Saturday, September 20, 2003

History-making cases were handled by longtime lawman Lawrence Romero

(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a monthly column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society. Readers with questions or comments about recent columns are encouraged to contact the series' editor, Richard Melzer, at 925-8620. Readers are also encouraged to join the Valencia County Historical Society by calling 861-0581.)

Richard Melzer, the editor of La Historia del Rio Abajo series, recently asked if I would like to write an article about former Valencia County Sheriff Lawrence Romero. I was happy to comply because I have personally known this extraordinary lawman for 20 years and because his dedication and contributions to law enforcement are legendary.

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Lawrence Romero was born and raised in the beautiful little ranching and farming community of Lemitar. He was the eldest of four children born to Joseph and Beatrice Romero. Brother Billy and sisters Lola and Pauline made up the rest of the family.

Growing up like most rural New Mexicans, Lawrence did chores and odd jobs to supplement his family's meager income.

In his teenage years, Lawrence began racing fast cars, an interest that was to serve him well in his future career as a police officer. Unfortunately, in his younger days, he was stopped more than once for speeding with loud, open-exhaust headers. He laughingly recalls how an Albuquerque policeman once told him, "Lawrence, if you don't close those headers on your car, we are going to weld them shut for you!"

It was during this seemingly carefree time of racing cars and dating girls that tragedy struck the Romero family. Lawrence's father passed away at the age of 41. Lawrence was heartbroken.

As the eldest child, the heavy responsibility of helping his mother and younger siblings fell squarely on Lawrence's shoulders. He needed a steady, dependable job to support his fatherless family.

Lawrence's first thought was to get a job in law enforcement. He remembered his uncle, George Romero, dressed in his snappy-looking police uniform with an impressive policeman's badge on his chest.

Lawrence was also attracted to a career in law enforcement because of the excitement and adventure it seemed to promise.

But it was Socorro County Sheriff Ernest S. Peralta who really impressed Lawrence the most. Peralta was a big man who wore a large, shiny, cowboy belt buckle and evoked an air of confidence that smacked of Wyatt Earp and other Wild West lawmen.

Lawrence was hired by the Socorro Police Department in 1965, marking the beginning of a career that has now spanned nearly 40 years. Soon thereafter, he married the former Hazel Moffet. The couple had two children, Lisa and Lawrence Jr.

After serving as the undersheriff of Socorro County by 1967, Lawrence decided to take on the challenge of Albuquerque's south valley, long known as that city's roughest area. As a rookie in the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department, he was assigned to the graveyard shift, from midnight to 8 a.m., when most of the violence in Albuquerque's "war zone" occurred.

Lawrence was determined to meet the thugs of southwest Albuquerque head on. But, as Lawrence smilingly recalls, the night sergeant on duty had other ideas. The old sergeant told him, "Lawrence, this isn't Socorro, with a few bad guys. So, when we get a call about gang activity, turn on your lights and sound your siren long before you arrive at a scene. Then drive 30 miles per hour until you get there."

Dumbfounded, Lawrence said, "Why do you want to do that? They might all get away!" With a hint of sarcasm, the sergeant explained, "We do this so most of the cockroaches can get a chance to scatter. We can deal with 15, but not 115."

The sergeant's advice fell on deaf ears because Lawrence was determined to get the bad guys. With grit and determination, he helped put many of the South Valley's worst gang members behind bars. The training and experience he received in fighting southwest Albuquerque gangs would prove invaluable later, when Lawrence served as the sheriff of Valencia County.

In 1970, Lawrence moved his family to Belen so that his children could grow up in a community that still enjoyed old-fashioned values. He took a job with the Belen Police Department, and in 1971, received his certification after graduating from the New Mexico Sheriff's Academy.

Lawrence's leadership qualities soon drew the attention of his superiors in Belen. He quickly rose through the ranks to the office of assistant police chief.

One day, while at the Valencia County courthouse, someone suggested that he would be an excellent Republican Party candidate for sheriff. After talking it over with his wife and many of his friends in the Republican Party, the young police officer decided to enter the 1974 race.

He ran and became the first Republican to win the sheriff's post in Valencia County since 1948.

Within a month after assuming office, Lawrence was involved in one of the most famous criminal investigations in recent Valencia County history: the tragic abduction of Lollie Wood Tipton.

A mother of two children, 20-year-old Lollie Tipton worked the graveyard shift at the Circle K store in Peralta so she could be with her young son and daughter during the day.

On Feb. 3, 1977, Lollie Tipton was taken from the Circle K store by a knife-wielding abductor. As Lollie screamed and struggled for her life, two customers entered the store and became victims themselves. Felipe Tapia was stabbed in the back and in his arm. The second customer, Dan O'Grady, was held with a knife to his throat. Within moments, Lollie's abductor dragged the small woman to his car and sped away.

Assisted by the FBI, Lawrence's department made an extensive search of the area but found no sign of Lollie or her abductor. After many hours, a tired and frustrated Lawrence finally went home to rest.

Sitting at his kitchen table, Lawrence told his wife of his lack of clues and his growing sense of helplessness. All his department had was a crude composite drawing of the perpetrator, but, so far, no one could identify him, no less tell where he might have taken Lollie.

Intuitively, Hazel suggested the possibility that the kidnapper had spent much of the night drinking in a nearby bar, getting drunk, and then looking for trouble. Realizing that this scenario made perfect sense, Lawrence declared, "I think you're right!"

Following Hazel's logic, Lawrence's deputies took their composite sketch to Club 47 and asked the bartender if the man looked familiar. Recognizing the face in the drawing, the bartender's testimony helped lead to the arrest of William T. Altum. Altum had just been released from a mental institution after having committed a similar kidnapping and armed robbery in Kansas.

Sadly, Lollie Tipton did not survive her ordeal. Using a map that Altum drew to show where her body could be found, the police discovered her remains in a culvert in southeast Albuquerque. The young mother had died of a massive skull fracture.

But Altum had been apprehended. Good investigative work by Lawrence's department and his wife's intuition paid off in helping to take a dangerous criminal off the streets.

Lawrence faced a second baffling crime a year later. A father and son had been digging for rocks east of Belen when they came across a boot with human bones in it. Alerted of the grisly discovery, sheriff's officers later found the rest of the body buried under two and a half feet of dirt. A .38 caliber pistol found by the corpse indicated that the dead man had surely been the victim of foul play.

It did not take long to identify the victim. Through a ring found on the body and two slips of paper found in the gun handle with a name and address, the vicitim was identified as a 73-year-old Bernalillo man.

But the larger mystery remained: who killed the man and why did they dispose of his body on an isolated mesa so far from his hometown? Lawmen soon turned to the man's private life for answers.

Clues led to an earlier boyfriend of the victim's wife, who lived in El Paso, Texas. Valencia County Detective Joe Chavez and District Attorney Investigator Mike Alexander questioned him in the border town.

The former boyfriend broke down rather quickly, confessing to his part in the murder and revealing many important details.

The investigation found that the young man had shot the victim in the back with his own gun, had loaded his body in the trunk of a car and had buried him at an isolated spot in the desert. Thanks to the persistent work of Lawrence's department, the "bone in the boot" mystery was solved.

Meanwhile, in his personal life, Lawrence married the former Carol Thomas. The couple were blessed with a baby girl, Lawren. In business, Lawrence purchased The Westerner bar.

But a serious problem had gradually crept into Lawrence's life. Drinking was slowly taking over his life, damaging not only his body but also his mind, his soul and, most tragically, his new marriage. He soon found himself in a hospital bed with a serious liver ailment. His doctors warned him never to drink again.

After being released from the hospital, Lawrence was closing his bar late one night. With everyone gone and the lights low, he felt a strong urge for a drink. Seeing his image in the bar mirror, a feeling of overwhelming guilt swept over him as he thought of his little girl and how he wanted to live to see her grow up. He knew that goal would not be possible if he kept drinking.

Lawrence prayed to God to release him from his addiction to drinking. Suddenly, he felt a strong force shake his body. His desire for alcohol was gone in an instant. He never drank again.

As Lawrence puts it, "God can work that miracle for any alcoholic or drug addict from one breath to another. A person can be released from evil." Lawrence has experienced sobriety for more than fifteen years, and he thanks God every day for that victory.

Lawrence continued in his law enforcement career. But along with his many successes there were disappointments. The most disappointing case he ever worked on involved a missing college student named Tara Calico.

Tara was an active 19-year-old student at the University of New Mexico's Valencia Campus in the fall of 1988. Living at home with her parents in Rio Communities, she liked to exercise, riding her bike as much as 34 miles a day.

On Sept. 20, 1988, Tara left on one such bike trip but failed to return at her usual time. Tara's mother, Patty Doel, knew that something must be terribly wrong because Tara had always been so punctual.

Lawrence led a massive hunt for Tara Calico in a nationally publicized case. Lawrence says, "We put a lot of man-hours into the search, without success. But what is really sad is that, to this day, a mother and father are left with unanswered questions of what happened to their daughter. There is no closure to their heartache and grief."

After the tragic death of his own son, Lawrence decided to return to his career in law enforcement, having taken time off to run his horse ranch and manage his bar. He went to work for the Torrance County sheriff's department and later became the undersheriff for the Socorro County Sheriff's Department. Now a detective, he serves as a public information and community policing officer for the Socorro Police Department.

In addition, Lawrence has started chapters of "Cops for Christ" in both Socorro and Belen. His goal is to expand this organization throughout New Mexico and across the United States.

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