On Tuesday, Adrian Banda, 27, was sentenced by Third Judicial District Court Judge Douglas Driggers, via a plea agreement, to 33 years in prison.
Bethany Freudenthal, Las Cruces
LAS CRUCES – Two of the four individuals implicated in 2016 death of Johnny Ramirez were sentenced by Third Judicial District Court Judge Douglas Driggers, via a plea agreement, for their roles in the crime. Gregory Saavedra and Alejandro Ruiz appeared in court Friday afternoon.
Saavedra, 26, pleaded no contest to four counts of tampering with evidence, a third-degree felony. A plea agreement reached in 2017 required Saavedra to “testify completely and truthfully as a witness for the State” in the cases of his co-defendants, Adrian Banda, Damica Childs and Ruiz. In exchange for his cooperation, the remaining charges against Saavedra were dismissed.
Ruiz, 25, pleaded guilty to two fourth-degree felony counts of tampering with evidence. The remaining charges against him were dropped.
On Sept. 22, 2016, Erica Mejia and her friend Ramirez picked up Childs and the three drove to Banda’s home in Doña Ana. There, court documents indicate, Ramirez was accused of stealing various items and was beaten by Banda, Childs and other members inside the home while Mejia stayed outside in her own vehicle.
At one point, Ramirez was ordered to walk outside and get in the trunk of Mejia’s vehicle, court documents stated. Mejia was moved to the backseat of her vehicle and bound with duct tape.
Childs is accused of driving Mejia’s vehicle to the desert with Saavedra in the front passenger seat. Banda and Ruiz followed in a red Mustang, court documents state.
In a deserted area near the Doña Ana Mountains, Mejia’s hands were bound with duct tape to the steering wheel of her own vehicle and she told investigators that Childs stabbed her in the neck.
The vehicle was then set on fire and Mejia said she was told to press the gas pedal, which caused the vehicle to crash into a ravine. She told investigators at the time that she “could feel the vehicle on fire.”
Mejia was able to escape from the burning vehicle and was found by two men in the area.
Banda, Ruiz, Saavedra and Childs were eventually arrested and charged with murder and other counts related to the incident.
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In July, Childs was granted a $10,000 bond as long as she promised to participate in an intervention program, but because that particular program is now defunct, her bond was reversed, and her case remains to be adjudicated.
Ruiz pleaded guilty in March to two counts of tampering with evidence, each third-degree felonies. As part of a plea agreement, the state dismissed 13 more serious counts.
Stephanie Gulley, Saavedra’s attorney, asked that the four sentences — each three years — be suspended and served concurrently, and that her client be granted unsupervised probation for that three-year term. Gulley also asked the court to consider a conditional discharge, meaning the charges would be expunged from Saavedra’s record upon the successful completion of his probation.
Driggers, however, sentenced Saavedra to 12 years in prison — with the entire sentence suspended. Saavedra must comply with the terms of supervised probation for five years, the maximum term allowable under state statute. Driggers also ordered him to pay $6,000 in restitution and complete 100 hours of community service.
“To his credit, (Saavedra) did come forward and enter into the agreement … whereby he agreed to testify completely and truthfully against other co-defendants,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Gerald Byers told the court. “This defendant did participate in pre-trial witness interviews with attorneys representing those defendants.”
Byers said Saavedra played “a physical role” in Ramirez’s death, to which Banda pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 33 years in prison.
“But it’s a double-edged sword,” Byers said. “But in order to arrive at that result, the state needed to enter into this agreement with this defendant.”
In a separate hearing Friday afternoon, Driggers sentenced Ruiz to three years in prison. However, with credit for time served, Ruiz has already fulfilled that sentence. Driggers also ordered Ruiz to complete two years of parole, 40 hours of community service, and to pay $6,000 in restitution.
A grandmother’s pain
“I think that probation, and time served, for something that took a life is just not enough,” said Irene Bustamante, Johnny Ramirez’s grandmother, who helped raise him. “The pain that people go through — you don’t even know what it’s like. You see it on TV all the time, but when it happens to you — you don’t forget.”
Bustamante said she often sees someone walking down the street “the way my Johnny used to walk. And then I’ll remember, he’s not even here.” Or driving down the road, she might hear a song that her grandson used to like, and memories come flooding back.
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Family get-togethers, she said, frequently turn tearful.
“Someone will tell a story about Johnny,” she said. “And, before you know it, we’re all crying. A lot of people have told me, ‘Within time, you’ll forget.’ You don’t forget. A part of your heart is gone.”
Bustamante said she is unsatisfied with the outcome of the case, and she feels that changes are needed in the criminal justice system.
“I just think that the courts need to (change),” she said. “I think that if someone took a life, they shouldn’t be allowed to bargain. There’s no bargaining for this. You took a life,” she said.
“I think the court system is really screwed up, to tell you the truth,” she added.
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