Quay County Sun - Serving the High Plains

By Ron Warnick
QCS Senior Writer 

DA's killing was 50 years ago

 

December 1, 2021

Ron Warnick

Timothy Rose, 10th Judicial District Attorney, puts his hand on a stand of a bust of Victor Breen, a local district attorney who was assassinated on Dec. 1, 1971. The bust is part of a Breen memorial in the lobby of the district attorney's office in Tucumcari.

The assassination of a Tucumcari district attorney 50 years ago this week shocked the region and led to changes in the state's legal system regarding mentally ill suspects.

A man armed with a high-powered rifle shot and killed longtime 10th Judicial District Attorney Victor C. Breen on Dec. 1, 1971, in his driveway as he was about to go to the county courthouse for a murder trial. Breen was 54.

At the time, Breen was the third district attorney in the United States slain in the line of duty.

The suspect in the killing, 45-year-old Jose Rosendo Garcia, was caught shortly afterward but never was tried.

The current district attorney, Timothy Rose, said the local justice system suddenly had lost an experienced leader.

"We were kind of deprived of his wisdom, his experience," Rose said in an interview at the district attorney's office in Tucumcari, which was named after Breen in 2016. "He didn't have a chance to pass that on. There were prosecutors that came after Mr. Breen, but nowhere near the 20 years that he did."

Much of the information in this story came from contemporary reports from newspapers.

Background

Breen was born in Forrest, a third child to ranchers who owned land in New Mexico and Kansas.

He initially went to school in McAlester in southern Quay County, graduated from El Dorado High School in Kansas and earned a law degree at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Breen served as a major in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and was a pilot and flight instructor for B-24 bomber crews. He married his wife, Lois, during the war in Florida, and his first daughter was born shortly after the conflict ended.

He and his family returned to Tucumcari in 1946 and entered into a local law practice. He became the district attorney in 1951.

A contemporary newspaper report of friends and colleagues of Breen said he was tough, fair and thorough as a prosecutor.

Norman Runyan, now living in Roswell and retired from the practice of law, became assistant district attorney under Breen for a few years.

"He was kind of a mentor," Runyan said in a phone interview. "I knew in a small town he would have his political enemies - good gosh, we all did - but he was great."

The killing

On a snowy morning of Dec. 1, 1971, Breen was preparing for the second day of a murder trial involving a Tucumcari teen accused of killing an elderly woman.

Bill Curry said in a phone interview he lived two doors from Breen on South Fifth Street in Tucumcari. He worked at the city, and his wife worked at Trigg Memorial Hospital. His daughter had walked to school that morning.

While driving to work, Curry said he noticed something.

"I saw a vehicle parked down on the street," he recalled. "I drove past it sitting there, and so did my wife. I didn't see anybody milling around it. It was still blowing snow, and we didn't have any reason to stop and look in the vehicle. It didn't dawn on me it being anything unusual."

The Tucumcari Daily News later reported a woman told one officer she saw a man with a rifle on the street and "had thought nothing of it" until she returned and saw police at Breen's home.

Runyan said he received a call from Breen before he headed to the courthouse.

"He called me about 10 minutes (before) and said he was on his way and offered to come by," Runyan recalled. "I told him he didn't have to go out of his way and that I was about to leave, too.

"First thing I know, somebody called me and said, 'Have you heard about Vic being shot?'

"I saw, 'Naw, he just called a few minutes ago.'

"That was quite a shock that morning."

A former law partner of Breen's told the Daily News the sniper fired twice from his vehicle 200 to 300 feet away. One of the shots hit Breen in the back, and he died instantly.

The newspaper printed photographs of Breen's body, covered in a sheet and lying beside his car. Other photographs showed a Tucumcari police officer pointing to a spent cartridge on the street and a bullet embedded in the window of Breen's car.

The murder trial was postponed.

Police set up roadblocks all day around the city but made no arrests.

Curry said police also set up a roadblock near his house that morning. He said the vehicle he saw parked on the street earlier near Breen's home was gone.

Curry said some residents were in a near-panic about the killing.

"At that point, no one knew who the suspect was," he said. "The guy could've been still meandering around the neighborhood. It was a very tense morning and a lot of questions as to, 'Why?' There was the anxiety that the guy was still loose."

Acting on a tip, police apprehended Garcia without incident at a motel in Belen two days later. His car and weapon were a match for what witnesses saw and evidence at the scene.

He was arraigned and held without bond.

Garcia had been on convalescent leave from the state hospital in Las Vegas since January 1970 and was undergoing evaluations every 90 days. He had lived in Tucumcari until two months before the killing, when he moved to Belen, according to the hospital.

Runyan said shortly after the killing that Garcia had threatened Breen after he helped to get him committed to a hospital in October 1968. Runyan said Garcia never was considered dangerous and had no previous criminal record.

Aftermath

More than 700 people attended Breen's funeral at the First Baptist Church in Tucumcari. The service had been scheduled in the Center Street United Methodist Church - of which Breen was a member - but was moved because the Baptist church could hold more people.

Runyan served as one of the pallbearers. Breen is buried at Tucumcari Memorial Park cemetery.

In February, District Judge J.V. Gallegos declared Garcia incompetent to stand trial.

Runyan, who the governor appointed district attorney after Breen's death, didn't dispute it.

"At that point, he was totally messed up," he said. "In the jail, he was sitting on his haunches and wouldn't hardly eat anything. He was in bad shape. He was insane."

Runyan said it wasn't long after that district attorneys from all over New Mexico successfully petitioned for a revamp in state law regarding mentally ill suspects.

"I was part of discussion among DAs where we got a guilty-but-mentally ill conviction," he recalled. "That was a big change. If we would've had it at that time, it would have helped put him in the pen."

Gallegos ordered Garcia returned to a state hospital and that he not be released without a court order. The judge ordered psychiatrists to examine Garcia monthly for three months, then every 60 days until he was ruled fit for trial.

Less than three years later, Garcia was released from the hospital on an outpatient basis and eventually returned to Tucumcari, though it remains unclear whether he stayed in the city for the long term. Breen's family never was notified about his release.

Rose, who's examined the case, said he was mystified why no one received notification of Garcia's release.

"Nobody in the family knew about his release conditions for a long time," Rose said. "I don't know if that was a screw-up by the hospital. I don't think there ever was a court order to release him. He was out and about as a free man for a long time."

Years later, Runyan attributed Garcia's release to a possible change in administration at the hospital.

Garcia died in 1988 and never was tried for the killing.

In 2016, the district attorney's office was named after Breen. His niece designed some of the decor in the lobby area where photographs of Breen and his family hang on the walls.

Curry designed Breen's bust as part of a memorial to him in the lobby.

Rose, who has served as district attorney since 2013, was asked whether he was more inclined to take threats seriously after what happened to one of his predecessors.

"I don't think it crosses my mind any more than anyone else who's a prosecutor or in law enforcement," he said. "We get our threats. I know of at least three from people we've prosecuted who say they're going to do something. It's usually investigated and we don't find anything credible about it.

"It crosses your mind, but it doesn't prevent you from doing your job."

 
 

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