The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

By Ron Warnick
Staff writer 

DNA ties suspect to 2012 clinic fire

 

August 19, 2020

File photo

Tucumcari Fire Chief Mike Cherry (left, in white shirt) talks to state fire marshal investigator Sammy Anaya after a fire burned Tucumcari Animal Hospital and killed more than 70 animals in May 2012. A recent state police investigative report stated DNA evidence linked a Tucumcari man to the fire, and he confessed to officers. However, the statute of limitations expired two years ago, and he no longer can be charged in the case.

TUCUMCARI - A Tucumcari man, presented with DNA evidence, recently confessed to setting a fire in 2012 that killed more than 70 animals at a local veterinarian clinic.

However, the man has not been charged with any crime regarding the fire because the statute of limitations expired on the case more than two years ago.

District Attorney Timothy Rose said he's "never had a case where I've been this aggravated that we were unable to seek justice" because of the rule of law.

"It's a shame that case is going to go unpunished," Rose added.

The break in the longstanding probe came to light after the Quay County Sun made an open-records request to New Mexico State Police on the 71-page investigative report it submitted to Rose in June.

Implicated in the report was Kevin Ronnie Garcia, 28, of Tucumcari. When the Quay County Sun contacted Garcia on Friday to ask him about the report, he acknowledged setting the fire as a "spur-of-the-moment thing," but he said his memories of that night were fuzzy because he'd been drinking.

Garcia is awaiting adjudication on felony counts of false imprisonment and possession of a stolen vehicle, plus other charges, that were filed in December and April. He has been released on his own recognizance and is wearing a GPS ankle monitor. His next court date is in September.

According to online court records, Garcia has had run-ins with the law since 2009, mostly moving violations or misdemeanors.

The fire

The blaze at Tucumcari Animal Hospital on the city's north side first was reported at 3:54 a.m. May 21, 2012.

Dr. Jean Corey, the longtime veterinarian at the clinic, arrived at the scene shortly after Tucumcari firefighters.

"They didn't want me to go inside," Corey recalled Saturday during an interview in the Tucumcari Animal Hospital's new home in a rented office trailer next to the burned remains of the old building. "But I went in and tried the best I could to save some of them, get some of them out that we could."

One dog Corey rescued from a kennel in the burning building died a few days later.

Corey said when she finally accounted for all the animal deaths from the fire, the total stood at more than 70. All perished from smoke inhalation.

She said most of the pets that died were dogs and cats, but the fire also claimed two birds, a rabbit and a tankful of fish.

Corey said she had kept several abandoned animals as her own at the clinic, but the one she was fondest of was Blue, a blue-gray cat.

"He was the clinic cat," she said. "He was everybody's favorite."

Blue perished in the fire.

Investigators found a trail of blood leading from a broken window at the clinic where a burglar apparently gained entry and cut himself. State police took several samples of the blood and submitted them to the state DNA database.

State fire marshal investigator Sammy Anaya said in his report several windows were broken to hasten the fire's spread. He stated someone "poured an ignitable liquid on the office furniture and trash cans and set them afire" in an office area.

Breakthrough

In the state police's report, it stated officers checked into several possible suspects about the fire. It stated "one name stood out" - Garcia's.

Garcia didn't cooperate with state police on submitting a DNA sample, the report stated and he never was charged in connection with the fire.

In December, Garcia was arrested in Tucumcari after being accused of receiving stolen property and unlawful carrying of a deadly weapon. Because one of the charges was a felony, he was required to submit to a DNA swab that would be forwarded to the state's DNA database.

State police said they learned in March that Garcia's DNA was a match for DNA found at the animal hospital fire in 2012.

In April, Garcia was brought to the New Mexico State Police office in Tucumcari for questioning, and police executed a search warrant to obtain new DNA from him.

Garcia initially denied his role with the fire and insisted someone was trying to frame him.

When told Garcia's DNA and no one else's was found at the scene, he confessed to starting the fire, records show.

"Honestly, what happened was I was messed up on coke and drunk and broke in," Garcia said, according to the report.

When asked why he broke into the animal clinic, he said "probably just money or whatever."

"Honestly, I just broke in because I wanted some money for some more bud" - a euphemism for marijuana - "and beer," Garcia said.

Garcia described how he broke through a window at the clinic and cut his hand. He told state police he was looking for money and not drugs. He said he stole $20 or $30 from the office.

When asked how the fire started, Garcia told state police he was attempting to light a cigarette while carrying a gallon bottle of vodka and accidentally caught a curtain on fire.

Garcia also acknowledged he didn't previously provide a DNA sample because he had burned the animal hospital, the report states.

In mid-June, the state's forensic lab reported to state police that Garcia's recent DNA swab matched DNA at the arson scene 100%.

"The probability of selecting an individual at random who could be the source of this DNA profile is approximately one in 1.0 sextillion individuals," the forensic report stated. A sextillion contains 21 zeros.

The lab also tested a partial DNA sample from blood obtained by Tucumcari police during another break-in at the animal hospital in March 2012, about seven weeks before the fire. The lab stated it also was a match, with the chance of another random person with the same DNA profile being one in 590,000.

Corey said Saturday she knew of no link between Garcia and the clinic.

Quay County Commissioner Mike Cherry, who was Tucumcari's fire chief at the time, said last week he was glad there at least was some resolution of the case.

"I know local and state police worked on the case for a long time," he said.

DA's view

Rose, the district attorney, said he wants to charge Garcia with a felony count of arson. But all criminal charges in New Mexico contain a statute of limitations of a maximum of six years except for capital cases, ID theft and other first-degree felonies such as rape.

Rose said during a telephone interview last week he researched the issue and decided not to press charges against Garcia for the animal hospital fire because it would be fruitless.

"I've never had a case where I've been this aggravated that we were unable to seek justice because of the statute of limitations," Rose said.

He said the statute of limitations was designed to prevent prosecutorial abuses, such as delaying charges due to a greater likelihood evidence would be lost that might exonerate a defendant.

Rose said that's not the case here.

"In the case where there was no intent to delay and the officers were making contact and the defendant's failure to give a DNA test, it was evidence that kept them from knowing the truth," he said.

"It just seems wrong in this case that a rule of law would prohibit a prosecution. I don't think it's consistent with the intent of that law. It's a shame that case is going to go unpunished."

Rose declined to comment specifically on Garcia's ongoing court cases. He said he would bring up the arson evidence to the judge if Garcia is convicted of a crime and has a sentencing hearing.

"At the time of sentencing, once there's an adjudication of guilt and Mr. Garcia has had his full opportunity to have a fair trial or fair proceeding, then I think it would be appropriate for the court to know.

"The court can consider the totality of the circumstances. It's really wide open to the court on what they want to consider a person's prior background, whether it's good or bad, they can take consideration of. Of course, a defense counsel can say you shouldn't bring up uncharged bad acts at a sentencing hearing."

Aftermath

Contacted by phone Friday at his home in Tucumcari, Garcia acknowledged his role in the fire after being told he was named in the state police report.

"It was a spur-of-the-moment thing," he told the Quay County Sun. "I can't really remember anyway. I was drunk the whole time. I'm not really too sure."

Garcia said he was "between jobs right now and trying to figure things out."

He said he had not talked to Corey about the fire. Garcia lives less than a quarter-mile from the animal hospital.

Garcia asked the Quay County Sun to refrain from putting his name in the story.

"I'm wondering if I can keep my name out of it, because that's going to end up ruining my life a little bit," he said.

Corey said the fire caused several hardships to her clinic.

"We worked out of a building with no electricity or no cooling for that whole summer before we got anything even partially replaced," she said.

She acknowledged difficulties with the settlement with the insurance company. She has been renting out an office trailer ever since.

"It's worked out fair as a clinic, but there would have been a lot of things different if I had (a clinic) built," Corey said. "This was supposed to be temporary, but other things came up, so it hasn't been as temporary as I planned."

She said state police called her a few weeks ago about the break in the case but didn't reveal the suspect's identity or that the statute of limitations had expired.

"The officer called to let me know so I would have some closure," she said. "I guess it helped, but I wish it had been earlier."

 
 

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