- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Officers tried to talk James Boyd into surrendering at his campsite in the Sandia foothills. The homeless camper told officers he didn’t want to come down because he feared police would shoot him.

The standoff dragged on for hours, with police saying Boyd pulled out two knives and threatened to kill officers at one point. Video from a helmet camera showed Boyd, who authorities said suffered from schizophrenia, gathering his belongings before officers opened fire.

The footage went viral and brought to a head tensions over shootings by Albuquerque police, sparking angry protests around the city, including one that had to be broken up with tear gas.

Shortly after the Boyd shooting, the U.S. Justice Department released a scathing review of the Albuquerque Police Department’s use of force and the way officers handle suspects suffering from mental illness. An agreement aimed at overhauling the troubled police force followed several months later.

The shooting and police reforms were among the stories that dominated headlines in 2014.

Other top New Mexico stories of the year:

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RADIATION LEAK

Operations were put on hold at the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository in early February when a work truck caught fire.

Nine days later, a container of waste ruptured after being packed at Los Alamos National Laboratory and placed into one of the storage rooms at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. The radiation leak contaminated more than 20 workers and forced the indefinite closure of the facility, leaving the federal government without a place to dispose of tons of Cold War-era waste from locations around the country.

Teams of scientists and engineers are still trying to determine exactly what caused the radiation leak and whether the use of organic cat litter to absorb moisture inside the container helped fuel some kind of reaction. A final report is expected early next year.

The U.S. Department of Energy said it could take years and more than a half-billion dollars to reopen the repository.

The two incidents also resulted in more than $54 million in penalties levied by the state of New Mexico for numerous permit violations. The civil penalties mark just the beginning of possible financial sanctions the Energy Department could face. The state is continuing to investigate.

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IMMIGRATION OVERLOAD-ARTESIA

Authorities transformed a law enforcement training facility in Artesia into a temporary detention center as federal immigration officials were overwhelmed with a surge of immigrant children along the border.

The center housed hundreds of women and children from Central America, prompting concerns among residents in the southeastern New Mexico community.

In the first few months, most of the detainees were quickly deported. But the center began drawing fire from lawyers and immigrant advocates who faulted the Obama administration for its poor conditions and inadequate asylum hearings.

After volunteer lawyers filed a federal lawsuit claiming lack of due process, the majority of detainees were released into the public pending later court dates.

The last of the detainees were relocated to Texas in December and the Artesia center was closed. The administration commissioned two new facilities in Texas to deal with the influx of children pouring across the U.S.-Mexico border.

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VIRGIN GALACTIC MISHAP

The scramble to get everything ready for the launch of the world’s first commercial flights from Spaceport America came to a halt at the end of October when Virgin Galactic’s spaceship broke apart over the California desert during a test flight.

One pilot was killed and another was seriously injured.

Speculation about the future of space tourism began to swirl in the wake of the mishap, but spaceport officials and supporters vowed to push on to ensure the quarter-billion-dollar, taxpayer-financed Spaceport America becomes a success.

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority announced plans to hire more staff to boost marketing efforts to diversifying the spaceport’s client base. The authority also told state lawmakers it would be seeking more money to build another hangar to attract more clients.

Virgin Galactic, the anchor tenant, said it could be the middle of 2015 before test flight resume, and testing is scheduled to begin next year at the spaceport for a reusable rocket being developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

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GOV. MARTINEZ-GOP TAKEOVER

Gov. Susana Martinez cruised to a second term in November, furthering her national reputation as a Republican who can appeal to Latinos and voters who cross party lines. The 55-year-old used her political prominence to tap into a national GOP fundraising base and vastly outspend Democratic challenger Gary King, a two-term attorney general.

Martinez wasn’t the only Republican in the winner’s column on Election Day.

New Mexico Republicans received a boost from the popular governor and took advantage of a favorable national political environment to win a majority in the state House of Representatives for the first time in more than half a century. It was a feat the GOP hasn’t accomplished since Dwight Eisenhower was president.

Despite the power shift in the House, Democrats maintain a 25-17 majority in the Senate. Its members aren’t up for election for another two years.

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CHILD ABUSE REFORMS

The investigation into the December 2013 death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela was detailed by state child welfare officials in May. The state report accused the boy’s mother of repeatedly kicking him while he was unconscious and waiting 30 minutes before calling 911.

The case set off a firestorm of criticism against Albuquerque police and the state Children, Youth and Families Department for not removing the boy from his home after receiving earlier reports of abuse.

Synthia Varela-Casaus initially told police her son injured himself falling off a bouncing toy horse. She later acknowledged getting angry and kicking the child. She has pleaded not guilty to more than 20 charges related to the boy’s death, including child abuse resulting in death.

Gov. Martinez personally reviewed the case and spent months with other state officials taking a broader look at how child abuse and neglect investigations were being handled.

The governor followed up with a number of executive orders and called for policy changes aimed at getting law enforcement and state child welfare employees to work together more closely to ensure cases don’t slip through the cracks.

CYFD officials told lawmakers in December it will take an infusion of about $10 million if New Mexico wants to move ahead with and expand its reforms.

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DROUGHT AND FLOODING

At the start of 2014, nearly every square mile of New Mexico was caught in the grip of what had been a persistent drought. Snowpack in the mountains was dismal, reservoirs remained low, and farmers worried whether spring runoff and summer rains would ease the dry conditions.

Then the rains came.

The first round of severe storms brought heavy rain and flooding to parts of the state in late July and early August. That prompted state and federal disaster declarations. Another round came in September and more declarations were made, clearing the way for federal funding to help communities clean up the mess.

With millions of dollars in damage reported, federal emergency management officials say nearly five dozen entities around the state put in requests for financial aid.

Still, the year wrapped up with nearly two-thirds of the state still dealing with moderate to extreme drought.

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ROSWELL SCHOOL SHOOTINGS

It was a Tuesday morning, Jan. 14, when a 12-year-old boy walked into the gymnasium at his Roswell middle school. Armed with a shotgun, he opened fire on classmates, police said, and sparked panic throughout the southeastern New Mexico city.

A teacher talked the boy into dropping the weapon and he was then quickly taken into custody.

Nathaniel Tavarez, 12, and Kendal Sanders, 13, were injured in the shooting.

Tavarez spent weeks in hospitals and rehabilitation centers for treatment of wounds to his chest, heart, face and head. His vision in both eyes has been severely diminished. Sanders was released from a hospital after surgeries to repair damage to her right arm and shoulder.

The shooter faced three counts of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and one count of carrying a firearm on school premises. He pleaded no contest to the charges and a judge imposed the maximum possible sentence of remaining in state custody until the age of 21.

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SHERIFF-FEDERAL INVESTIGATION

A northern New Mexico sheriff who fought off accusations of misconduct throughout his career was convicted in September of abusing a driver during a bizarre traffic stop that prosecutors called a fit of road rage.

Rio Arriba County Sheriff Thomas Rodella, sitting in the defendant’s chair, and his family were visibly upset when jurors convicted him of pulling his gun on a driver and violating the 26-year-old man’s civil rights. His wife, state Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Espanola, sobbed after the verdict was read.

Rodella’s attorney claimed the case was largely based on a dispute with U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez over U.S. Forest Service patrols in northern New Mexico.

One of the most powerful political figures in his county, Rodella could face up to 17 years in prison when he sentenced in January.

County officials removed Rodella from office in October.

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DEPUTY SHOOTS DEPUTY

A New Mexico sheriff’s deputy was talking to his girlfriend on the phone when the woman heard pleas from someone and gunfire rang out. Soon after, Tai Chan, who was accused of killing a fellow deputy, told officers, “I shot the guy,” court documents state.

The details of the October shooting were spelled out in the documents and 911 recordings that described a tumultuous scene at the upper-end Hotel Encanto in Las Cruces, where Chan was accused of shooting fellow Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeremy Martin during an alcohol-fueled argument.

Police said the deputies were staying at the hotel after dropping off a prisoner in Arizona.

Before the shooting, Chan called a friend to pick up him and Martin to go drinking at a pub, where they got into the argument. Court records state the friend told investigators he had never seen Chan so hostile, and the bartender had to separate the two men.

Chan was charged with first-degree murder and released on bail after pleading not guilty. He also lost his job.

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