Court upholds ruling in Chicano activists lawsuit

By Matt Mygatt, The Associated Press
The Santa Fe New Mexican

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- A judge properly tossed out a lawsuit seeking damages in the case of two Chicano activists fatally shot by police near Albuquerque in 1972, an appeals court says.

The families of the two men failed to allege sufficient facts that officers lied in court about the killings of Rito Canales and Antonio Cordova, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled.

"We're going to be meeting with the families and deciding what route to pursue," said Lauro Silva, an Albuquerque attorney representing the families.

"It's been a long, difficult road for them. Painful. And they wanted to have an opportunity to have this case brought up, or at least have a trial on it," he said Thursday.

Canales and Cordova were killed in a barrage of police gunfire Jan. 28, 1972, as they allegedly tried to steal dynamite from a construction site near Albuquerque.

They reportedly had ties to the Black Berets and Brown Berets -- groups police considered militant.

The men had accused police and prison officials of brutality against Hispanics. They were killed the day before they were expected to release information they gathered about the allegations.

Relatives of the men sued in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque on Nov. 1, 1999.

The lawsuit alleged Tim Chapa, identified as a police informant, conspired with state police, Albuquerque police and the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department to kill Canales and Cordova.

Chapa initially denied being an informant or knowing about any conspiracy or what happened at the construction site.

Chapa, however, changed his story in 1996, court documents said.

He alleged police asked him to infiltrate the Black Berets. After he infiltrated the group, he contended he worked with police to devise a plan in which Black Beret members would be killed while trying to steal dynamite.

Chapa also said he accompanied Canales and Cordova on their fatal attempt and that police were waiting at the construction site, intending to kill Canales and Cordova.

Chapa alleged that after the two men were shot, police threatened to kill him if he ever spoke about what really happened.

He said he feared police retaliation at the time, but years later changed his story because he was no longer afraid and wanted to clear his conscience.

"His statement was inherently unreliable, unrealistic and appeared to be just a fabrication scripted after a television detective show," Albuquerque attorney Jerry Walz, who represented the state and state police, said Thursday.

Silva said damages probably would have been minimal, but the families "deserved a fair and open hearing, especially in light of Tim Chapa coming forward."

Defendants were the state; Bernalillo County; the city of Albuquerque; former city police officers Wayne Larson, Riolino Pollo and Jose Salazar; former state police officers Leroy Urioste, Ted Drennan, Ralph McNutt and Albert Briggs; and former Bernalillo County sheriff's deputies Santos Baca and Truman Woods.

The officers were cleared in cases stemming from two lawsuits in 1974. Criminal investigations by a grand jury, the district attorney, the attorney general, the FBI and the three police agencies also exonerated the officers.

The lawsuit alleged that in the earlier lawsuits, police officers defrauded the courts by lying or withholding evidence.

U.S. District Judge John Conway last April 10 dismissed the latest lawsuit, saying the plaintiffs failed to substantiate that the court had been defrauded. The 10th Circuit upheld his decision Monday.

The plaintiffs did not dispute that Cordova was armed, that the two men were breaking into a storage bunker and that Cordova shot at officers as Canales fled, Conway had said.

The law at the time allowed officers to use deadly force "in case it appears necessary to do so to effect an arrest or prevent an escape," he said.

Police said in a report that they shot the men after Cordova fired at them and Canales refused to halt when ordered. They contended Canales also was armed, although no gun was found.

Chapa said in a court affidavit that Canales was unarmed.

Copyright 2001 New Mexican, Inc.

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