Pelotte: You Decide

By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
Gallup Independent
August 1, 2008

[See Pelotte's Plight Compared to Jesus Crucifixion, by Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola, Gallup Independent, August 1, 2008, with the full text of Chancellor Timoteo Lujan's news release and 13 additional photographs. See also Bishop Photos Expose Lies, Editorial, Gallup Independent, August 11, 2008; and The Truth Is Out There, by Barry Heifner, Gallup Independent, August 11, 2008. For background on the case, see What Caused Pelotte's Injury? by Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola, Gallup Independent, July 30, 2007, including a facsimile of the police report with Lujan's original account; Pelotte Photos Spark Lawsuit, Countersuit, by Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola, Gallup Independent, October 28, 2007; Vatican Accepts Area Bishop's Resignation, by Debra Mayeux, Daily Times, May 1, 2008; and Pelotte Leaving Gallup, Maikowski Going to Page, by Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola, Gallup Independent, November 5, 2008.]

Gallup — Like missing pieces added to a puzzle, the release of the police photographs taken of Donald E. Pelotte have added new clues about what might possibly have happened to the former Gallup bishop in July 2007.

But in a case full of conflicting statements, missed opportunities, differing expert opinions, and faulty memories, it’s unlikely the questions behind Pelotte’s injuries will be ever be answered. The only thing that’s likely is that the controversy will continue.

Former Bishop Donald E. Pelotte is seen in the photo taken at the hospital, July 2007. [photo courtesy Gallup Police]

Over the course of a year, diocesan officials have made a number of conflicting statements that have fueled the very speculation they have decried. When diocesan officials announced Pelotte had been seriously injured in a fall in his home, they didn’t reveal that police had been called to the RMCH emergency room. Once discovered, the 911 call recording and the police report clearly indicate that the ER physician, the police officer, and Pelotte’s assistant, Deacon Timoteo Lujan, had concerns that Pelotte was possibly a battery victim. According to Gallup Police, the photos were taken with the idea that Pelotte might change his mind and want to file a criminal complaint.

Lujan raised further questions with the very candid comments he made to the Independent in a telephone interview. He admitted that upon first discovering the injured bishop, he thought Pelotte might have been assaulted.

During the nearly hourlong interview, Lujan and the reporter talked about the former seminary student who had been charged with attempted murder in 2004 after confessing to Gallup Police that he had tried to poison an elderly nun. That charge was eventually plea bargained down to harassment.

In 2005, the diocese issued a news release stating the same young man had threatened to kill Pelotte. Nothing ever came of that allegation other than a scheduled probation revocation hearing that kept being postponed. Lujan told the reporter that in the days after Pelotte’s injury, other people had raised their concerns about this former seminarian.

However, in an Aug. 9, 2007, interview with the Catholic News Service, Lujan backed away from those earlier remarks. According to the CNS story, Lujan offered three denials: “It didn’t ever occur to me that he was beaten,” he is reported as saying, “I didn’t mean to speculate that he was assaulted,” and “It never occurred to me that he was attacked.”

The CNS reported that Lujan’s “comment to the investigating police officer that the bishop ‘really looks beaten up’ was taken differently in the officer’s report” than Lujan had intended it. Lujan also speculated to the news service that Pelotte’s “recurring minor bouts of malaria” which cause him to feel dizzy and weak could have contributed to a fall down the stairs.

In terms of missed opportunities, the Gallup Police have been criticized for declining to search Pelotte’s home as requested by the ER technician who placed the 911 call and for not pursuing any interviews with the former seminary student who allegedly threatened Pelotte. They also accepted the recollections of Pelotte, a trauma patient, who was later said to be suffering from traumatic brain injury.

As for Pelotte, the District Court Clerk filed an entry of default against him in the civil complaint filed by the city of Gallup over the legal battle for the police photos because he didn’t hire an attorney to represent him in the case. It’s unclear why Pelotte forfeited his opportunity for legal counsel.

And like the tangled events in this unfolding drama have been open to different perspectives, even “experts” have viewed Pelotte’s injuries differently. On Aug. 6, 2007, Robert Cron, the acting Gallup police chief and a longtime law enforcement officer, was quoted in the Gallup Herald as saying, “From what I see, it seems reasonable to believe that the bishop did fall down the stairs.”

“We do not have an active investigation of what occurred to the bishop,” Cron was quoted as saying in the next week’s edition. “The bishop said he fell down the stairs, so there is nothing to investigate.”

And apparently different experts in forensic pathology have reached somewhat different conclusions. On Monday, KRQE’s Larry Barker interviewed Dr. Kris Sperry, a forensic pathologist who is the chief medical examiner for the State of Georgia. Sperry believes Pelotte was the victim of a terrible beating. On Thursday, KOAT interviewed Dr. Thomas Bennett, an associate state medical examiner and forensic pathologist from Montana, who said many of Pelotte’s injuries were consistent with a fall. However, because of the injuries to Pelotte’s hands, Bennett added that he “cannot rule out” that the bishop was assaulted.

Even Pelotte has offered conflicting views of his injuries. For the last year, the former bishop has insisted he was injured falling down his stairs. After being shown the police photographs by KRQE’s Barker, Pelotte said he no longer believes the injuries were caused by a fall. “When you see those pictures there’s no way that I could have gotten that damage by falling down the stairs,” he said. “But I don’t remember that.”


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