State dismisses charges in Hopi Street shooting

Steve Garrison
Levi Wilson, left, and his attorney, Arlon Stoker, listen Feb. 19 during a hearing for Wilson at Aztec District Court in Aztec.

FARMINGTON — The state dismissed charges today against Levi Wilson, one of two men charged with attempted murder in a Farmington shootout in July 2013 that killed Christopher Valdez.

Prosecutor Ron Brambl said in a motion two key witnesses recently made recorded statements that were inconsistent with prior sworn testimony, which diminished their credibility on important facts.

He said forensic evidence had also been re-evaluated, and there was no longer a reasonable likelihood Wilson would be convicted on charges of attempted first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Wilson, 34, was expected to go to trial on those charges later this month.

Wilson had been arrested on allegations he and another man, 28-year-old Lawrence Kellywood, caused a shootout on July 27, 2013, with Michael Tafoya at Tafoya's residence at 101 E. Hopi St. More than 20 shots were fired, one of which struck and killed Valdez, a 40-year-old neighbor.

Kellywood pleaded no contest to aggravated battery with a deadly weapon in May 2015 after his three-day trial ended in a mistrial. He was sentenced to time served and unsupervised probation.

San Juan County Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien said the state decided to dismiss charges against Wilson due to a recorded conversation between Tafoya and his girlfriend, Kathleen Keck, at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center.

Keck told Tafoya during the conversation Wilson was not armed and did not participate in the shooting at Tafoya's residence, which contradicted statements she made at Kellywood's trial, according to O'Brien.

"We put a lot of emphasis on the credibility of those witnesses, and if we don't believe the jury is going to be able to rely on that testimony, that means we don't think we can reasonably obtain a conviction," O'Brien said.

O'Brien said forensic evidence also suggested Tafoya could have been the person that shot Valdez, though Tafoya denied that in testimony at Kellywood's trial.

"We just don't know," O'Brien said. "But because we don't know, it's not more likely that one fired than the other."

O'Brien said it was unlikely the state would be able to charge Tafoya in the shooting. Tafoya could claim he acted in self-defense, and Wilson and Kellywood were not credible witnesses.

O'Brien said prosecutors still believe Kellywood, and possibly Wilson, were at Tafoya's residence on July 27, 2013, to buy or steal drugs, and he lamented the fact that no one could be held responsible for Valdez's death due to an appellate court ruling in 2003 that required prosecutors to prove one of the two co-defendants fired the bullet that killed Valdez. He said his office would continue to lobby the Legislature to pass a law that would eliminate that requirement.

Wilson's attorney, Arlon Stoker, said Wilson was at Tafoya's house on July 27, 2013, with Kellywood to purchase marijuana. He claimed Kellywood and Tafoya got into an argument, and Tafoya fired the first shots at the two men.

Stoker said he believed Tafoya should be prosecuted for the murder, arguing the resident continued to fire his gun after Kellywood and Wilson fled the scene.

Stoker said he and his wife, Monica Stoker, a former Farmington police detective, put in thousands of hours of work defending Wilson, which included re-examining almost all the forensic evidence found at the scene by detectives.

"This was a complex case. It's a very complex case, but I almost feel like we're Project Innocence on this case," Stoker said, referring to the nonprofit organization created in 1992 to exonerate wrongfully convicted people.

Stoker said he presented his client's case to Farmington police Chief Steve Hebbe about a month ago and asked the chief to reconsider the evidence.

He said Hebbe asked tough questions, but eventually agreed to reopen the case.

"Chief Hebbe — he is an honest man," Stoker said. "I'll say it, he's an honest man."

Hebbe said the department did not reopen the case, but he did initiate discussions with his detectives and prosecutors about Stoker's theories regarding the shooting.

"We had an open dialogue about what we thought were the strengths and weaknesses of the case," he said.

However, Hebbe said the decision was ultimately made by the District Attorney's Office.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.