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The Nation | DISPATCH FROM TAOS

Serene Town Confronts Urban Ills in 2 Killings

July 21, 2002|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TAOS, N.M. — It's a brilliantly sunny day and the Sangre de Cristo mountains etch themselves against a blue sky. Tourist traffic snarls near the historic colonial plaza, which is being gaily transformed for the summer's most-awaited event, Las Fiestas de Santiago y Santa Ana de Taos.

The lone, ugly intrusion on the convivial scene announces itself in a lurid banner headline on the front page of the Taos News: "Knifed to Death--2 Single Women Killed in Their Homes."

For a serene town like Taos, where police officials strain to recall the one homicide last year, two brutal slayings in one week were chilling, especially to women here who are accustomed to walking alone at night with impunity. Now shop owners say saleswomen are requesting to leave work early to avoid being out after dark.

An unusual tension has seized this laid-back town where few lock their door and car keys are left in the ignition.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 25, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 537 words Type of Material: Correction
New Mexico murders--A map that appeared in Section A on Sunday was incorrect. Santa Fe was labeled too far north. Santa Fe is on Interstate 25, 55 miles northeast of Albuquerque.
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For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 28, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 345 words Type of Material: Correction
New Mexico murders--A map that appeared in Section A on Sunday was incorrect. Santa Fe was labeled too far north. Santa Fe is on Interstate 25, 55 miles northeast of Albuquerque.

"I admit I keep my door unlocked," said Jennifer Lynch. "But I did get a little freaked out when I heard about the killings. I think women are more alarmed now. I guess this proves crime can happen anywhere."

By any measure, Taos is not just anywhere. Despite its modest size--a full-time population of 6,200--the town is a sophisticated international destination, 60 miles north of Santa Fe. Its ruggedly stunning setting has inspired artists and writers such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams and D.H. Lawrence. Today Taos is a culturally rich mecca for New Agers, spiritual seekers and wealthy city escapees.

Even with the steady swell of outsiders who clog the narrow streets and alleys, residents here still live a trusting, know-your-neighbor existence, mostly free from crime.

Now, Taos officials face a delicate task: to remind citizens that no American town is immune from criminal acts while not discouraging the friendliness and accessibility that define small-town life.

"When we discussed alerting people, we asked ourselves, 'Do you want to start a panic?' " said Taos County Dist. Atty. Donald Gallegos. "It's incumbent upon us as law enforcement officials to tell people what the potential danger is out there and what steps can be taken for safety.

"We tell them, 'Don't give up your small-town mentality and your culture, but open your eyes to the reality that there is big-town crime here.' I'd like to say there isn't, but there is."

The two slayings are the talk of the town at a time when locals would otherwise be discussing the drought and whose children would be performing at the fiesta. Amateur sleuths reveal their theories across lunch counters. But it is the brutal manner of the deaths that has unsettled many here.

Marioara Shand, 38, of nearby Ranchos de Taos was killed first, found July 9 face down in a pool of her own blood. Last Sunday, the body of LeAnne Martinez, 23, of Taos was discovered. Both women, who lived alone, were stabbed multiple times and their throats were slit, police said.

Authorities now believe the two crimes, though similar, are not related. On Friday, Taos County sheriff's deputies arrested Nathaniel Duran on charges of murder in Shand's death. Duran, 18, lived next door to Shand and is the grandson of her landlords.

Meanwhile, a man who was seen driving Martinez's car is still at large. Authorities said Richard Sabino Fresquez, a 23-year-old recently paroled from prison, is being sought on warrants charging him with parole violation and unlawful possession of a stolen vehicle. Martinez's car was found abandoned in Albuquerque. The FBI and the U.S. Marshal's Service are also involved in the investigation.

The news that one local man has been charged with murder and that another, although not officially a suspect in the second killing, remains at large, has generated a wave of home security consciousness.

"My neighbor is 65 years old and she's been pretty upset," said Gwynne Tyksinski. "She knocked on my door and said, 'Let's agree to look out for each other.'

"I was raised in Chicago and I'm pretty aware. There's the myth of 'mystical Taos,' the illusion that people see. [Tourists] come here and see the mountains and the clean air and want it to be this mystical haven. But we have trouble with alcohol, drugs and domestic violence."

Last month, a woman was raped, a kind of crime that resident Linda Madrid chalks up to "women out at night running with a bad crowd."

Gallery owner Nancy Bucholtz said Taos is no more unsafe than any other town its size but that it is the perception of immunity that's changing.

"What's fueling the fear is that people here are not used to crime," she said. "They don't lock their doors, they don't take the simplest of precautions. Crime and violence can come into your home. People here have to realize Taos is growing up. That's what's going on."

So far, few tourists seem to be aware of the murders, and Taos remains free from common street crime that would deter tourism. Indeed, on a recent day, streets were teeming with seemingly carefree vacationers.

But it's the psyches of residents that town officials are concerned about. Thomas Lorenzen, Taos' new chief of police, is still trying to determine how the murders will affect the town, so long sheltered in the foothills.

One thing the former Los Angeles Police Department officer is sure of, it's time to reconsider the rhythms of small-town life.

"It does kind of shatter our image of Taos," Lorenzen said. "This is a wake-up call. The reality is we are not without crime. People get lulled to sleep. Crime has come to small towns. That's the myth of Taos. The real world has come to us."

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