State will not retry Shaun Wilkins, charged as the triggerman in four gruesome Torreon murders

By Joline Gutierrez Krueger JGLENN@ABQTRIB.COM

Five years have passed since Shaun Wilkins was led away in handcuffs and charged as the triggerman in the Torreon cabin killings, one of the most horrifying multiple murders in recent New Mexico history. Most of those years sputtered on mercilessly behind bars. All of them were shattered by the increasing dread that his Wilkins name would forever be stained with the blood of the four victims: a fellow gang member and his girlfriend, both shot to death. and her two little boys left to crawl among the bodies until they. too, died, but of starvation, locked alone in a remote cabin high in the Manzano Mountains. On Friday, Wilkins’ name was cleared. District Attorney Clint Wellborn announced that he would not retry Wilkins for the killings, making him the second of four former defendants this year to walk free from the threat of retrial. …

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Relying simply on Popeleski’s testimony, which had once been considered key in the cases against the other three defendants, would be imprudent, Wellborn said, because at jury at his September 1999 trial in Estancia found his testimony unreliable enough to find him guilty of second-degree murder for the deaths of the two boys.

“If we went to trial against Mr. Wilkins we would be asking a jury to now believe those same statements that the state had previously shown as unreliable,” Wellborn said.

Wellborn also said that is was possible that Wilkins was in City’County Jail at the time prosecutors said he shot and killed Anaya and Sedillo.

Prosecutors had pushed hard for the death penalty in Wilkins’ case, saying he was the brains and the triggerman in the killings.

But after 20 days of testimony, nine jurors voted for conviction and three for acquittal. Jurors interviewed afterward said the state had relied too heavily on the horror and gruesomeness of the case and not enough on physical evidence that would have placed Wilkins at the scene of the killings. They also said they did not believe the testimony of the other gang members, who they believed were lying to save themselves.

They believed Wilkins’ attorney Steve Aarons who had argued that there was no fingerprint, fiber or DNA at the cabin to indicate that his client had ever been to the Torreon cabin.

Defense attorneys argued that it was Popeleski who acted alone, angered that Anaya lured h im to a party where he was “ranked out” of the 18th Street gang because they believed he was a police informant.

And Aarons had pointed a finger at Albuquerque police gang unit Detective Juan DeReyes for coercing the other defendants into naming Wilkins as the killer. DeReyes, he said, had made it a personal mission to get Wilkins because he believed Wilkins was responsible for a drive-by shooting that damaged DeReyes’ car, which was parked outside his Westgate home.

DeReyes is no longer a member of the Albuquerque Police Department, police spokeswoman Officer Beth Baland said. DeReyes could not be located for comment.

Wilkins spent four of the last five years in the Penitentiary of New Mexico, often in solitary confinement, as he awaited his trial and then his retrial.

Wilkins was finally released last year on his 23rd birthday after posting bond on $85,000 bail. Still, he wondered whether he would ever be completely free. “It was like, am I ever going to have a life again?” Wilkins said.

On Friday, he got his answer.

Wilkins, who had been know by his gang name “Sagger” for the type of pants he wore, said he has since severed the gang tied he had clung to since age 15. He spends h is days simply, working construction or assembly line jobs, playing video games, looking into enrolling in a computer programming course and preparing to get married.

On Friday night, friends and family were expected to celebrate with a barbecue in his honor, he said. But he said h e knows the families of the victims might not be celebrating the dismissal of his charges.

“I hope that they do have rest,” Wilkins said. “I didn’t do this. I hope they find the right people. That’s all I can tell them.”

 

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