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Top Stories of 2020

From COVID-19 Pandemic to Community Unity

Despite a marked lack of flying cars, 2020 got off to a pretty typical start. There were some new hires, some firings and a bit of progress made on local projects.

COVID-19 Pandemic

There was a whisper of an unknown virus on the other side of the world, then it crept to the West Coast and began ravaging nursing home residents.

Then it was in the Land of Enchantment and at our doorstep. The novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, arrived in mid-March.

The virus is part of a large family of coronaviruses, which usually cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold. However, SARS-CoV-2 can cause serious illness and even death. Why people’s COVID-19 symptoms vary so greatly still isn’t understood despite the release of a new, fast-tracked vaccine.

In an attempt to follow the guidelines put out early in the pandemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid large gatherings, businesses such as the Mitchell Starlight Cinema in Los Lunas initially capped ticket sales for shows and limited each of its eight auditoriums to 100 people or less.

In the service industry, customers pulled back, canceling appointments, and restaurants increased their cleaning efforts.

Municipalities closed their offices to the public, and urged people to do as much business as possible online or by mail. Churches across Valencia County pivoted to services online, via Facebook Live, YouTube and their own websites.

As the News-Bulletin began covering the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March, there were only 23 positive cases of COVID-19 in the state and it hadn’t yet reached the county.

Food pantries were operating at an increased capacity as business closures caused people’s hours to be cut or entirely lose their jobs. The Belen Area Food Pantry, which serves families in the Belen Consolidated School district, moved to curbside service for people picking up food.

By March 31, the county had a total of five positive COVID-19 cases, with just more than 300 cases in the state and five deaths.

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New Mexico and the rest of the country began feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March. The first test site was set up in May at the old ALCO building in Belen.

Valencia County Fire Chief Brian Culp advised the public to stay home as much as possible due to the highly infectious nature of the novel coronavirus. Testing for the virus was expanded to include people without symptoms who had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

At the same time, thousands of students were told they would be learning from home through the end of the school year after the New Mexico Public Education Department made the call to close school sites.

Businesses, such as Joe Nilvo’s Los Lunas barbershop, were ordered closed, putting him and others at risk for missed rent and utility payments.

In April, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe asked people to refrain from partaking in the state’s two largest Good Friday pilgrimages — the walk up Tomé Hill and to El Santuario de Chimayo in light of the outbreak.

Governing bodies across the county and around the nation switched to online meetings rather than in person; the struggle with technical glitches was frequent but eventually smoothed out with practice.

Five weeks in, by the end of April, essential businesses, such as grocery and hardware stores, were allowed to have 20 percent of their maximum occupancy with customers maintaining a distance of 6 feet from each other.

May brought virtual graduations for local high schools, along with “reverse parades,” where the celebrant(s) were stationary and community members drove by to extend well wishes.

Preparations for the June primary elections included cleaning and sanitizing early voting and Election Day locations, and the use of absentee ballots was highly encouraged.

Thanks to a push from the News-Bulletin, the New Mexico Department of Health finally began releasing the number of recovered COVID-19 patients in each county in June, instead of the statewide total as it had been.

Late June was the breaking point for some local businesses as closures were announced. The family-owned Luna Mansion, a fine-dining restaurant in Los Lunas, chose not to reopen as restrictions eased.

In Belen, the owner of The Porch, which offered massage therapy and reflexology since 2009, also decided it was the time to close. Being required to close down in March, was the beginning of the end, Ruth Wessels said. At 72, she had been thinking of slowing down her workload in 2021, but COVID-19 accelerated those plans.

Deemed nonessential businesses, gyms took a hit in 2020, including Extreme Fitness in Belen, which closed after 12 years of operation.

Stage Stores, which owns Bealls and Gordmans department stores, filed for bankruptcy this year. In 2019, the company decided to close the Bealls store and transition to a Gordmans, but as the pandemic dragged on, that plan was scuttled.

The NMDOH publicly named Calvary Chapel New Harvest in Los Lunas as a specific location of a COVID-19 exposure.

DOH spokesperson David Morgan said the department decided to make the name of the exposure known — which was not typically done — because church staff was being uncooperative about notifying its congregation.

Church leadership declined to speak to the newspaper, instead directing the News-Bulletin to a video message released by Pastor David Maestas. In the video, Maestas said the church wasn’t contacted by DOH about an exposure.

One person associated with the church tested positive for COVID-19, and Maestas said the people they were in contact with tested negative.

Whether people could eat inside a restaurant was a moving target in 2020. On July 20, a district court judge issued a temporary restraining order, blocking Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s ban on indoor dining.

The order was overruled by the New Mexico Supreme Court and restaurants had to continue on with curbside and delivery service. Previously, restaurants had been allowed to have dine-in service at 50 percent capacity.

By the end of July, Lujan Grisham announced all in-person learning for public schools would be delayed until after Labor Day. In Valencia County, Belen Consolidated Schools, Los Lunas Schools and the School of Dreams Academy charter school began preparing for remote learning.

For BCS, having enough tablets and laptops for students proved to be a challenge, as well as families having internet access at home.

Both districts and SODA lent out existing devices and ordered new ones to fill the gaps, running up against shortages caused by schools across the country doing the same thing.

While the first two deaths related to COVID-19 were reported in Valencia County in May, their names were unknown — simply identified as a woman in her 60s and a woman in her 70s.

It wasn’t until early August that names were put to local deaths when Bob Warren and his wife, Barbara, of Los Lunas, died within a days of each other due to COVID-19.

The couple’s exposure was traced back to a coronavirus outbreak among four health care workers from the New Mexico Heart Institute in early July; among them was Bob Warren’s cardiologist, who performed a cardiac catheterization on him on July 1.

Bob died on July 27, two days after Barbara, his wife of 44 years.

In August, rumors swirled that prominent Belen physician, Dr. Roland Sanchez had contracted the virus. After nearly a week of speculation, Tom Garrity, of The Garrity Group Public Relations in Albuquerque, on behalf of the family confirmed Dr. Sanchez and his wife, Elia, had both been diagnosed with COVID-19 but the family didn’t provide details of their conditions other than to say they were recovering.

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Elia and Dr. Roland Sanchez

Along with Sanchez’s medical practice, those of his sons’, Dr. Roland Sanchez II, who owns Conquistador Dental, and Dr. Florian Sanchez, owner of Yucca Veterinary Medical Center, closed their respective offices temporarily.

According to the New Mexico Environment Department’s rapid response data, nine employees at the three offices had tested positive in a three day period.

Dr. Sanchez died in a Texas hospital in October, while his daughter, Jessica, died in September.

As the number of cases increased in Valencia County, more people became willing to talk about their experiences with the disease, including Los Lunas couple Sandra and Jamie Goldberg.

Sandra is a teacher at a local elementary school and Jamie is the county’s probate judge and a local real estate agent.

The couple said they weren’t sure where they contracted the virus, but reported symptoms such as severe, burning chest pain and difficulty breathing.

When classes began in August, Belen schools started with the allowed hybrid model — 50 percent of students on campus twice a week with the other half learning from home, then switching places for two days. Los Lunas and SODA elected to begin in remote learning.

In September, local pastors organized what they called a nonpolitical protest to call people of faith back to the church and God and out of the fear they may be experiencing during the pandemic.

The event, Faith Over Fear, was held in Belen and drew about 300 people who sang hymns and listened to sermons, all while mostly disregarding the state’s mandate for masks or face coverings in public and 6 feet of social distancing.

After eight months of varying degrees of restrictions and regulations, the state went back into a “lockdown” scenario in November, similar to the one in March to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In response to rapidly rising COVID-19 cases, Lujan Grisham issued a new public health order closing indoor and outdoor dining, and nonessential businesses, such as hair salons and gyms until the end of that month.

Just prior to Thanksgiving, BCS decided to go to remote learning for the rest of the semester.

In Valencia County, the number of positive COVID-19 cases surged from 740 to 1,718 between Oct. 17 and Nov. 17.

Belen Meadows Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center became a hot spot for the virus, with 41 employees and 70 residents positive for COVID-19.

The governor introduced a red-yellow-green system designed to let counties reopen when they hit certain benchmarks, rather than waiting for the entire state.

The tiered system determined such things as the capacity for essential and nonessential businesses, houses of worship, limits for mass gatherings and when restaurants could offer in-person dining again.

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For months, the world waited for a vaccine to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19. In December, first responders and medical personnel in Valencia County were able to get their first dose, including Los Lunas Fire Chief John Gabaldon.

As of Monday, Dec. 28, all 33 counties were still at the red tier; as of that date, Valencia County had 4,761 positive cases of COVID-19 since March and 66 deaths related to the virus.

In just more than nine months, the county and state went from virus to vaccine, as local agencies and state health officials gathered at Los Lunas High School for a massive COVID-19 training exercise.

While vaccines weren’t given at the test run, first responders in the county began receiving the inoculations in late December. Valencia County Fire Chief Brian Culp estimated the vaccine could be available to the public as early as a month or two, but there was no firm date for the distribution.

COVID-19 dominated the news cycle this year and seemed to seep into every aspect of life, but life keeps moving forward — pandemic or not — and there were other triumphs and heartaches this year not related to the virus.

January 2020

Long-time law enforcement officer James Harris was hired as the new Belen Police Chief, and Andrew DiCamillo as city manager. The chief made it through the year but DiCamillo only lasted until June.

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Leisa Haynes

Terminated by city councilors

Across the river in the city of Rio Communities, manager Leisa Haynes was put on paid administrative leave. Ten weeks later, she was fired by the council.

While Rio Communities Mayor Pro Tem Peggy Gutjahr said she couldn’t comment on personnel issues, Haynes told the News-Bulletin she was put on leave because she went to lunch with representatives of Universal Waste Systems, the solid waste company in consideration for the city contract to haul residential trash.

Haynes described it as a “friendly lunch” to get acquainted, and said the conversation didn’t include the potential contract.

February 2020

The much anticipated second Los Lunas interchange on Interstate-25 inched along. Planners announced the new roadway project would begin in the spring of 2022. The purpose of the second interstate exit is to alleviate the congestion on the village’s Main Street — N.M. 6.

The new interchange is planned to be built south of the existing exit and roughly follow the alignment of Morris Road east to N.M. 314, then across the river to connect to N.M. 47 near Otero Road. The first phase of the road is two lanes and includes a four-lane bridge over the Rio Grande. The second phase will add another two lanes to the road.

Phase I has received $10 million from state capital appropriations and $45 million from the New Mexico Department of Transportation, with an anticipated completion date of some time in 2024.

Phase II has an estimated cost of about $45 million but hasn’t been funded.

March 2020

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The city of Belen’s old water tower, which stands near the corner of Becker Avenue and Sixth Street, was designated a historic landmark by the city council.

The 100-foot tower once held 100,000 gallons of water for city residents, fire protection and sanitation.

Built in 1928, the tower once had a red light bulb on a pole to alert Belen police officers to a call before patrol cars were equipped with radios.

After 20 years in public office, village of Bosque Farms Mayor Wayne Ake decided it was time to leave. Serving two terms as a village councilor and three as mayor, Ake said he never intended to become the fixture he did in the village.

“I’m sure there are some other great places in New Mexico, but this place is so unique,” Ake said of the village. “This was a lot of fun. This is just a great place to be.”

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Russell Walkup, left, a longtime Bosque Farms village councilor, was elected mayor in March. Outgoing Mayor Wayne Ake, right, served the village on the council and as mayor for 20 years total.

April 2020

In early April, Los Lunas Schools Superintendent Dana Sanders took medical leave and Walter Gibson was appointed acting superintendent by the Los Lunas Board of Education. This would be the beginning of a public battle of words between Sanders and the board that culminated in her retirement in August and a lawsuit in December.

Sanders was put on paid administrative leave in mid-April. Shortly after, she fired off a letter accusing some board members of abusing their power. A month later, the board discharged Sanders from her contract.

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Mariah Forde

United States Air Force Academy

Her lawsuit accuses the board of engaging in improper employment practices and retaliation, saying certain board members retaliated against Sanders because she would not use her position to fulfill their “personal desires and/or vendettas” against district employees.

Belen native Mariah Forde joined hundreds of cadets graduating from the prestigious United States Air Force Academy in April.

The 2015 Belen High School valedictorian and basketball standout was a guard for the Air Force Falcons, starting 26 of the 29 games she played her freshman year.

Forde left the team to focus on her studies, and will go on to dental school at Midwestern University in Glendale, Ariz.

May 2020

Even though we were in the middle of a pandemic, graduation season wasn’t going to be ignored.

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The COVID-19 pandemic caused schools to cancel their traditional graduation ceremonies, so many, including Los Lunas High School, opted for a drive-thru celebration.

Belen and Infinity high schools combined ceremonies for a large drive-thru graduation in June, featuring hundreds of cars filled with families, decked out in maroon and gold.

The city of Belen also feted the grads with a parade down Becker Avenue, where they received gift bags and cheers from the community.

Los Lunas and Valencia high schools celebrated with their own parades down Main Street in Los Lunas.

Local soup kitchen, St. Teresa of Calcutta Soup and Blessing Kitchen, received a $1,000 per week grant from United Way of Central New Mexico to purchase meals from local, independently owned restaurants to distribute to Valencia County families.

The 10-week program fed hundreds of people across the county during a time of uncertainty and supported local businesses as well.

June 2020

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Keter Plastics shut down the plant after just more than two years of operations at the industrial park south of the city of Rio Communities.

The company’s strategic business unit leader Tom Lombardo said the decision to close the plant wasn’t based on the quality of the local workforce but rather a need to optimize and consolidate operations.

There were nearly 60 full-time and 40 to 50 part-time employees at the plant who lost their jobs. They were all given the chance to transfer to another Keter facility.

The racial turmoil that raged across the country during the summer of 2020 didn’t spill over into Valencia County, but the call to action did.

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Deidra Velasquez, with the bullhorn, leads nearly three dozen people in a walk around the perimeter of Heritage Park in Los Lunas during a vigil for George Floyd and all other men and women of color who have died due to police violence recently.

Wearing masks and socially distancing, nearly three dozen people gathered at Heritage Park in Los Lunas to remember the numerous Black men and women killed by law enforcement officers over the years and peacefully call attention to police brutality around the nation.

July 2020

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In the predawn hours on Sunday, July 12, a fire ravaged a Belen landmark and touchstone for generations of residents.

Shortly after 5 a.m., Steve Romero smelled smoke. When he looked out his window, he saw Sugar Bowl Lanes in flames, “fire all across — everywhere.”

Married to Frances Romero — the daughter of the late Marvin “Sugar” and Eva Glidewell, the longtime owners of the Belen bowling alley on Becker Avenue — the couple stood on the sidewalk in silent devastation as the building burned.

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Sugar and a friend bought the bowling alley in 1954, and a few years later Sugar became the sole proprietor, taking over the recreational spot in a coin flip.

Sugar Bowl Lanes closed in May 2008, about 17 months before Sugar died. He was followed by his beloved wife, Eva, in 2013.

Numerous fire crews responded to the blaze and millions of gallons of water were pumped onto the fire. While an official cause of the fire hasn’t been determined, security footage from a nearby business recorded a small group of people shooting off fireworks in the vicinity just before the building caught fire.

Former Belen city manager Leona Vigil filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming she was retaliated against after “getting in the mayor’s way” and reporting alleged illegal activity to the city council.

In the suit, Vigil alleges she made Mayor Jerah Cordova aware that a city sidewalk project could potentially violate the Americans With Disabilities Act, and expenses for an event celebrating famed artist Judy Chicago’s birthday could violate the state’s anti-donation clause.

August 2020

Plans for a bridge over the triple railroad tracks that cross Jarales Road, N.M. 109, south of Belen moved forward this year.

A preferred alignment was announced which will require 13 residential relocations and 13 acres to be bought for the right of way.

With an aggressive schedule for the project laid out, the hope was to complete the design work by December 2021 and begin construction in the spring of 2022.

September 2020

Andrew Owen, a 15-year veteran of the Bosque Farms Police Department, was named the next chief of police.

Owen was appointed to the position by Mayor Russ Walkup and approved by a unanimous vote of the council after the previous chief was fired in July. Owen was appointed interim chief during the vacancy.

October 2020

Gil Sanchez Elementary in Jarales was named a National Blue Ribbon School for 2020.

Gil Sanchez Elementary School

Gil Sanchez Elementary has been named a National Blue Ribbon School for 2020.

To compete for the honor, the school has to be nominated by its state public education department. Gil Sanchez was one of three New Mexico schools to receive the honor, and was recognized as an Exemplary Achievement Gap Closing School.

Andrew Salas, a retired National Guard Brigadier general, was appointed Belen’s new city manager.

Salas was selected from 13 applicants, of which nine made the first round of interviews.

A Belen High School graduate, Salas served 38 years in the New Mexico National Guard, and rose to the rank of brigadier general, a position he was appointed to by former Gov. Susanna Martinez.

The case of a 2014 murder of a 12-year-old boy took a step closer to being finished this year. In October, 13th Judicial District Court Judge James Lawrence Sanchez ruled that Brandon Villalobos, who was 15 at the time of the crime, would be sentenced as an adult for the 2014 beating death of Alex Madrid, 12.

In February, a jury found Villalobos guilty of second-degree murder and tampering with evidence.

Because Villalobos was a juvenile when he killed Madrid, he was subject to the state’s children’s code said Barbara Romo, chief deputy for the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, even though he is now 22 years old.

In late October, BCS Superintendent Diane Vallejos announced she would be retiring. Initially, she wanted to retire at the end of the school year next June, but due to upcoming changes to the public educators’ retiree health plan, Vallejos found herself in the position of having to take what amounted to a permanent vacation so as not to lose her accrued leave and future health care stipend.

That put both the Belen and Los Lunas school districts in the hunt for a superintendent at the same time.

In December, BCS announced long-time district administrator Lawrence Sanchez would fill the top position, and LLS hired Belen-native Arsenio Romero as its superintendent.

November 2020

In the November General Election, 67.51 percent of registered voters in Valencia County turned out to cast ballots, most of which came in via absentee and early ballots due to the public’s desire to limit close contact due to the pandemic.

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Denise Vigil

Valencia County Sheriff

There were 15,289 ballots cast early and 11,728 submitted absentee; 5,070 were cast in person on election day.

The county lost its status as a bellwether county in the presidential election, as 17,245 votes went to President Donald Trump and 14,051 went to challenger President-elect Joe Biden.

Since 1952, the presidential candidate Valencia County voted for correctly “predicted” the winner in the nation.

After a year of careful consideration, Valencia County Sheriff Denise Vigil, who campaigned successfully as a Democrat two years ago, changed her party affiliation to Republican.

Vigil said she decided to switch parties due to the climate surrounding law enforcement and the Democratic Party pushing legislation that was against law enforcement to some degree, including legislation that would open up individual officers to lawsuits if they violated a citizen’s civil rights in the course of their duties.

December 2020

Residents of the village of Los Lunas stepped up to help close the divide between law enforcement officers and citizens by launching an Adopt-a-Cop program.

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Belen Holiday Drive-Thru

The effort asks a person or family to “adopt” a local officer for a month and show them appreciation through small gifts or notes.

LLPD Chief Naithan Gurule said the program was a morale booster to his officers. Residents in other municipalities, such as the village of Bosque Farms are making efforts to begin their own programs.

With most public events shut down due to the pandemic, Belen and Los Lunas had to cancel their traditional holiday light parades.

To make up for it, Belen offered a drive-thru light event down Becker Avenue on Dec. 2. The event was so popular, the city held an encore on Dec. 19, drawing thousands of cars to the display.

The village of Los Lunas hosted a drive-thru parade in Daniel Fernandez Memorial Park that same evening with nearly 600 vehicles attending.

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