CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Hesiquia Ramirez says her brotherAlbert was an honor roll student as a small child. “He was a good kid,” she said, as she flipped through photo albums filled with keepsakes from her brother’s childhood.
By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
They watched helpless as the youngest child in the family spiraled out of control, never knowing the growing violence inside of him would one day result in spilled blood and the loss of two loved ones.
Albert Ramirez was raised the youngest of five children. His mother a disabled, stay-at-home mom who nurtured and doted on her baby.
It was a good childhood, Hesiquia Ramirez recalled.
It wasn’t perfect and they certainly weren’t wealthy, but their needs were met. They had a clean home, regular meals, clean clothes and a loving mother.
“There’s kids out there that had it way worse than we did,” she said.
But her youngest brother, separated from her by nine years, was sometimes the most fortunate of the siblings. Often dressed in designer clothes, he seemed to get everything he asked for.
Laughing, she said, “Albert was like the biggest brat that (Mom) had. He would get everything, he was the baby.”
And that’s how they saw him. Sure, he was a little willful and perhaps even spoiled, but not mean or angry or violent, he was just the baby in the family.
But there was a turning point where things changed dramatically, Hesiquia Ramirez said, and somewhere along the way, her brother became a killer.
In the middle of the afternoon on July 12, 2007, prosecutors say Albert Ramirez waited for his mother’s boyfriend to step from the family’s Sixth Street home, headed for work.
Ramirez planned the shooting at least days in advance, they said, shopping for a gun and paying someone to buy him bullets so the purchase wouldn’t be traced back to him.
Walking up to Eladio Robledo, the then-18-year-old Ramirez, fired two .22 caliber bullets into the chest of the man he had lived with since childhood.
Neighbors watched as Robledo turned to run for his life but instead fell to the ground. Witnesses said Ramirez stood over Robledo and fired two more bullets into his head.
A year and a half later, on Jan. 26, with opening arguments in his first-degree murder trial just moments away, Ramirez pleaded guilty to the killing, accepting a life sentence in prison and forfeiting his right to an appeal.
His family is still in shock, still grappling with the killing and the descent to violence that led up to it.
“It just totally surprised us when he did that, but when you’re not in the right state of mind, you don’t know what you’ve done until it’s too late,” she said.
“It’s just kind of hard to see it because we don’t really know what was running through his head. Nobody really knows the reason, (but) he felt nobody loved him, nobody cared about him.”
First signs of trouble
When Hesiquia Ramirez searches her mind for the first indication of trouble brewing, she finds it in her brother’s late teen years.
Albert Ramirez wouldn’t go to school.
His mother would drive him there and leave him at the door. But over and over again, he found ways to leave.
The truancy got him placed on juvenile probation, Ramirez said.
When nothing they tried seemed to work, she said his probation officer recommended foster care, suggesting the change in home structure might get him to stay in school.
The family took the officer’s advice.
About six months later, she said, the Ramirez family brought home a stranger occupying her brother’s body.
He would cry, throw himself on the floor and throw fits, talk to himself in the mirror — It was like he would flip a switch, nice, sweet and loving one moment, seemingly possessed the next.
He talked of abuse in the foster home, something his family was never able to verify.
“He was never bad before but just like towards the end, I knew something was wrong with him. When somebody acts like that, they’ve got issues,” his sister said.
“He was very, very weak minded. He had very, very low self-esteem he didn’t care about himself anymore. Before, he would dress nice all the time but when he came back he wouldn’t dress up, he wasn’t the same person anymore,” she said.
He had become volatile.
A turn to violence
When he turned 18, he told his mother he could make it on his own and moved out. But it turned out life on his own was harder than he expected.
In a short time, Ramirez was back at their mother’s home but his failed attempt at independence and his growing violent tendencies made him difficult to live with.
He had become demanding and increasingly unpredictable.
“He wouldn’t get his way at home and he would get upset… I guess since he wasn’t in school and he needed to work or do something so (Eladio) threw him out,” she said.
The rejection tipped the fragile balance for her brother and a pattern emerged, she said.
He would turn up at his mother’s home at all hours, screaming, banging on the door, and lashing out.
Police reports filed as early as four months before the shooting document the growing maelstrom he directed at his mother and the man who helped raise him.
He demanded to be let in and broke the windows on the car and the house, telling police he did it because he was angry.
The incidents terrified their mother, Hesiquia Ramirez said
Albert Ramirez was arrested for the broken windows, held briefly in jail, then released. Robledo filed a no-trespass order against him to keep him from the property.
But Hesiquia Ramirez said it did nothing and even seemed to escalate the violence.
“He broke that trespass order so many times and they never arrested him for it. It was always next time and next time and next time, and next time never came,” she said, estimating her mother called for help in more than a dozen different instances.
“They all knew what Albert was going through. They would say ‘poor kid, poor kid’ and they never did anything to try to help that poor kid,” she said. “He would even call the cops on himself to try to get them to do something and it never worked.”
“It would get to me,” she said. “They would say ‘poor kid he needs help’, but nobody every tried to get him help… We couldn’t get him help. We figured the cops saw the way that he was acting, why couldn’t they get him to some facility? He was like crying out for help really, really bad.”
System “beyond messed up”
But the police, much like the family, often find their hands tied when it comes to mental issues.
Police can’t arrest someone for violating a no-trespass order unless the violation occurs in their presence. They can’t hold someone just because they have mental issues, police Capt. Patrick Whitney said.
And the system, more often or not, fails those with mental disorders.
“There’s no doubt the entire state of New Mexico has a problem with the mental health programs. We can’t keep (mental patients in custody), that is beyond our control or authority,” Whitney said, explaining only a doctor can order a mental patient be held in protective custody. And most of the time the doctor evaluating a patient is a medical doctor, not a psychiatrist with trained expertise in mental illness.
”There’s no doubt the state mental health system is beyond messed up,” he said.
But Whitney stops short of blaming the system for Albert Ramirez’ actions.
“There’s only one person responsible for that murder and that’s Mr. Ramirez, who wrapped his hands around the gun and pulled the trigger multiple times and made sure that he killed the man,” Whitney said.
For a family twice stricken with loss, there is still a stack of “what ifs” and a search for answers.
Looking back, Hesiquia Ramirez wishes her brother had been jailed and held. Maybe if he had been forced to sit and think about things, he would have calmed down. Maybe the system could have helped where the family couldn’t.
“Maybe it wouldn’t have gotten as far as it got because he was crying out for help all the time. We didn’t know this was running through his mind… he just had a lot of anger in him built up,” she said. “Everything just piled up and piled up and built up inside of him and he just exploded.”
In custody while awaiting trial, his outbursts and unpredictability resurfaced.
On one occasion he attacked two detention officers, spitting on them and head-butting them as they transported him from a court hearing.
And on another occasion in the courtroom, he claimed his legs didn’t work and collapsed on the floor, forcing officers to carry him until a reprimand from the judge compelled him to stand.
A year after the shooting, Albert Ramirez was sent to the Behavioral Health Institute at Las Vegas, N.M. to be evaluated for competency issues.
Against objections from his defense attorney, court records show he was later ruled competent to stand trial and assist in his own defense after a clinical psychologist testified he was a, “disturbed young man” who likely has a mood disorder but is not mentally ill.”
For Hesiquia Ramirez, whose brother will spend 30 years in prison before parole is possible, the answer falls short.
She doesn’t believe the experts looked hard enough, probed deep enough into her brother’s psyche and she hopes they evaluate him again and get him the help he so desperately needs.
Perhaps he has schizophrenia, or a bi-polar disorder, both of which can be found in the family, or perhaps it’s something else.
Regardless, with the death of Robledo and Albert’s prison sentence, the family’s loss is doubled and there is little relief in sight as they redefine their relationship with Albert Ramirez around prison bars and visitation hours.