Rio Arriba officials trade blame for protest violence; victim’s family seeks hate crime charges

Oct. 6—The fallout from recent plans in Rio Arriba County to put a controversial statue of Juan de Oñate back on public display has reached beyond Española, where violence escalated to gunfire at a protest last week, or the expansive county, where officials have traded blame.

A 23-year-old Sandia Park man with possible QAnon ties faces a charge of attempted murder after he was accused of shooting a Native American man from Washington state in an act the wounded man’s family calls a hate crime.

The victim, Jacob Johns, is in an Albuquerque hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound to the torso.

The bronze statue of Oñate on horseback remains in storage.

One outcome seems clear: The 30-year-old statue of the Spanish conquistador, removed from its longtime home in Alcalde in 2020 amid a protest led by Native American activists, will not be standing in a public space in Rio Arriba County anytime soon.

Commission Chairman Alex Naranjo, named by many as the person who initiated the plan to reinstall the statue at a county building in Española, recently conceded: “There were mistakes made.”

He later said, “As far as I’m concerned, that statue will not go up.”

During a County Commission meeting rife with ire Thursday in the remote village of Tierra Amarilla, officials debated who held responsibility for the violence.

County Commissioner Brandon Bustos called for Naranjo to step down from the leadership role, accusing the chairman of continuing to push for the installation in spite of public outcry — including letters from Pueblo leaders — and fears of a violent outbreak at the protest.

Sheriff Billy Merrifield sparred with Naranjo, who had criticized what he called a lack of county law enforcement at a dayslong protest at the planned installation site by members of several Native American groups.

“You tell me why I need to put 24/7 service because of your own agenda,” Merrifield told Naranjo.

The sheriff accused Naranjo of starting the controversy, telling the commissioner it occurred “because you wanted the statue up.”

While many blame Naranjo, the decision to pull the statue out of storage was made by the county manager without a vote of approval by the commission or a public process.

A public notice in early September from County Manager Jeremy Maestas announced the planned return of the statue, which had stood for decades at a visitors center in Alcalde, a project partly funded with millions of dollars in state and federal funding in the 1990s.

The statue was scheduled to be reinstalled Sept. 27, and a celebration was planned the following morning. Amid concerns about the ongoing protest, however, Maestas canceled the installation and fanfare the afternoon of Sept. 27. Still, the protest continued at the site until a gunshot was fired around noon Sept. 28.

Maestas said Thursday he was acting under the assumption he had “the full support of the commission” when he planned the event.

He wrote in an email Friday he does not have plans to order the reinstallation of the statue.

“There are no plans as of right now to put it back up,” he wrote. “I think everyone was in agreement that better discussions and dialogue need to take place to decide the future of the statue from all the interested parties.”

Naranjo declined to concede his position as commission chairman, but he acknowledged there have been mistakes by county officials throughout the ordeal. He expressed hope that “in the end, hopefully we’ve all learned from this.”

Santa Fe attorney John Day, who is representing Johns and his family, said Johns’ recovery from the gunshot wound is “touch and go.” He has undergone multiple surgeries following the incident, including one on Friday.

“The outcome is not at all certain at this point,” Day said.

The family has asked federal authorities to treat the shooting as a hate crime, calling it a “violent attack on a peaceful, Native prayer event,” Day said.

Witnesses have said Johns participated in a spiritual “sunrise ceremony” the morning of Sept. 28, along with other Native protesters at the site.

Accused shooter Ryan Martinez is held in the Rio Arriba County jail in Tierra Amarilla on suspicion of first-degree attempted murder. A hearing to determine if he will remain jailed until his trial is scheduled Oct. 13 in state District Court.

Martinez was at the protest for hours before the shooting wearing a red hat with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

A Facebook page for Martinez shows a recent post with a link to a news story about the return of the Oñate statue.

According to court documents, he was investigated by the FBI in recent years due to messages he had posted on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter. A letter from the FBI to state prosecutors says he was accused of replying to tweets from the Federal Reserve with threats in 2019, writing it was “time to put a bullet in some people’s head once and for all.”

A recent statement from the Anti-Defamation League said Martinez’s past social media posts indicate he embraced a “deep state” conspiracy theory by the QAnon political movement.

The now-deleted social media account FBI agents attributed to Martinez for years posted frequent messages referring to QAnon, including tweets suggesting President Donald Trump was sending cryptic messages to his followers about the deep state by tapping on a podium a certain number of times, according to a review of the Internet Archive.

In a now-deleted post from 2019, Martinez was shown in a photo with a “Q” drawn on his open palm. The message said he had shown the letter to Trump when he attended a talk by the president in person.

“While it’s not clear if the shooting was ideologically motivated,” the Anti-Defamation League tweeted Wednesday, referring to the Española shooting, “the incident raises concerns about the growing threat of political violence from extremists and conspiracy theorists.”

Leave a Comment