Published: 12:05 am, Sun. Mar. 20th, 2016
At around 6 a.m. Thursday, March 10, as many Artesians were just beginning their day, those whose routine includes logging onto Facebook were met with alarming news: The New Mexico State Police were on the lookout for two dangerous criminals believed to have escaped in Artesia during a New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) transport.
The Daily Press also received that news via Facebook, a fact that left us somewhat in shock as we and other local media went quickly to work attempting to inform citizens whose morning doesn’t begin on social media of the apparent gravity of the situation. The NMSP posting included a warning for residents to lock their doors and not stop for hitchhikers in the area.
Another detail within the posting leapt out early on: The inmates were thought to have gone missing here around 8:30 p.m. March 9 during a gas stop between their departure point – the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe – and their destination – the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility in Las Cruces.
Why had it taken nearly nine-and-a-half hours for word of the incident to be delivered to the citizens of Artesia?
But there was no time for head scratching. The city had become a whirlwind of activity as the NMSP, SWAT and other area agencies descended upon the community to, along with the full force of the Artesia Police Department, search en masse for the inmates, whom they still believed to be in the area.
Roadblocks were established between Artesia and Roswell, near Cloudcroft, and other points. Motorists were questioned and larger vehicles searched. Helicopters circled the skies, and authorities dashed from location to location outside city limits and within, responding to any and all reports of suspicious activity.
The manhunt continued well into the afternoon. Then, just as sudden and inexplicable as every other aspect of the incident to that point, a new revelation: The inmates had been spotted in Albuquerque. Hours earlier. And incidentally… the NMCD guards in charge of the fateful transport hadn’t noticed the two were missing until arriving in Las Cruces after midnight March 10.
With startling amounts of time and resources wasted, the search began anew in Albuquerque. At around 5:30 p.m. March 11, the first of the two – convicted murderer Joseph Cruz – was apprehended in the Duke City. The following afternoon, the second – Lionel Clah, who was serving 30 years for a 2007 chase and shootout with police in San Juan County – was taken into custody.
Over the course of the next few days, Artesians watched intently as the investigation continued in Albuquerque. NMCD Secretary Gregg Marcantel stated the two transport guards had been placed on administrative leave. He acknowledged a severe breakdown in procedure.
Meanwhile, four women were also taken into custody, charged with aiding and/or harboring the escapees. And finally, Friday afternoon, one particularly nagging mystery was solved: Jesus S. Quintana of Artesia was arrested by the NMSP for not only failing to contact authorities after witnessing the two convicts exit the back of the van at a local Allsup’s but taking them home, removing their shackles, providing them with clothing and beer, and driving them to Albuquerque.
Even the securing of that loose end, however, was done in a manner that left Artesia, once again, nearly in the dark.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reported Friday one of the women charged with aiding Clah stated he had told her a passing motorist had aided the two in their journey from Artesia to Albuquerque. The Daily Press contacted the Artesia Police Department early Friday afternoon to see if they had been made aware of this information. They had not.
The NMSP informed the Albuquerque Journal following Quintana’s arrest that Clah had provided them with a description of the Artesia man, his vehicle, and his address on Thursday. They arrived here Friday afternoon and took Quintana into custody, after which they alerted the APD to their actions.
Additionally, no communication was issued to local media regarding the arrest, which was reported by the Journal.
In the days and weeks to come, many more questions await answer. How could two inmates stroll from the back of a prison transport van, unnoticed by two guards but in plain sight of a would-be accomplice? How was their presence not missed until the van arrived in Las Cruces? And why was that fact not admitted sooner in order to help authorities determine where their efforts would best be focused?
We know now the two inmates would have been on the road to Albuquerque with Quintana shortly after their escape. We knew no such information between the hours of 8:30 p.m. March 9 and 6 a.m. March 10. Had their lucky break not been pumping gas alongside them, the lives and safety of any number of Artesians could have been jeopardized as the two men searched for means of continuing their flight from the law.
That the inmates and all of their known abettors, including Quintana, are behind bars is a comfort. But in a community left largely on the outskirts of the information loop throughout, residents are keenly aware of the potentially dangerous implications of such.
Artesia awaits the necessary explanations with the hope this ordeal proves a lesson well learned by the state authorities involved.