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Detective's Violent Death Tied to Gambling Addiction

New Mexico woman turns to robbery, apparently to pay debts. Cornered, she forces police to shoot her.

May 25, 2003|Leslie Hoffman | Associated Press Writer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M — ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- As a criminal investigator, Karen Yontz was a standout -- called in on high-profile cases and sought out by colleagues in the attorney general's office for advice on tough legal questions.

In her personal life, she was a devoted stepmother and a generous friend.

So Yontz's death May 2 came as a shock and a puzzle: Why would the career law enforcement officer drive her state-owned sedan to a bank, rob it undisguised, then point her service revolver at pursuing officers and urge them to shoot her?

The answer, according to friends and official records, lies in a troubled life marked by a gambling addiction that forced her to deceive and rob to get out of debt. Because she was a capable investigator at work, friends said, she tried to handle her addiction on her own -- only to see it spiral out of control.

"This was someone who was in a lot of pain, and this was the only way she knew to end everything," said Angela R. Pacheco, Yontz's former coworker and a longtime friend.

Yontz's trips to play video poker at nearby Indian casinos had at first been a diversion from personal stress but turned into a darker routine, friends say.

"She was very open in the beginning" about gambling, said Cindy Romero, Yontz's former partner when she worked in a district attorney's office. "And then, as it became an addiction, she wouldn't even say she was going. But different people would see her there."

Her husband, Jim Yontz, told Albuquerque TV station KOAT that his wife lost more than $100,000.

"She had so much pride, it just ate her up," he told the station two days after her death. Jim Yontz also told investigators that she had fraudulently written checks from his personal bank account. He was reached later by the Associated Press but declined further comment.

As losses piled up, her financial world got messier and impossible to ignore. The May 2 bank robbery came as her wages were being garnisheed to pay off debt. She was under investigation for allegedly obtaining a credit card by fraud. On the day of her death, the attorney general's office had planned to place her on administrative leave.

Meanwhile, the FBI had released an artist's rendering of a female bank robber in an April 25 heist. The culprit was not caught -- and authorities now believe that it was Yontz.

The deeper roots of Yontz's desperation are tangled -- friends say her personal life was troubled. The Santa Fe County Sheriff's Department had been called to the Yontz home on a domestic disturbance call in 1996 and for a welfare check in 2000, according to records.

Her husband had resigned from his prosecutor's post in 1998 after police allegedly found him in his truck with a "known prostitute," records show. He later was rehired. No charges were filed in any of the cases.

Whatever the deeper causes, they came to a head May 2. According to official records and interviews, Karen Yontz, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses and wielding a gun, walked into New Mexico Bank & Trust at 11:30 a.m. She demanded money from a teller and fled, but police were soon tailing her getaway car -- a government-owned Chevrolet.

Cornered in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant, Yontz remained in her car, service revolver in hand. Police say she made a quick cell phone call, although it's not known to whom. Several times, she placed the gun to her head and then lowered it.

As the standoff escalated, officers ordered her to drop her weapon. Yontz shook her head no.

At one point, she said: "You're going to have to shoot me." Then Yontz raised the gun toward them, according to police. They opened fire, hitting Yontz at least three times, once in the head. She died at the scene.

Only later did officers notice the police radio inside the car -- and trace the license plate to find it registered to the New Mexico attorney general's office.

During the showdown in the parking lot, Yontz "absolutely knew what was going to happen," Bernalillo County Dist. Atty. Kari Brandenburg said.

"You don't know if it was for the money or if she was hell-bent on a destructive pattern and didn't know what to do," Brandenburg said.

Piecing the tragedy together, friends find it hard to picture the woman they knew as a desperate criminal. They say the 50-year-old career law enforcement officer probably knew that she was going to die that afternoon.

"She would have never, never hurt anybody," Romero said. "It didn't surprise [me] that she didn't fire her gun. She wouldn't hurt a fly.... I'm sure she was thinking, 'I can't even hurt myself. I'm going to let someone else do it.' "

Romero said she will remember her colleague as the person who taught her about investigating child abuse cases -- someone always willing and able to answer the most complex of legal questions.

Pacheco is angered by headlines depicting Yontz as a "cop gone bad."

"We're having a real hard time ...," Romero said. "She loved law enforcement, she really did. She taught me a whole lot. She's a very bright person and that's why this is all so shocking to us."

Yontz's 18-year-old stepdaughter, Tammara Yontz, said she just wishes that she would have known how desperate her stepmother had become. The teenager is left with memories of a caring woman who tucked her in at night and would drop anything at work to help her.

"I would have done anything to have helped her," Tammara Yontz said. " ... I still really love her."

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