By Thomas Garcia
QCS Senior Writer
Former Tucumcari Police Officer Dustin “Dusty” Lopez and Robert Sandoval pleaded guilty to felony arson charges Friday at the Quay County Courthouse.
With Tenth Judicial District Judge Albert J Mitchell presiding, Lopez and Sandoval entered pleas separately during the hearing for charges in connection to a Sept. 3, 2014 fire at a hotel and an abandoned home on North Fourth Street.
Special Prosecutor Matt Chandler said the state was confident it would have been able to convict had the matter gone to trial. The jury trial for these cases was set to begin on Tuesday.
Each faced six counts — arson, conspiracy to commit arson and breaking and entering for both the Payless Motor Inn and an abandoned home. Mitchell said the state-mandated time for the felony charges is 12 years, but the plea agreement would set prison time at a maximum of five years.
Sandoval’s attorney, Chico Gallegos, asked that the court record show his client pleaded as an accessory and not a principal in the case. The specifics would be relevant, he said, during an upcoming sentencing hearing.
“My client is taking responsibility for his actions in this matter and wants his role in this case to be clearly defined when he goes before the judge for sentencing,” Gallegos said.
Gallegos and Lopez’s attorney, Thomas Benavidez, asked that the sentencing take place at a later date in order for them to prepare properly for the proceedings.
“Mr. Lopez is taking responsibility for his actions by entering a plea of guilty and not a plea of no-contest,” Benavidez said.
Mitchell has tentatively set sentencing for 3:30 p.m. Sept. 1.
The three buildings on the Payless Inn property, all of which were destroyed in the blaze, were valued at $155,155.
Lopez resigned Oct. 2 from the Tucumcari Police Department, the day after New Mexico State Police conducted a search of his home. He did not give a reason for his resignation, said Tucumcari Police Chief Jason Braziel.
State police received information there was evidence on Lopez’s cell phone connecting him and four others with a series of arson fires set in Tucumcari in September.
A third defendant, Dani J. Martinez, has pleaded not guilty to the charges. No trial date has been set. All three remain free on bond.