Crime Stoppers, the early days (Episode Two)
The nexus of crime
The proximity of New Mexico to the Mexican border has always meant a steady stream of drugs and illicit trade passing through its largest city, Albuquerque.
An example of the border’s impact on crime was the epidemic of stolen motor vehicles back in the 1970’s. A car could be stolen at 9am in the morning and before the owner left work that evening and discovered their car missing, it would have already crossed the Mexican border. Often these stolen vehicles would be exchanged for drugs or stolen weapons.
Where drugs flow, other crimes follow and residential burglaries in the 70’s were a regular source of proceeds to fund the purchase of narcotics. Drugs have and continue to be a nexus for most crime in Albuquerque, as with many other parts of the world.
This was a challenge for the Police Department back in my day as a Violent Crimes Detective and has only continued with growth of the city’s population.
When I first started as a cop in 1973, Albuquerque was a city of about 300,000 people. Today it is closer to 600,000. In those early days, we had about 400-500 police officers to police the entire 187 square mile city spread out over a 24-hour period 7 days a week. Today, the number is closer to 850. We did not have a tremendous amount of manpower. Therefore, it was imperative that we took time to understand and learn the areas that we were patrolling.
This was critical for ensuring that we understood who the criminals were. In short, we were dealing with crooks all the time and it was essential that we knew who they were and what they were up to.
Citizens playing their part
Law abiding citizens were important conduits for information and we had to build up a relationship with them so that they felt trust and would be comfortable in providing valuable information. Relationships with both segments were essential.
In a collaborative effort, I would help citizens to resolve issues that were problematic to them. For example, I would take it upon myself to notify authorities of potholes in the road that required repair or street lights that were out. Street lights were especially important as gangs would often shoot them out in order to stay in the shadows and remain anonymous.
As a cop, we are one of the most visible representatives of government and the citizens will often look to us for help. In this context, it was always important for me to reach out to them. I really wanted to help the people of Albuquerque and especially those on my beat in the Barelas barrio.
Filling up the rolodex
During this time I would make notes, filling up my notebook with comments from citizens. I was also dealing with the criminals and after each shift I would take an hour or two to check through our Identification and Records sections to see if we might have other officer reports involving these people. I would continue to cross reference my notes with official records to the point where I filled up a Rolodex file filled with index cards including mug shots of active criminals, associates and vehicle descriptions. I had to go to a second rolodex to make room.
I ended up passing these Rolodex files to the next officer who succeeded me when I transferred into our Detective Division, which continued the process.
As a result, all this hard work paid off. I was averaging about 12 to 15 felony arrests a month based on the information that I developed in association with the public.
Old lady versus four felons
For example, one day I was talking to an elderly lady and she told me that she had seen a lot of young men up on the riverbank of the Rio Grande. She believed they were up to no good and thought that maybe they were dealing drugs.
As such, I began to survey that area and discovered that what they were doing was operating a mini-chop shot for stolen vehicles. They would take a stolen car down to the riverbank, strip it, sell off the parts and leave the hulk.
That case ended up resulting in four different arrests that we were able to make thanks to one piece of information from a member of the public. Put simply, one concerned citizen who wanted a safe neighbourhood and believed in the importance of a strong, safe community, provided the impetus that led to a gang’s downfall.
Ultimately, this approach to citizen involvement became the background to me starting Crime Stoppers.
Another memorable example involved Frank Sanfilippo who was an escaped convict from the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City. He was without doubt the best and smartest criminal I’ve encountered. He was a formidable crook with an impressive business brain.
Frank arrived in Albuquerque from Interstate 25 in a stolen motorhome and a printing press that he acquired along the way during a burglary in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
He recruited several young accomplices and set about establishing a lucrative stolen car ring in Albuquerque that involved converting the front-end of Volkswagen Beetles with a Cadillac grill assembly. Frank and his team were modifying about 8 stolen vehicles a week and with the prominent Cadillac grills we started to notice them on the streets.
At around this time, we got a Crime Stoppers tip from someone who said they had some friends involved in the racket and were concerned for their safety. The tipster said that Frank was paying the friends to steal Volkswagen Beetles, but that Frank had taken to transferring the cars across the Mexican border and was exchanging them for drugs and illegal firearms.
The prospect of the Mexicans double-crossing and killing the friends had scared the caller and led to the call to Crime Stoppers.
Frank was a big thinker and his actions significantly affected the citizens of Albuquerque. The trade in heroin and stolen weapons did nothing for the safety of ordinary citizens. It was the actions of one person that brought the gang down. This is the power of citizens taking responsibility for their safety and the safety of their communities.
Hits on my life
The life of a cop is not always safe. For instance, my efforts to put criminals behind bars has on more than one occasion resulted in a hit being put out on my life.
In the first case, while I was still working patrol in Barelas, a couple of drug dealers tried to set up me up with a phoney gang fight by calling 911 to report a “gang fight” in an alley in SW Albuquerque. For some reason when I entered the alley I sensed that there was something wrong. Usually when there is a gang fight, there are fighters.
In this case, the alley appeared deserted. I stopped the car, reversed and called for backup. Sure enough, we learned later that if I had travelled another 10 to 15 yards into the alley, I would have been caught in a crossfire and almost certainly would have been killed.
In another hit attempt, a particularly notorious family had conspired to put a price on my head. I had the displeasure of encountering one of the family members on the courthouse steps and informed him that I should arrest him for false advertising. He was somewhat perplexed until I explained that I knew he didn’t have $5,000 to rub together let alone promise to pay $5,000 for a hit.
In many respects, I was lucky not to prematurely end up a permanent fixture in an Albuquerque cemetery for the work that I did.
To this day, I continue to love Albuquerque and its people, the law-abiding ones, that is.
The crime you walk past
We all have a role to play to keep our cities, our communities, ourselves and each other safe. The crime you walk past is the crime you accept and it is certainly the case that the level of crime is related to the degree of involvement and commitment by the public to reduce crime.
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