Murdered Shopper on Aisle Five

Albuquerque department store’s “loss prevention officers” enforce death penalty without trial for alleged shoplifter; store demands arrest of protesting priest

New Mexico is a state that, on paper, doesn’t have the death penalty. In practice, though, security guards can kill alleged shoplifters with impunity. No charges, no trial: on May 3, 2016, a department store’s “loss prevention officers” acted as judge, jury, and executioner.

K-Mart, a large chain of Wal-Mart-style stores that isn’t doing so good lately, has apparently claimed the right to murder anyone it chooses to, as long as they’re on its property. This month, the branch located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, about three hours north of the U.S./Mexico border, authorized its employees to murder a young man in cold blood.

According to local news reports, as well as an eyewitness interview collected by New Mexico State University’s Frontera NorteSur news service, three K-Mart security guards held 25-year-old Jonathan Sorensen down until he died. Eyewitness Chantel Trujillo told Frontera NorteSur that the security guards restricted Sorensen’s airway until he died, and then stayed on top of his dead body until police arrived. “I know he was suffocated. I saw it happen,” Trujillo said.

In a video Trujillo filmed of the aftermath of the murder, multiple K-Mart employees attempt to intimidate Trujillo into leaving the store. An undercover K-Mart security guard, presumably one of the men who murdered Jonathan Sorensen, is seen wearing a shirt with an assault rifle on it.

Neither K-Mart nor its parent company, Sears Holdings, had much to say about the killing. But local activists sure did.

Since K-Mart won’t publicly confirm or deny whether the three murderous security guards are still employed at the store, local activists have so far staged two protests demanding some simple answers about what happened to Jonathan and whether the employees will be held accountable (spoiler alert: they won’t be).

First, activists held a vigil for Jonathan on a public sidewalk outside the store. Local news station KOB, in a blatant abrogation of their journalistic watchdog duties to the public, implicitly defended K-Mart’s actions by referring to Jonathan as “detained” rather than “murdered” or even “killed.”

Captura de pantalla 2016-05-22 a la(s) 2.53.34 p.m.

Despite the public outcry, K-Mart maintained its silence on the murder. So the activists stepped it up.

Led by a local Catholic priest, Father Frank Quintana, activists stormed the K-Mart three weeks after Jonathan’s murder, lying down on the spot where he died and yelling Jonathan’s reported last words, “I’m sorry,” and “I’m scared.” (Quintana, who moved to Albuquerque a little over a year ago, is quickly establishing himself as one of the city’s most dedicated activists; I’ve written about him before, here.)

In a video I shot of the die-in (also linked as an Artefact at the bottom of this post), the activists are seen yelling, screaming, cursing, and generally causing a scene. They certainly don’t look that polite. But, I would note, they didn’t kill anyone. K-Mart did.

The activists died-in at the precise spot where Sorensen was murdered, which is not anywhere near the exit of the K-Mart. It’s not clear how a person can be accused of shoplifting when they’re still inside the store. K-Mart is mute on this, as on every other question about the incident.

The protesters left after about a half-hour, as was Quintana’s plan. K-Mart security took a decidedly hands-off approach, not interfering in the protest until the cops arrived.

Significantly, though, when the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) did show up, K-Mart demanded that all the demonstrators, including the priest, be arrested immediately. The security guard on duty makes it clear this is not his prerogative, but a direct order from his K-Mart paymasters.

At around 31:40 in the video, the guard tells the cops he wants all the demonstrators arrested and charged with trespassing. “These guys are being disruptive,” he says. “At this point, we’ve even called corporate, our attorneys. They want ’em trespassed,” meaning criminally charged with trespassing.

This is noteworthy because K-Mart is not advocating for criminal charges against their employees who murdered a man on their property. But a priest disrupts business for half an hour and they demand he serve jail time. Luckily, the police declined to “trespass” the protesters. But a second video of an interaction between two protesters and an Albuquerque police officer outside the store makes clear (to anyone familiar with APD procedures) that the murderers will not serve jail time either.

While gently encouraging the activists to leave (and, to his credit, doing so calmly and respectfully the entire time), the officer repeatedly defends the K-Mart assassins, stating things like “we don’t know that he’s necessarily a killer.” Now, whether or not the K-Mart employees are murderers is something that can only be determined in a court of law. But killers? Well, that’s been firmly established. They killed Jonathan Sorensen.

More to the point, the officer’s core argument is that the crimes can’t be charged until an investigation is complete. This is APD-speak for “we’re not going to charge them with anything.” Given that K-Mart’s security cameras picked up the murder, as the cop admits, it’s hard to wrap one’s head around what kind of investigation would be necessary before bringing charges. The answer, of course, is that waiting for the investigation is what Albuquerque cops do when they don’t want to prosecute someone. For any other case, they declare the suspect a criminal the day of an alleged crime, and then parade them on the media as a thug, criminal, etc. For example:

Captura de pantalla 2016-05-22 a la(s) 3.25.04 p.m.

This story declares not one but two people to be criminals before any investigation has been completed. This story aired one day after the arrest of the woman in the picture, Reyanon Duncan, on car-theft and credit-card-fraud charges. The APD eagerly provided Ms. Duncan’s mugshot to the media—they had caught a “bad guy.” The local media (pro-police propaganda outlet KOB again) dutifully identified the woman as a “car thief” and her alleged accomplice as a “gunman.” Only one problem: all charges against Duncan were dropped less than a month later due to “lack of evidence.” But the APD (and KOB) had no problem putting Duncan’s face on TV and smearing her as a criminal before any kind of investigation could possibly have been completed. After Duncan’s charges were dropped, they immediately took to the media to smear her name again, once more without waiting for an investigation or presenting any evidence of her crimes.

Cases like Duncan’s are the norm in Albuquerque. In typical circumstances, the APD charges first, smears second, then investigates later if at all. The extreme deference they’re showing to K-Mart by refusing to promptly charge the murderers makes it virtually certain that justice will not be served.

In fact, it’s not the first time the APD has let violent criminals walk free simply because they were acting on behalf of a business. Last year, a business owner shot an alleged shoplifter with a shotgun as he was running out of the store. Guess what? No charges.

If the APD were going to charge the K-Mart employees, they certainly would have done so already. We would have seen their mugshots on the local news the very next day. So for now, we’ll maintain the death penalty in New Mexico. As long as you accuse the person of petty shoplifting afterward, murder is always legal in Albuquerque.

Artefacts:

Priest and Friends Die-In at K-Mart

Cops Defend K-Mart Murderers

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Andy is a journalist living and working in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the home of Walter White and the world capital of nuclear weapons. He has reported first-hand from conflict zones around the world, ranging from occupied Palestine to drug-war-ravaged Mexico. He's covered diverse issues such as the struggle for transgender rights in Istanbul, violations of the Geneva Convention in the Israeli prison system, and of course, the collective psychosis of his hometown's world-famous police department.

He began his career writing for the University of New Mexico's student newspaper, one of the U.S.’s only daily student publications. He then went on to freelance for the Alibi, an Albuquerque-based alt weekly, covering immigration, the drug war, and the Occupy Movement. In 2011 Andy received an invitation to attend the School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico, where he was invited by another course participant to move to and work in the Occupied West Bank. He lived there for nearly two years writing investigative reports on Israeli crimes as well as colorful features on Palestinian arts and culture. Following Israel’s 2012 assault on the Gaza Strip, Andy gained access to the embattled enclave for a feature on the experience of medical professionals in the strip during Israel's eight-day bombing campaign.

Andy has contributed to the Electronic Intifada and VICE magazine on couchsurfing in the Israeli settlements; the Albuquerque Police Department's ill-advised "Police Shooting Contest"; and the ongoing eviction of 40,000 Bedouin residents of the Naqab desert.

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