Sandoval’s arson plea delayed

By Thomas Garcia
QCS Senior Writer

Tenth Judicial District Judge Albert J. Mitchell continued the plea hearing Tuesday after Tucumcari’s Robert Sandoval said he did not not understand the plea and needed to meet with his attorney.

Sandoval was present in the courtroom with his attorney, Chico Gallegos, and special prosecutor Matt Chandler appearing via teleconfrence. Was Gallegos in the courtroom, or was he on teleconference along with Chandler? The plea hearing was related to arson charges filed against Sandoval last year.

Chandler said the state is ready to proceed with the plea agreement that was agreed to verbally on July 10 and agreed upon in written form by Gallegos the following week and submitted to the court.

Gallegos said he forwarded the plea agreement by email to his client for review.

“I do not understand the agreement and would ask that I be allowed to meet with my attorney face-to-face before proceeding,” Sandoval said.

Gallegos said because of personal reasons and a recent appointment to a murder case in Las Vegas, he has been unable to meet with his client to go over the agreement and answer questions he may have.

Mitchell ordered the attorneys to discuss and agree upon a time and date for the plea hearing that will allow Sandoval to meet with his attorney to go over the agreement.

Sandoval is accused in setting fires that destroyed the Payless Motor Inn and an abandoned house on Sept. 3, 2014.

Gallegos said on July 10 that the tentative verbal plea agreement offered by Chandler still had to be put into writing and reviewed and approved before any details can be released.

Thomas Benavedez, attorney for co-defendant and former Tucumcari police officer Dustin Lopez – who also was charged with arson and conspiracy to commit arson — could not be reached for comment.

It was not immediately clear if Lopez has accepted a similar plea agreement, or if he will proceed to trial for the arson charges on July 27 as scheduled.

Both Lopez and Sandoval had entered not-guilty pleas to the charges on Dec. 15 in Mitchell’s court.

Chandler filed two additional charges of breaking and entering against Lopez and Sandoval on Dec. 3 in Quay County Magistrate Court before the cases were bound over to District Court.

Sandoval and Lopez were charged on Oct. 28 with arson and conspiracy to commit arson.

The three buildings on the Payless Inn property, all of which were destroyed in the blaze, were valued at $155,155.

Lopez resigned Oct. 2 from the Tucumcari Police Department, the day after New Mexico State Police searched his home.

Lopez did not give a reason for his decision to resign, said Tucumcari Police Chief Jason Braziel.

State police received information there was evidence on Lopez’s cell phone connecting him and four others with a series of arson fires set in Tucumcari in September.

A third defendant, Dani J. Martinez,  has pleaded not guilty, but no trial date has been set for the arson charges against her.

All three remain free on bond.

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