Neighbors raise concerns about crime in 'Felony Flats'
FARMINGTON — Some residents have raised concerns about crime and slow police response times in the Lake View Heights subdivision in Middle Mesa, a remote neighborhood near the Colorado-New Mexico border west of Navajo Lake.
San Juan County Sheriff's Office detective Lt. Kyle Lincoln confirmed there has been crime in the neighborhood, but claimed it wasn't prolific.
However, he acknowledged the neighborhood has for years had a bad reputation, which has caused some locals to derisively call it "Felony Flats."
"It's been that way my whole career," Lincoln said.
The subdivision, which can only be reached by Colo. Highway 330, is located at the tangle of four county lines — San Juan and Rio Arriba counties in New Mexico and La Plata and Archuleta counties in Colorado — and the Colorado-New Mexico state line.
The subdivision's founder, Ralph Phelps, said Wednesday he created the 120-lot neighborhood in the 1970s to provide housing to middle-income residents. His wife, Jean Phelps, lives in the neighborhood, but the couple also has a home several miles north of the subdivision in Colorado.
The neighborhood is home to young families, retirees and what Ralph Phelps called "bad eggs."
"They find a refuge there," he said. "They know the area and know law enforcement response time."
His wife said the neighborhood has been plagued for years by burglaries, thefts and drug trafficking. She said residents created a neighborhood watch several years ago to discourage bad behavior, but criminals infiltrated the group and used it as one more tool to avoid scrutiny by law enforcement.
She said some residents went as far as to create a porchlight signaling system to alert each other when law enforcement entered the neighborhood.
"The bad eggs have the inside scoop on (police) activities," Jean Phelps said.
In July, 22-year-old Jonathan Richard Clark was accused of stealing an Ignacio Police Department squad vehicle, which he allegedly drove to Lake View Heights subdivision, where he abandoned it, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.
The affidavit notes the vehicle was found outside a residence that belonged to a known associate of Clark.
Ignacio police Chief Kirk Phillips said Clark was arrested several weeks ago, and he faces charges in both Colorado and New Mexico in connection to the incident.
Jean Phelps said she isn't just concerned about crime, but also about public safety. She said residents who dial 911 randomly connect to one of three different counties' dispatchers, depending on what cellphone tower connects the call, which can further delay response times during an emergency.
A 40-year-old resident who asked that his name not be used due to concerns for the safety of his family said Wednesday that crime became a problem in the neighborhood in the early 2000s, during the methamphetamine epidemic.
He said he was afraid to allow his young daughter to play in the street, and he and his neighbors had to remain vigilant to stop thieves from burglarizing homes or turning abandoned properties into drug dens.
Down the road, 64-year-old Jim Smith sipped a beer on his front porch Wednesday afternoon while he stared out into the mountains. It was raining on Chimney Rock, which was visible from between two straggly pine trees.
Smith agreed there was some trouble in the neighborhood, but he said he hasn't had to report a crime in his 12 years living in Lake View Heights.
"You had paradise, and Cain still killed Abel," he said. "So you're going to have trouble anywhere."
Smith said he bought the home because it was affordable. Boxes of bamboo flooring sat on the porch waiting to be installed. The front garden had grown wild, but Smith said it was because his wife was at their home in Florida.
"I got a million-dollar view for a six-pack price," Smith said.
But Smith agreed a stronger law enforcement presence in the area would be a benefit to the community.
In May, concerned residents held a meeting with law enforcement officials from the La Plata County Sheriff's Office, San Juan County Sheriff's Office, Archuleta County Sheriff's Office and the Southern Ute Tribal Police to discuss police response times.
Several residents said Wednesday they have seen more state and tribal law enforcement officers patrolling near the neighborhood since the meeting.
Megan Graham, public affairs officer for La Plata County, said on Friday that Sheriff Sean Smith promised residents at the meeting he would increase patrols in the area, and that is what the department has done.
She said deputies have responded this year to 112 calls for service on Colo. Highway 330, 75 of which have been reported since the meeting.
She said deputies have arrested six fugitives in the area since May, three of whom were Middle Mesa residents.
However, Graham said the La Plata County Sheriff's Office cannot patrol the Lake View Heights subdivision and will only respond there to assist the San Juan County Sheriff's Office during a "life or limb" emergency.
Lincoln said the San Juan County Sheriff's Office cares about the residents in Lake View Heights, but he said the department's limited resources are better spent patrolling areas with higher call volumes.
He said the department has a deputy who lives in Middle Mesa and he responds to calls, but slow response time is one of the costs for living in a remote area.
"You have residents who live there because they don't want law enforcement there," he said. "They want to be left alone."
Jean Phelps said she would try again to start a neighborhood watch in Lake View Heights, and the Phelps couple, who still own some of the lots in the subdivision, have discussed adding a covenant clause to property contracts that would restrict what types of homes could be built in the subdivision.
But Jean Phelps said law enforcement officials from both sides of the state border needed to work together to solve the crime issue.
"That is a solution — they need to intermingle," she said.
Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.