Curry inmate receives $450,000 in settlement

Robin Fornof

Curry County, or at least the board of directors of its insurance provider, agreed in December 2010 to pay a Clovis man $450,000 for his alleged mistreatment while housed at the juvenile detention facility.

On Thursday, Commission Chairman Wendell Bostwick confirmed the settlement with Orlando Salas, 22, after details were made public in a special KOB-TV report that aired earlier this week.

Salas is the brother of Edward Salas, a central figure in a 2005 shooting police say was sparked by a school fight that ended later in the day with the death of Carlos Perez, 10, who was shot in the head while sleeping.

Edward Salas was convicted in connection with the killing but escaped from the Curry County jail on Aug. 24, 2008, and remains a fugitive.

Orlando Salas, who was 15 at the time, was being held in the juvenile facility under conspiracy charges linked to the Perez killing.

According to the KOB report, Salas alleges that in December 2005 he was tied to a chair while in solitary confinement and the chair was placed in a position that allowed other inmates to urinate on him from a hole in the ceiling above him.

Salas also said he lost 100 pounds from lack of food during his stay at the juvenile jail. He told KOB he was forced to eat his mail and other paper to survive.

“It was some of our people didn’t follow procedures and protocol which exposed us to some liability issues,” Bostwick said. “In this case, and I was privy to some of the information … there was clear lack of protocol and procedure on the part of the (juvenile) detention center facility employees.”

County Manager Lance Pyle said all employees who were part of the litigation are no longer working for the county. He declined to discuss details.

Pyle wasn’t the county manager at the time of the alleged mistreatment of Salas. The then-Juvenile Detention Administrator Lucy DeLuna resigned in January 2010, some 11 months before the settlement was reached with Salas.

Pyle said the settlement actually cost the county $10,000, the amount of the county’s deductible provided in its insurance policy with the New Mexico Association of Counties. The NMAC’s insurance pool paid the balance.

Bostwick said the county’s insurance carrier recommended the settlement after investigating Salas’ claims and finding “we would have some degree of liability.”

Bostwick acknowledged the insurance company’s recommendation was discussed by commissioners in executive session and there was no action taken on the matter in an open public session.

Asked when the settlement was approved by commissioners, Bostwick said, “I dislike the word approval because … it was kind of a lesser of two evils. We had to accept, in the interest of the county, their offer. And we didn’t accept anything … I think the procedure is by not doing anything, we accept the insurance company’s settlement offer.”

Commissioner Caleb Chandler said he also doesn’t think the county agreed to anything in the matter.

“At the time (county attorney) Steve Doerr briefed us, I didn’t agree. I felt we should go to trial, but our insurance carriers, they make that decision whether we agree or not. We never authorized it.”

Steve Kopelman, risk management director and general counsel for the NMAC, said the ultimate decision for settling lawsuits rests with the seven-member board of directors of the insurance authority. He said county commissioners can challenge the board’s decision if they disagree.

“What would happen is the county would end up sitting down and discussing it (with the board),” Kopelman said.

In the Salas case, county commissioners didn’t challenge the board’s decision to settle, according to Doerr.

Doerr said the NMAC hired Albuquerque attorney Daniel Macke to handle the case and Doerr kept county commissioners advised on the status of the lawsuit.

Macke advised settlement after taking a series of depositions, sworn statements from potential witnesses in the case.

Doerr said commissioners were briefed on the proposed settlement.

“I can’t really say they (commissioners) agreed,” said Doerr, adding commissioners were told if they did challenge it, Curry County would have to absorb all the costs of defending themselves in court as well as any settlement amount specified by a jury.

Macke could not be reached for comment.

Salas’ lawyer, attorney Matthew Coyte, didn’t return telephone calls seeking comment.