ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- A 31-year-old man has been arrested in a shooting that happened as protesters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, tried to tear down a bronze statue of a Spanish conquistador outside a museum, police said Tuesday.
Police said Stephen Ray Baca was arrested and jailed on suspicion of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. Baca was once a candidate for the Albuquerque City Council and is the son of a former Bernalillo County sheriff.
Baca had been among those trying to protect the statue when protesters “appeared to maliciously pursue him,” according to a criminal complaint. Video posted on social media showed protesters hitting Baca with a skateboard and punching him before he opened fire.
One man was shot and hospitalized Monday night in critical but stable condition, said Albuquerque police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos. A criminal complaint said the victim, Scott Williams, suffered multiple gunshot wounds to the torso.
After the shooting, other armed people encircled Baca, the video showed. Online court records did not list an attorney for Baca who could comment on his behalf.
The shooting occurred near the scene of a Monday night confrontation between protesters and a group of armed men who were trying to protect the statue of Juan de Oñate.
Protesters wrapped a chain around the statue and began tugging on it while chanting: “Tear it down.” One protester repeatedly swung a pickax at the base of the statue.
Moments later, gunshots rang out down the street and people yelled that someone had been shot.
Two Oñate statues have been a source of criticism for decades in the state.
Oñate, who arrived in New Mexico in 1598, is celebrated as a cultural father figure in communities along the Upper Rio Grande that trace their ancestry to Spanish settlers. But he’s also reviled for his brutality among Native Americans.
The shooting prompted the city to announce the statue would be removed until officials determine their next steps.
The Albuquerque Journal reports members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, a self-described civilian militia group, showed up to protect the statue and later intervened as protesters tried to remove it.
It's not clear if Baca was there with the group. He was dressed differently than members, some of whom wore camouflage, had tactical equipment and carried long guns.
Police Chief Michael Geier said investigators had received “reports about vigilante groups possibly instigating this violence.”
“If this is true, (we) will be holding them accountable to the fullest extent of the law, including federal hate group designation and prosecution," Geier said.
Police used tear gas and flash bangs to protect officers who intervened and detained Baca and the armed people who had surrounded him, Gallegos said. He said they were disarmed and taken into custody for questioning. Detectives were investigating with the help of the FBI.
“The shooting tonight was a tragic, outrageous and unacceptable act of violence and it has no place in our city,” Mayor Tim Keller said in a statement. “Our diverse community will not be deterred by acts meant to divide or silence us."
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham accused the armed people of being there to menace protesters and said there was no room in New Mexico for the escalation of “reckless, violent rhetoric.”
"The instigators this evening will be rooted out, they will be investigated, and they will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” she said.
The violence came hours after activists in northern New Mexico celebrated the removal of another likeness of Oñate that was on public display at a cultural center in Alcalde.
Rio Arriba County officials removed it to safeguard it from possible damage and to avoid civil unrest ahead of a scheduled protest.
A forklift pried the massive bronze statue of Oñate on horseback from a concrete pedestal. Cheers erupted among bystanders who viewed the memorial as an affront to indigenous people and an obstacle to greater racial harmony, though several people also arrived to defend the tribute to Oñate.
Lee reported from Santa Fe. Attanasio reported from Alcalde. Associated Press writer Paul Davenport in Phoenix and Russell Contreras in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, contributed to this report.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.