- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 17, 2020

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - An investigation into a shooting that occurred as protesters tried to tear down a statue of a Spanish conquistador in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is far from complete and charges against a man accused of opening fire after demonstrators chased him were amended, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Under the amended complaint, Steven Ray Baca, 31, was charged with battery over his interactions with three women during the protest. He’s also facing a charge of unlawful carrying of a deadly weapon. Authorities say he did not have a concealed carry license.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez said it’s too soon to pursue a charge related to the shooting that left one man seriously injured because investigators still need to identify key witnesses, verify video of the incident and gather more evidence to determine what led to the gunfire.

Prosecutors also are pursuing police body camera video as well as sworn statements from undercover officers at the scene.

Baca, once a candidate for the Albuquerque City Council, remained in custody. His attorney, Jason Bowles, has requested the court to quickly review the circumstances and order Baca’s release while prosecutors investigate the case.

Torrez said he recognizes that people are on edge and deeply divided over a number of issues. Much of the information provided by the community about Monday night’s protest and shooting seems to come from an ideological perspective, he said.

“Frankly, we’ve been put in a situation too many times in this community where investigations are rushed,” he said. “As prosecutors who have to uphold an oath to be objective and impartial, we can’t do that. We have to get it right, and more than anything we have to demonstrate that the criminal justice system works and that it’s fair and it’s impartial.”

Bowles said the district attorney’s decision to fully investigate the case was appropriate. He pointed to video showing one protester hitting Baca with a skateboard, while there were shouts in the crowd to “kill him” before he was tackled and struck and then confronted by another protester wielding a knife.

“With multiple assailants attacking him with weapons, Mr. Baca at that point had no choice but to defend himself using force,” Bowles said in a statement. “We believe that the district attorney’s office should not file charges as this is very clearly an appropriate exercise of self defense.”

Albuquerque police turned over the investigation to the State Police, and the FBI was assisting.

Police tactics also will be reviewed amid criticism that officers did not step in soon enough despite warnings that the situation was deteriorating. Police units that had been monitoring the protest moved in minutes after the gunshots rang out and used tear gas and rubber bullets as they took Baca into custody and aided the man who was shot.

That man, Scott Williams, remained hospitalized.

Baca had been among those trying to protect the statue when protesters “appeared to maliciously pursue him,” according to an initial criminal complaint.

Video taken moments before protesters started chasing Baca showed him throwing a woman to the ground as she was backing into him and blocking him with outstretched arms.

Bowles said his client is being held on what amount to misdemeanor assault charges involving women who haven’t been identified. He described Baca as a caring and kind individual who has no criminal history.

The violence in Albuquerque followed a celebration in northern New Mexico on Monday where another statue of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate was removed and placed into temporary storage ahead of a scheduled protest in Alcalde.

Likenesses of Oñate have long spurred debate in New Mexico, where he’s celebrated as a cultural father figure in communities along the Upper Rio Grande that trace their ancestry to Spanish settlers. He’s also reviled for his brutality among Native Americans.

Leaders of a coalition that represents New Mexico’s pueblo communities are hopeful a “fair and meaningful resolution” can be found as government officials consider how to handle the growing discord over the statues and other representations of the Spanish conquest.

J. Michael Chavarria, governor of Santa Clara Pueblo and chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, said violence needs to be avoided and the path forward should be one that recognizes a shared history and the richness of the state’s respective cultures.

“A statue in honor of a man who committed crimes against Pueblo people should not be on prominent display without context,” Chavarria said. “I appreciate the decision of Rio Arriba County and the city of Albuquerque to remove these symbols of conquest, genocide and racial injustice.”

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