DA: APD’s case against former judge was ‘terrible’

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – First Judicial District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco knew she faced a no-win situation when, in July 2011, she agreed to take the case that had rocked the New Mexico legal community.

“I had members of my staff who were angry at me for having accepted the case,” Pacheco said, “because they knew it was a mess.”

On July 19, 2011, APD Vice Unit detectives had arrested Albert S. “Pat” Murdoch, the chief criminal judge of the Second Judicial District in Albuquerque, on charges of raping and intimidating an alleged prostitute who had surreptitiously video-recorded a sexual encounter between the two.

Undercover detectives had purchased the video, which the woman was shopping around on Albuquerque’s black market, for $400.

Images of Murdoch walking out of the Metropolitan Detention Center, where he had sent offenders for 26 years as one of the state’s most prominent judges, led evening newscasts and morning newspapers for more than a week. The scandal had ripple effects on the New Mexico criminal justice system that are still felt today.

But it was a bad case with bad facts, said Pacheco, who took the case as a special prosecutor because of the local DA’s obvious conflicts.

“For example, you have a woman who came to (Murdoch’s) house numerous times,” Pacheco said in an interview with KRQE News 13 on Monday. “One of those times, she brought a video camera so that she could document whatever sexual acts were taking place.

“From our perspective, that looks like it could have been a set up for extortion. So we know from the very beginning that this case is problematic.”

The veteran prosecutor announced last week that she would not take the case forward for prosecution.

She hadn’t been the first to suggest the possibility of extortion. In fact, APD said around the time of the arrest that officers were looking into possible charges against the woman.

They never materialized.

Neither did any evidence that police investigated Murdoch’s allegations that the woman had stolen tens of thousands of dollars worth of valuables from his Northeast Albuquerque home. Those allegations have not been previously reported. They are detailed in the full case file, which News 13 obtained late last week.

APD Cmdr. Les Brown, who took over supervision of the Vice Unit toward the tail end of the Murdoch investigation in late summer 2011, said Monday that he didn’t know whether a possible extortion charge or Murdoch’s claims about theft were “fully investigated.”

Still, Brown stood by his detectives and their investigation of Murdoch. He said the case was solid, and that there’s no reason to review it in light of Pacheco’s decision to not prosecute.

“I think they handled it completely properly. I don’t think they did anything wrong,” he said. “They did a very thorough investigation. Obviously when you’re dealing with an official, especially one that has notoriety like a judge or a public official, we’re gonna be very extra careful in how we do the investigation. Obviously we’re not gonna play any favoritism.”

Brown pointed out that state Appeals Court Judge Michael Bustamante reviewed and signed the arrest warrant on Murdoch.

KRQE News 13 asked Brown for his reaction to Pacheco’s decision.

“It’s disappointing obviously because the officers and the detectives worked very hard,” he said. “Their job is to protect the community, to enforce the laws. So it is obviously a little disheartening because we tried to do the best case we can.”

Murdoch was forced to permanently retire from the bench after his arrest or risk losing his pension. His attorney told KRQE News 13 last week that the former judge is considering filing a police misconduct lawsuit against APD.

High-profile arrest

As a child, Murdoch was diagnosed with polio and lost the use of his legs.

He graduated from the University of New Mexico Law School in 1978 and went to work in the Public Defender’s Office. By the late 1980s, he had become the youngest person ever appointed to the state District Court bench.

At District Court, Murdoch was instrumental in developing drug diversion programs. He consistently carried one of the heaviest caseloads in the state, and he handled various administrative duties at the court through the years.

He was a favorite among prosecutors and defense attorneys alike — and of law enforcement. Officers went to Murdoch’s home at all hours, for example, to get warrants signed. His chambers were frequently full of cops waiting to speak to the judge about all manner of issues.

So it came as a shock when then-Deputy Police Chief Paul Feist announced detectives had arrested Murdoch.

The case file shows that APD pulled out all the stops to get him into custody. Numerous detectives from the department’s Special Investigations Division set up surveillance on the courthouse and Murdoch’s home on the day he was arrested. Two officers from the Repeat Offender Project team, which is responsible for going after the worst of the worst in Albuquerque, were sent in to the courthouse to place the longtime judge under arrest.

Brown said the use of low-profile detectives wasn’t unusual.

The investigation had begun a few days prior when Vice Detective Keith Sandy learned about the video of Murdoch’s sexual encounter with a woman from a confidential informant, according to documents in the case file.

The informant said Sandy could buy the video for $400, the documents show, and the detective did exactly that. After Sandy and his partner, Vice Detective Matthew Vollmer, watched the video, they brought the woman and her boyfriend in for questioning.

She told the detectives Murdoch had contacted her after she posted an ad for prostitution on the website backpage.com. The woman, who was 23 at the time, had never been arrested for prostitution, but she told Vollmer and Sandy that Murdoch paid her $200 for sex on eight separate occasions.

She did not volunteer that Murdoch had raped her. That was an allegation the detectives developed on their own.

The woman told the detectives her first encounter with Murdoch included consensual sex for which he paid her. But during that encounter, Murdoch performed oral sex on her against her will. That claim would become the basis for the rape charge, police said at the time.

The woman went back to Murdoch’s home a second time, she told detectives. On that occasion, she secretly recorded the two of them having sex. According to documents in the case file, the video shows the two having what appears to be consensual sex. Afterwards, Murdoch performed oral sex on the woman while she said “no” and pushed her hands against his head. The two later had sex again, the video shows, according to the documents.

Six more times, the woman told Vollmer and Sandy, she went back to Murdoch’s home for sex, the documents show.

“We always fall back on the facts,” DA Pacheco said. “Why would the individual take the videotape to … his house other than, you know, some type of extortion?”

The woman told the detectives that she began to worry after she made the video, according to documents in the case file. So she began asking Murdoch hypothetical questions about what he would do if a woman ever made “allegations about him.”

Murdoch’s answer — that he would “use the police and his connections to take care of the situation” — formed the basis for APD’s witness intimidation charge against him, the case file shows.

Immediately after his arrest, Murdoch’s lawyers called that charge into question, asking how a hypothetical scenario could lead to a felony rap.

After leading him out of the courthouse, APD took Murdoch in for questioning. He told a very different story about his relationship with the woman who had become his accuser.

Murdoch said he met the woman outside an Albuquerque restaurant and that he had, at various times, given her money to help her in life and paid for her hotel rooms, the case file shows.

Copies of Murdoch’s check register in the case file appear to support the payments he told detectives about.

He told detectives he had never paid the woman, or anyone else, for sex, the documents show, although he did suspect the woman may have worked at some point as a prostitute.

He said the two had sex once at his home after drinking alcohol, according to the documents. He denied raping her.

Asked whether he believed the woman was a prostitute, APD’s Cmdr. Brown said it doesn’t matter.

“Whether it’s a prostitute or whether it’s not, it’s a woman, and in this case … It doesn’t matter what your profession is, you have the right to say no to somebody,” Brown said. “If someone’s doing something to you that you don’t want to, that you choose not to, and you don’t want to have happen to you, you get to say no. And it’s illegal.”

KRQE News 13 asked Pacheco whether she believed the video showed evidence of rape.

“That’s a hard question for me to answer,” she said. “Because there’s a video camera running and one of the parties knows there’s a video camera, so, people can say a lot of things when they know a camera is watching.”

The woman visited his home on three other occasions, Murdoch told detectives. It was during one of those visits, he said, that she stole several watches and other valuables. He told detectives that he lied to the woman and told her he had obtained a warrant for her arrest on theft charges.

Pacheco said that further muddied the waters as she reviewed the case.

“The fact that there were items taken from his home tells me that this woman had been to his house on other occasions,” she said, “which puts into play … It’s hard to understand what the relationship was between Mr. Murdoch and this woman … So this whole case is problematic.”

Still, Pacheco said the magnitude of the charges and the profile of the accused meant she had to spend more time than normal reviewing the facts.

“We knew that this case would be closely scrutinized, so we would look at the case, we would set it aside, come back in a few months to see if there was anything we had overlooked,” she said. “We always  came to the same conclusion: It was a terrible case. There was nowhere for us to go with it. So we just did that over and over until we decided we just need to say we weren’t not going to prosecute.”

The damage, however, already had been done, Pacheco said.

“It’s a very serious charge and once someone accuses you of rape, it’s very hard to overcome that,” she said.

And for Murdoch, the consequences have been severe.

Immediately after his arrest, the Judicial Standards Commission suspended him. Later, the commission gave him the option of permanently retiring — and agreeing to never seek even a temporary seat on the bench again — or sit out with no pay while an investigation played out. If he chose the latter, and the investigation had concluded he’d violated standards, Murdoch would have lost his pension.

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