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Kidnapping case hits standstill after defendant skips trial; Judge declares mistrial and issues warrant after jury, police and attorneys wait in vain

Roswell Police Department detective Michael Burkowski, left, and recruiting and training officer Richard Romero wait outside District Judge Dustin K. Hunter’s courtroom Wednesday morning at the Chaves County Courthouse, prepared to give their testimony in the kidnapping case of Enrique Rodriguez. Rodriguez did not show up in court Wednesday, resulting in a mistrial in the case. Hunter later issued a warrant for Rodriguez’s arrest for his no-show in court. (Trevier Gonzalez Photo)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

The second day of court proceedings for a man charged with committing aggravated burglary and kidnapping his ex-girlfriend in 2015 resulted in a mistrial after he failed to appear in court Wednesday, leading to an extraditable warrant being issued for his arrest.

About 30 minutes after 41-year-old Enrique L. Rodriguez failed to make his 9 a.m. appearance in court, Chaves County District Judge Dustin K. Hunter questioned defense attorney Doug Jones Witt on Rodriguez’s whereabouts.

“I would advise the court that I specifically told Mr. Rodriguez yesterday, as the court did too, what time to be back this morning for trial,” Witt said. “I have talked to his employer, Mr. Pirtle, who is in the courtroom this morning. Mr. Pirtle informed me that early this (Wednesday) morning Mr. Rodriguez did not show to the shop on the farm, apparently where they work.”

Witt said, in addition, he had also spoken to Rodriguez’s brother, who was also present in court.

“All of the people connected with Mr. Rodriguez in this case have no idea where he is,” Witt said. “And certainly, the defense council has no idea where he is.”

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Witt said after realizing his client’s absence, he had his office call local hospitals as well as the Chaves and Eddy county detention centers.

Witt told the judge, according to his staff, Rodriguez had not been admitted into a local hospital or taken into custody in either jail.

The district judge declared a mistrial, and a bench warrant was issued for Rodriguez’s arrest.

The state of New Mexico made arguments to continue trying the case, despite Rodriguez’s absence.

Deputy district attorney Jonathan Michael Thomas specifically mentioned Rule 5-612 in district court criminal procedure, which allows exceptions to the defendant’s presence if they had made an appearance previously, and that the defendant has chosen to be voluntarily absent.

Judge Hunter called for a recess to further look into the rule. About an hour later, Thomas pressed the importance of why the trial should continue with the still-waiting jury.

“I know it’s one thing, we’re sitting here at 10:40 and we should have started at 9, but to completely vacate and excuse all these jurors would be the biggest inconvenience,” Thomas said.

The state raised another concern that involved the safety of the alleged victim, Esperanza Riofrio-Anaya.

“Your honor, before this case even got to you, this was a TRO (temporary restraining order) that judge Bell had,” Thomas said. “The defendant violated the TRO by going to her house. It was expired from one month when this crime occurred. The victim obtained a new restraining order, and violated that restraining order. He has a pending case of aggravated stalking.

“He is a true concern. When we found out he wasn’t here in court today, we sent police to go secure the victim.

“It is a great jeopardy to her life and safety for him to be out there in the wind, and that’s all more reason to conclude this case so she can move on.

“He’s left his lawyer without knowing, he’s left his employer — who posted a bond — without knowing. He’s left his brother without knowing. There is no good reason before the court for his absence.”

After citing court cases like State of New Mexico v. Chris Padilla that show how Rule 5-612 can allow a trial to continue without the presence of the defendant if they are “voluntarily absent,” the district judge spoke.

“I have no doubt in my mind that the defendant’s absence is intentional and contrived for the purpose of thwarting a verdict in this case,” Hunter said. “At this present time, I have no evidence other than the fact that the defendant was here yesterday — I don’t know if he’s in the hospital. I don’t know if he intentionally fled — I know what I believe.”

Thomas responded, stating that Witt’s office had called local hospitals and, despite it being a workday, his employer, Cliff Pirtle was again present in district court. Hunter soon arrived at a decision

“What I’m going to do is — and I don’t like it, because it is an inconvenience to the jury — I’m going to grant a mistrial,” Hunter said. “I think I have to in this case. I’m going to issue an immediate bench warrant with a no-hold bond. No bond. I’m also going to, by separate order, enter a pretrial detention order.”

The judge then told the court he was going to forfeit Rodriguez’s paid bond.

Hunter also ordered that the prosecution’s remaining witnesses from the Roswell Police Department, Richard Romero and Michael Burkowski, be deposed at the expense of the defendant.

“Should he be apprehended again, there will be a standing order that there will be no conditions of release for the defendant,” Hunter said.

In respect to concerns for the victim’s safety, Hunter told prosecutors he would be more than willing to sign or extend a no-contact order.

Deputy District Attorney Matthew Stone said after the declared mistrial, Rodriquez’s absence took away time not only from himself, but Witt too.

“There could have been other jury trials yesterday and today in front of this judge, but likely got moved because of this being a two-day trial,” Stone said. “It’s just all-around a worse-case-scenario really.”

Witt said he had no idea as to what happened to his client, Rodriguez.

“It would be sheer speculation at my part,” Witt said. “But, I think the judge got it right. I mean — the state made a very convincing argument about the reasons why they thought the trial should go forward, trying the defendant in absentia, but I think judge Hunter got it absolutely right.

“There are some constitutional rights, like the right to confront the witnesses against you and to have a fair trial, that I think, outweigh the other factors listed in the case law that we went over today.

“It’s a difficult decision. An unenviable position for judge Hunter to be in.

“Criminal trial work is beset with — fraught with pitfalls, and unexpected twists and turns, and you have to be able to work through them on your feet.”

Witt said while he still can’t speculate on why his client didn’t show up, the evidence against Rodriguez is fairly compelling.

“Obviously, the jury didn’t hear all of the evidence,” Witt said of Tuesday’s court proceedings.

The Daily Record asked Witt if he was troubled with his client not showing up in court.

“I hope Mr. Rodriguez is safe, I hope that he will take seriously his obligation to come back to this jurisdiction and face trial,” he said. “I believe, especially based on what I’ve seen today, that process will be a fair one.”

When asked if he would represent Rodriguez if he did make another court appearance in Chaves County, Witt said, “of course.”

Multimedia-Crime reporter Trevier Gonzalez can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.