*Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify Ronchetti’s campaign’s position on the issue.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) — Crime is among the major campaign topics in New Mexico’s 2022 midterm election and it’s at the heart of two recent high-profile ads from Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti. In the ads, the Ronchetti campaign blames incumbent Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham for releasing a man from prison early, days before he’s accused of committing a murder.
So, what’s the story behind the case? And is the Governor or her administration to blame? KRQE News 13 is looking into the gubernatorial candidates’ political advertisements in the run-up to Election Day to help you get the full story. Here are the details behind Ronchetti’s latest ads.
The murder case
Two of Ronchetti’s recent ads discuss the murder of Monique (Dominique) Gonzales. A 34-year-old Roswell woman, Gonzales was killed by Christopher Beltran on June 26, 2021. In September 2022, Beltran pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the case, admitting he killed Gonzales. The first ad features an interview with Gonzales’ parents, while a second ad features Eddy County Sheriff Mark Cage.
An initial affidavit tied to Beltran’s arrest in the murder case was filed by a Roswell Police officer. According to the document, the police responded to a shooting at 10:38 p.m. When officers arrived on scene, they found Gonzales on the ground with a gunshot to her head. Medical personnel declared her dead on the scene.
A person who claimed to have been with Gonzales all day told police they thought Gonzales’ ex-boyfriend, who had “just barely got out of prison,” was the one who did it. They were talking about Christopher Beltran.
As noted in both of Ronchetti’s ad, Christopher Beltran was released from prison just four days before the murder. KRQE News 13 obtained a certificate of sentence completion from the New Mexico Corrections Department, signed on June 22, 2021, just four days before the murder.
However, both of Ronchetti’s ads claim that Beltran was released “early.” Through on-screen text, each ad specifically states “Lujan Grisham released Beltran early twice.” So, is that true?
KRQE News 13 reviewed dozens of pages of court documents tied to Beltran’s criminal history and sentencing in different cases. The claims of “early release” are tied to events Beltran was accused of more than four years ago.
In August 2018, Beltran was charged with one count of unlawful taking of a motor vehicle. According to a criminal complaint affidavit, Beltran took a gray Hyundai Sonata from a friend who he asked for a ride from. In court, Beltran eventually pleaded guilty to the original charge. The state recommended sentencing him to more than a year in prison, according to court documents.
Judge Kea W. Riggs ordered that Beltran be placed under supervised probation for one and a half years. But just over two months later, in April 2019, Beltran was arrested for having a 9-mm handgun, violating his probation.
Court documents show Judge Riggs revoked Beltran’s probation during a December 2019 hearing. The judge ordered Beltran back to state prison, or otherwise the custody of the New Mexico Corrections Department. Beltran was initially sentenced to two years and six months, although he received credit for already serving 442 days, or roughly one year and three months.
Story continues below:
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Pandemic early release
Records kept by the Secretary of State’s office show Beltran was initially scheduled to get out of prison on October 10, 2020. But records kept by the Secretary of State show that he was released 12 days earlier, on September 28, 2020.
The reason: New Mexico’s COVID-19 response. On April 6, 2020, Governor Lujan Grisham signed an executive order aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons. That order allowed for the early release of incarcerated individuals who are “near their release date” and “meet certain criteria.”
Those criteria included that inmates had to have a scheduled release date no more than 30 days away (i.e. they had to have served most of their sentence), a parole plan in place, and they couldn’t be serving time for certain types of crime. Early release wasn’t available for sex offenders, inmates convicted of a felony DWI, or inmates serving time on domestic abuse, assault on a peace officer, or a firearms enhancement.
Take note of that last part: The offender can’t have a firearm enhancement. While Beltran was charged with having a firearm in violation on his probation, he was not charged or sentenced with using or having a firearm when he initially stole the car back in 2018. So, the state’s Corrections Department deemed him eligible for early release under the state’s COVID-related executive order.
Second release, not pandemic-related
After being released on parole in September 2020 under Governor Lujan Grisham’s COVID-related executive order, Beltran landed in prison again by November 2020. Documents KRQE News 13 obtained through a public records request indicate that Beltran violated parole and was returned to prison in fall of 2020. It’s unclear what the violation was for.
In Ronchetti’s ads, text on screen states “Lujan Grisham released Beltran early twice,” with the second release coming just four days before Monique Gonzales’ murder. The ads imply that Beltran was released “early” a second time after the COVID-19 related early release.
However, records obtained by KRQE News 13 indicate Beltran’s second release wasn’t “early,” like the ad states. While Beltran was again released from prison on June 22, 2021, documents from the Corrections Department show that this time, Beltran was released because he served his sentence.
KRQE News 13 obtained a copy of the sheet that the Corrections Department uses to keep track of inmates’ “good time” served. In dozens of hand-written entries, Beltran’s expected release date is altered and re-altered as he earned or lost credits based on his behavior. The document shows that he earned his June 22 release, according to the New Mexico Department records.
“Mr. Beltran received four months and 29 days of Earned Meritorious Deductions (good time) which moved his discharge date to June 22, 2021,” explains Carmelina Hart, the public relations manager at the New Mexico Corrections Department. “Therefore, after completing the entirety of his sentence, Mr. Beltran was released on June 22, 2021.”
While Beltran did go on to commit a murder just four days after that release, KRQE News 13 found no evidence to support the claim that “the Governor released Beltran from prison early twice,” as Ronchetti’s ads claim. Only the first, pandemic-related release was the Governor’s doing, according to the records.
In a press release, Ronchetti’s campaign disputes the idea that Beltran received a proper accounting of his good time served. They cite a New Mexico law which says that “for a prisoner confined following revocation of parole for the alleged commission of a new felony offense or for absconding from parole, [they shall receive] up to a maximum of four days per month of time served during the parole term following revocation.”
Carmelina Hart from the Corrections Department says that Beltran’s good time credits were earned under existing New Mexico Corrections Department policy.