By Darrell Todd Maurina
State police and family members say they have no idea why a 19-year-old ranch hand may have gone on a 2 1/2 hour crime spree through three counties Sunday afternoon, breaking into homes, hijacking cars, and robbing people at gunpoint.
John C. Cates III is being held in the De Baca County jail on a $396,000 bond facing 35 charges including kidnapping, aggravated burglary, criminal sexual contact, assault with intent to commit a violent felony, false imprisonment, unlawful taking of a motor vehicle, and allowing himself to be served alcohol as a minor.
In a press statement, New Mexico State Police say Cates broke into two homes north of Fort Sumner about 2 p.m. Sunday, stealing a car and a .45 caliber derringer. He then traveled to the Fort Sumner cemetery, confronted two couples, demanded money from them at gunpoint, and threatened their lives.
Police say he then drove east toward Melrose on U.S. 60, tried but failed to carjack another vehicle at gunpoint, and at milepost 319, blocked the roadway with his car and robbed two more women at gunpoint. He then kidnapped a female motorist, abandoned his first stolen vehicle, and left the area in the new car along with the kidnapped woman. Cates and his kidnap victim slipped through Melrose just before police set up a roadblock, but Portales police stopped him in that community when he let his kidnap victim out to make a phone call about 4:45 p.m.
Capt. Oscar Gonzales of the New Mexico State Police said he couldn’t recall any similar string of robberies, kidnappings, and carjackings in the Fort Sumner area, and the State Police put up an extensive perimeter searching for Cates with the assistance of four county sheriffs and five city police departments.
“I’ve not seen that amount of crimes, not only the severity but also the amount of crimes, committed by one individual in this area,” Gonzales said.
Sgt. Wesley Waller of the State Police said quick thinking by the kidnap victim was crucial to capturing Cates.
“She was able to use her head, keep her cool, and was able to talk him into letting her get out of the car and call her employer to say she was not going to make it in to work,” Waller said. “She was able to use that opportunity to escape and call the police. The Portales Police Department responded immediately and were able to apprehend him without incident.”
Reached at his home in the northern New Mexico town of Roy, Cates’ grandfather, John C. Cates, said he last saw his grandson several weeks ago and didn’t think he had gotten into trouble with the law before.
“He’s nothing but a boy, he must have snapped somewhere,” said the elder Cates. “I imagine he couldn’t find work, and I don’t think the Fort Sumner area is a good area for young people to be in.”
Cates said he first learned of his grandson’s legal troubles when watching the morning television news.
“It wasn’t a very good time for me. None of my family ever had problems before,” Cates said. “I’ve called most of them, they want to find out what happened.”
Police say they had no prior contact with the younger Cates.
“We don’t have any criminal history with him at all so far we’ve been able to find,” Gonzales said. “There is no motive we can identify at this point.”