Santa Fe County pays $25,000 to settle wrongful death claim by teen’s estate
Aug. 20—Santa Fe County has paid $25,000 to settle a wrongful death case filed by attorneys representing the estate of a 13-year-old boy who was fatally tortured and then buried in a shallow, roadside grave near Nambé, according to a settlement agreement dated Aug. 3.
The lawsuit was filed in 2019 on behalf of the boy’s sister by lawyers who said Jeremiah Valencia would still be alive if it weren’t for a series of missteps on the part of state, city and county officials.
County sheriff’s investigators found Jeremiah’s body buried in a plastic tub along a Nambé road near his family’s home in January 2018.
Deputies accused his mother, Tracy Ann Peña, and her boyfriend, Thomas Wayne Ferguson, of burying him in late November 2017 after Ferguson and his son, Jordan Anthony Nuñez, then 19, had tortured and beaten the boy to death at the family’s home in Nambé while his mother was in jail.
The Santa Fe County Commission, the sheriff’s office, the city of Santa Fe, former First Judicial District Attorney Marco Serna, former Deputy District Attorney Michael Nuñez (no relation to Jordan Nuñez), and Santa Fe police Officers Jacob Martinez and Hines DeLuca initially were named as defendants in the lawsuit, which sought damages on behalf of Jeremiah’s younger sister, identified only as Jane Doe.
But court records indicate Serna, Michael Nuñez and the police officers later were dismissed as defendants, based in part on immunity they enjoyed as government employees.
Court records — including correspondence from a mediator — indicate the city of Santa Fe also might have agreed to a financial settlement, but the city failed to produce a copy of the agreement in response to an Aug. 2 public records request.
City records custodian Cynthia Whiting said Thursday she mistakenly overlooked the request and would provide the document.
But city spokesman David Herndon said in an email Friday the City Attorney’s Office was reviewing the matter because the plaintiffs had filed a motion seeking to prevent the document from being classified as a public record, and the motion was pending.
That motion and several other files in the case have been sealed by the court.
In May, 2nd District Judge Nancy J. Franchini granted a joint motion filed by the plaintiffs’ attorneys and the city of Santa Fe asking to eliminate Peña, Jeremiah’s mother, as a beneficiary of the boy’s estate, barring her from claiming any settlement money or damages awarded in the case.
Frances Carpenter, an attorney for the plaintiffs, declined to comment Friday.
Prosecutors initially portrayed Jordan Nuñez as a young man who had been coerced by his father into participating in Jeremiah’s torture. Following Ferguson’s suicide in April 2018 at the Santa Fe County jail, however, prosecutors shifted their focus to Nuñez, saying he might have dealt the fatal blow.
Peña agreed to a plea deal in 2018 that called for her to serve 12 years in prison and to testify for the state against Nuñez at his trial.
Nuñez pleaded guilty in 2020 to two counts of recklessly permitting child abuse resulting in death and two counts of tampering with evidence as part of an agreement with prosecutors in which he faces up to 24 years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced in October.
Attorneys for Jeremiah’s estate argued in the lawsuit officials could have saved the boy if they had acted differently at critical times before his death. The complaint cites an array of missteps, many of which The New Mexican reported in 2018 as the homicide case was unfolding.
Ferguson had an extensive criminal history and was on probation at the time of Jeremiah’s death, according to the complaint and court records. He would have been incarcerated in late November 2017 but for a series of actions by various officials and law enforcement officers that allowed him to remain free.
Ferguson had pleaded guilty to a 2014 kidnapping and battery case involving a former girlfriend and was serving probation after a judge suspended his nine-year prison sentence. He pleaded guilty again to domestic violence in a 2015 case in Rio Rancho. But prosecutors from Serna’s office didn’t tell a state judge in Santa Fe about the new conviction during an April 2016 hearing for Ferguson on a probation violation, and he was allowed to remain out of prison, the suit says.
He later became involved with Peña. She had a history of drug addiction, according to the complaint, so Jeremiah and his sister lived with other family members from about 2011 to 2016.
After the children returned to their mother’s custody, they were enrolled in schools in Las Vegas, N.M., the suit says, but she removed them in February 2017, around the same time Ferguson entered their lives.
Ferguson and Peña moved with the children to Nambé the following summer, and he began to miss appointments with his probation officer, who hadn’t approved his move. He later provided the probation office with his Nambé address. Officers who tried to contact him there in June 2017 reported, however, they had encountered large dogs in the yard and did not knock on the door.
They never returned to the home.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit says, the owner of the Nambé property where the family had been living called law enforcement to report she thought someone was living there without her permission. But the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office did not take any action on her calls.
The state Probation and Parole Division listed Ferguson as an absconder and issued an arrest order that should have been entered into a national crime database in July 2017. But it wasn’t.
A month later, when Ferguson failed to show up for a meeting with his probation officer, the complaint says, the division filed a probation violation report in state District Court, prompting a judge to order a bench warrant for his arrest Aug. 22, 2017.
“But nothing happened for three months,” the complaint says. “… No investigation was done and no warrant was issued.”
Days before Jeremiah’s death, Santa Fe police officers encountered Peña and Ferguson in a Walmart parking lot. They discovered there was a warrant out for Peña’s arrest and took her into custody.
They didn’t realize Ferguson also was being sought by authorities and failed to follow protocol on ensuring any children in Peña’s custody would be in safe care during her incarceration.
In video footage of the incident, “Peña mentions her daughter several times to officers,” but they nonetheless wrote in their report that she was “not caring for any children” at the time of her arrest, the complaint says.
Because the officers did not make note of Peña’s daughter, which might have led to a background check on Ferguson that would have revealed his past convictions, Jeremiah and his sister were left in his care while Peña was incarcerated.
She returned home to find the boy dead.
In November 2017, the complaint says, another probation violation report was filed in Ferguson’s case, and a judge again ordered a warrant for his arrest, but the warrant was not issued until January 2018 — three months after Jeremiah died.