“We have failed miserably,” says retired State Police Investigator Paul Chavez. “We have a true victim who was murdered, and the system has failed him,” Chavez said.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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