Suspect Admits Killing Priest

By Rory McClannahan
Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico)
February 4, 1998

Plea Agreement 'Serves Justice'

BERNALILLO — Dennis Carabajal, who was arrested in May for killing a retired priest, pleaded guilty to the crime Tuesday in state district court.

Carabajal, 38, stood before Judge Kenneth Brown and quietly answered "guilty" three times to three different charges. He could be sentenced to up to 62 years in prison.

The plea agreement stipulated Carabajal plead guilty to second-degree murder, armed robbery and tampering with evidence in connection with the May 3 beating death of the Rev. Armando Martinez, 62. Carabajal also agreed to be sentenced as a habitual offender and with an old-age enhancement added to the charges.

In return, prosecutors are asking Brown to sentence Carabajal to a maximum of 50 years in prison.

Thirteenth Judicial District Attorney Mike Runnels said prosecutors had a strong case and would have gotten at least the second-degree conviction, a less-serious charge than the first-degree one the office had been pursuing. A first-degree murder conviction requires prosecutors show a defendant acted with extreme malice or premeditation.

Runnels said the plea deal serves justice.

"He's going to be spending about as much time as he would have under a first-degree conviction," Runnels said.

Four of Martinez's family members were in the courtroom for the plea, but none wanted to comment.

Runnels said his office was in constant contact with the victim's family members and they are satisfied with the plea.

"As hard as it's been for all of us, we feel there has been a satisfactory resolution to all this," Runnels said.

Carabajal's attorney, Jeff Rein, said his client took the agreement because he wanted a quick resolution to the case.

"Dennis feels terrible about this," Rein said. "He really wants to try and make things stop for the family and friends of Father Martinez."

But Deputy District Attorney Joanna Aguilar told Brown that Carabajal didn't have much chance of acquittal at trial.

She said Martinez had stopped to pick up Carabajal, who was hitchhiking, at the intersection of N.M. 44 and N.M. 528 near Bernalillo. There were witnesses ready to testify to seeing the two together and to seeing Carabajal beating Martinez about 40 miles away at the Valle Grande, Aguilar said. In addition, Carabajal had told police he killed Martinez, she said.

"Dennis Carabajal confessed to beating Father Martinez with a rock about the head," Aguilar said.

Martinez's nude body was found May 4 about 10 feet off N.M. 4 in the Jemez Mountains. The Office of the Medical Investigator determined Martinez died of a blow to the head with a blunt object.

Carabajal, who has a lengthy criminal record dating to 1978, had been paroled from the state prison system in February 1997.

Three days after Martinez's body was found, Carabajal turned himself in to authorities when the Sandoval County Sheriff's Department issued an arrest warrant accusing him of the killing. He was charged with killing Martinez, stealing the priest's car and credit cards and trying to cover up the crime.

Carabajal told police he reacted violently after Martinez made a pass at him.

Martinez's family has called that statement "outrageous and preposterous."

Martinez was ordained as a priest in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in 1961 and served in several parishes throughout the state.

Carabajal will be sentenced March 3.


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