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 V.21 No.30 | July 26 - August 1, 2012 

Feature

Crimes of the Anasazi

Getting busted in Downtown’s embattled high-rise

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
It wasn’t a good idea. We knew that at the time, but I guess we thought we would get away with it.

On March 23, 2011, my companion, Towns of the Sandia Mountains author and @New_Mexico_News tweeter, Mike Smith and I took the bus down Central through Albuquerque’s neon-lit Downtown. We were headed toward the Anasazi building. At nine stories tall, it towered over other buildings on the block, and its pueblo-influenced, multitier design gave its dark, empty windows romantic intrigue. Could we get in? What was inside? What would it be like to be one of the few people who had looked out of those lofty windows?

Near the very top of its eastern face, there was a tantalizing sign that entry was possible: A graffiti rainbow coursed from the rooftop down the bare side. If that artist could get in, so could we. We didn’t think about what would happen if we got caught; we just wanted to see it from the inside.

Cell phone pictures show the unfinished state inside the Anasazi
Mike Smith
Cell phone pictures show the unfinished state inside the Anasazi
In our backpacks we carried notebooks and pens, supplies for the writing class we took together, and flashlights. We were nervous but still determined to at least try to get in. If we found it impossible, we agreed, then we would simply call it a night.

We stepped off the bus and made our way to the intersection of Sixth Street and Central, where the Anasazi stood waiting for us. Our first plan for getting inside was to use the building’s parking ramp, but it had been blocked off.

“What do you think? Is this going to happen?” I asked Mike.

“Come on,” he answered. “Let’s check out the street side first. I thought I saw something over there.”

And, indeed, on the Sixth Street side of the building we found a boarded-up doorway with a substantial gap in the ceiling structure above it. Mike started to climb.

***

Once, of course, the Anasazi was not an abandoned hulk squatting in the center of Downtown. In 2007, it was still under construction, a bustling hub of activity as its completion date, April of the following year, loomed.

Developer Vincent Garcia was riding high on the unprecedented housing and condo boom that had swept much of the country. A photograph from a Nov. 25, 2007 article in New Mexico Business Weekly shows Garcia, his wife, Patsy, and their son, David, all smiling broadly while seated in a spacious model loft showcasing the Anasazi’s future interior. The floor is constructed of honey-brown wood, the countertops are carbon steel, the refrigerator and oven are stainless.

“Jesus!” I shouted, and grabbed at the plywood. It bent back just enough for me to slip inside and join Mike in the darkness of the interior, where he had been kicking at it from a prone position. We were inside.

The article, ironically titled, “Developer puts struggles behind with Anasazi highrise,” details the many amenities available to condo purchasers. Each residential unit, it says, has its own balcony. Some come with two. There’s a shared rooftop patio “for socializing and cooking out.” Penthouse units have 18-foot ceilings. Optional upgrades include “glass-front refrigerators and wine coolers.” The building is already 65 percent sold, the Garcias beam, much of it to out-of-state investors. But never fear, they add, affordable units are still available, starting at $230,000 and ranging up to $579,000.

The article is a relic of another time, a window into the Albuquerque of 2007. The housing bubble had not yet burst and condominiums sprang up all across the city. It was a time when a land developer who had been sued by his business partners, who had bankrupted several companies, and who had been accused of defrauding the city to the tune of nearly half a million dollars for one of his past projects could be described as “putting his struggles behind him.”

Forbidden views
Mike Smith
Forbidden views
***

Embarrassingly, I was not able to climb in after Mike. The opening required that my feet be jammed into a shallow alcove in the wall while pulling myself up with my arms, and I didn’t have the strength to do it. I tried a few times, then dropped.

“I can’t do it,” I called in to him.

“Yeah you can!” he said from inside the building. “Give it another try!”

I did, and failed again.

Not sure what to do, I started to walk away. “Mike, I don’t think this is happening,” I said, and started off toward Central. I didn’t plan to leave him there. I only wanted to stop being so damned obvious about what we were doing. I was painfully aware of the fact that our position was exposed, that the windows of the condominiums across the street looked directly down upon us; that at any moment a policeman could cruise by and wonder why I was loitering in that particular doorway.

Wreckage left behind by copper thieves
Mike Smith
Wreckage left behind by copper thieves
I got about halfway up the block when a BOOM rang out. Another followed. I jogged back just in time for the next BOOM and for the plywood cover on the lower door frame to buckle outward as Mike kicked it from inside.

“Jesus!” I shouted, and grabbed at the plywood. It bent back just enough for me to slip inside and join Mike in the darkness of the interior, where he had been kicking at it from a prone position. We were inside.

***

The “struggles” that Garcia hoped to put behind him with the success of the Anasazi were a murky tangle of bad development ventures, bankruptcies and upset former partners. He had dealings with multiple high-profile redevelopment projects in the Downtown area: La Posada Hotel, before it was known as Hotel Andaluz; the First National Bank Building (later rechristened the Banque Lofts); and the Copper Square “office condos.” One of the most prominent examples of his business style involves a building only blocks away from the Anasazi site.

The city contracted Garcia to build a parking garage on Third Street and Copper, which the city then purchased from him for $6.8 million dollars. Garcia’s company, Renaissance Holdings LLC, would be allowed to operate the garage and collect revenue, as long as it paid monthly rental fees. However, Renaissance failed to make the payments it had agreed on. In 2004, the city filed suit alleging that the company owed nearly half a million dollars in back fees. Adding insult to injury, the completed garage was smaller than Garcia had promised by 100 parking spaces, prompting the city to accuse Garcia of fraud.

Suddenly, there were shouts, blinding lights, assault rifles and barking, growling dogs. Our hands flew over our heads. A cop shouted, “DROP YOUR WEAPON!”

Unable to pay the money he owed, Garcia dissolved Renaissance Holdings. The case never came to court.

***

At first, we walked slowly, shining our flashlights sparingly. As I recall, the bottom floor was mostly empty space, the area where the shops would have been installed if the project had been a success. We found the stairs and climbed upward.

It’s difficult to remember details of the interior—the whole experience was fraught with the giddy thrill of exploration. The floors have become a blur of memories: winding passages, spiral stair cases, sudden open balconies.

We saw places where others had been before. There were graffiti tags, abandoned articles of clothing, cigarette butts. On one floor we found evidence of copper theft. Great gaping holes in the walls, piles of insulation and wire strippings where thieves had ripped into the guts of the building to find copper wires and fixtures.

Both Mike and I had explored many abandoned sites in the past. We were both familiar with the heady mixture of feelings that go along with such ventures: a rush of freedom tinged with danger and the knowledge that only a few others were willing to take the kind of risks that visiting off-limits places entailed.

We rushed through the upper stories, came to the topmost balcony and stepped out onto it. From there, we looked down at the city sprawling below. Here was the view we had come for, and it felt like an accomplishment. Mike snapped a picture. I pulled out my cell phone and called my wife.

“Hi Ty,” she answered. “Where are you?”

“I’m out with Mike,” I said cagily. “We’re going to be out for a little while.”

“OK,” she replied, and I could tell from her voice that she knew something was up. “I’ll see you soon, right?”

“Sure,” I said. “Pretty soon.”

Back inside, we wound our way through a narrow hallway, looking for a way onto the roof. We found only a padlocked door.

Mike Smith
As we made our way back to the stairs, Mike turned to me and said, “I’m so glad we did this. This sort of thing is necessary.”

I started to answer him, then paused. “Did you hear that?”

“What was it?” Mike asked.

“I thought I heard something. Like radio static.” I listened again, then continued, “Probably nothing, though.”

“Yeah, probably,” Mike answered.

***

Despite the accusations over the parking garage, Garcia was still a player in the condo scene. Soon he formed a new company that was made up almost entirely of family members. Garcia called it Blue Dot Corp. and served as its CEO. His wife, Patsy, was appointed sales manager, and his son, David, became construction manager.

In 2006, Blue Dot Corp. announced an exciting project: a nine-story mixed use retail/condominium building at Sixth Street and Central. It would be the area’s most substantial construction project in years.

The project soon attracted financing and investors from across the country, who paid little heed to Garcia’s dubious past. Garcia took out a $20 million loan from Columbian Bank and Trust in Kansas, and on Oct. 3, 2006, bulldozers started demolishing the old McGilvray’s building to make way for the Anasazi Downtown.

Garcia himself was buoyed by the early excitement for the project, and he was flush with investors’ capital. It was around this time that he began to use funds earmarked for the Anasazi and other projects to help his son make improvements on his home.

Even as the first floors of the Anasazi Downtown took shape, Vincent Garcia had cast his eyes toward other investments. Among them was the J&J Casino in Washington state. Eager to expand his empire, he entered negotiations on its purchase, a seemingly minor event that would later have grave ramifications for Garcia, his family and the Anasazi.

The problem was that he still had little in the way of actual income, despite the scope of his investments and what’s come to light as an increasingly lavish lifestyle. In order to facilitate the purchase of the casino, he called upon Derek Barnhill, a construction contractor who had worked with him since approximately 2004. Garcia asked Barnhill to doctor an old bid sheet into an invoice for sheet rock for the Anasazi Downtown. Garcia would then submit the invoice to the Columbian Bank & Trust, the organization that provided the loan for the Anasazi’s completion. When the funds were disbursed, he would transfer the money to close on the J&J Casino.

Barnhill, who in 2010 admitted in court that he had done similar things for Garcia in the past (sometimes keeping a portion of the money for himself), agreed. The deed was done.

Mike Smith
***

It turned out that I had heard something, after all.

We had been spotted on our way in. A resident of the condos across the street had seen and heard our admittedly stealthless entry into the building and called the cops.

During the half-hour that Mike and I obliviously traversed the Anasazi’s unfinished floors, police arrived, surrounded the building and sent in a team of officers to take positions flanking the stairs. Aside from the one stray burst of radio static, they were utterly silent.

Having reached the limits of our exploration, I followed Mike down the stairs until we came to one of the lower floors. Suddenly, there were shouts, blinding lights, assault rifles and barking, growling dogs. Our hands flew over our heads. A cop shouted, “DROP YOUR WEAPON!”

“It’s a flashlight!” I answered.

“DROP IT!”

All too aware of Albuquerque’s recent spate of officer-involved shootings, I did. They ordered us to the ground, face first, and cuffed us both. I heard Mike’s voice beside me.

“Ty, I am so sorry. I am so sorry.”

***

Vincent Garcia’s real troubles, like most of the housing and condominium market’s, started coming to a head in 2008. On Aug. 22 of that year, as the Anasazi Downtown project faced delay after delay, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation seized the Columbian Bank & Trust. Garcia’s major backer was one in a string of bank closures that were a result of 2008’s worldwide economic crisis.

This was the beginning of the end for the Anasazi Downtown and for Vincent Garcia’s career. Without funds, construction on the building sputtered to a halt. By October 2008, the project, with most of the building’s exterior finished and many of its units already sold, was fully dormant.

Garcia was quick to lay the blame at the feet of the bank. "The only way I can explain it is the banking and financial crisis has hit home. It's an amazing personal experience for us here," the Albuquerque Journal quotes him as saying in an Oct. 18, 2008 article. He immediately began trying to secure other financing for the project, but with the rocky housing climate, investors were suddenly very discriminating.

The Anasazi languished and Vincent Garcia fell quiet.

Meanwhile, federal investigators were digging through the Columbian Bank and Trust’s records, trying to account for the bank’s assets. It was only a matter of time before Garcia’s name came to their attention.

Mike Smith
***

Two hours later, Mike and I were chained to metal posts in separate police station rooms. A detective removed us one at a time and discussed the incident with us. Upon hearing our stories, he genially said that we would be charged with three felonies apiece: conspiracy (because we had discussed entering the building prior to actually doing so), breaking and entering (kicking and pulling back the plywood board), and possession of burglary tools (the flashlights).

I had assumed that the worst we would face would be misdemeanors for trespassing. As we were placed in a van crowded with other prisoners for transportation to the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center on the extreme Westside of Albuquerque city limits, a feeling of doom overtook me.

We were officially “released” within a few hours of arriving at BCMDC, without needing to post bail. The actual release procedure took another four hours. During that time, Mike and I sat in the bare concrete holding cell, making surprisingly pleasant small talk with drunk drivers and men charged with assault, even though the fear of the three felony charges never left us.

The cops finally dropped us off in the middle of Downtown at 4 or 5 a.m. We walked, morose, delirious and fearful, to my house and picked up my car. It was a gloomy drive to Mike’s place. If we talked, it was probably confined to mournful expletives.

The next few weeks were awful. We both realized that a felony conviction would change our lives irrevocably—I wouldn’t be able to vote, for God’s sake, and I’d probably never pass a background check for all but the most menial employment again.

Though I won’t defend what we did, the consequences seemed way out of line for what was essentially the crime of walking around in an abandoned building. Even one of the police officers whose car we sat in agreed. After chatting with us for the half-hour we waited to be taken to the station, we thanked him for being so pleasant. “Well, it’s obvious you guys aren’t criminals,” he said. He confided that he and some of his fellow officers had been talking about going into the building themselves and “checking it out.”

But we were criminals. And we had three felony charges, not to mention our mug shots on the news the next day, to prove it.

***

Sometime in August 2009, nearly a year after the FDIC took over Columbian Bank and Trust, the FBI raided Vincent Garcia’s Albuquerque offices. According to an October 2009 article that appeared in the New Mexico Business Weekly, they seized records and interviewed the staff. “We cooperated fully,” Garcia says in the article, adding, “We haven’t heard back from them.” But he must have known that he would.

Another year passed with the Anasazi still vacant, still 85 percent complete, and with Garcia still publicly claiming to be on the cusp of securing funding for its completion. And then it finally happened: On July 10, 2010, Vincent J. Garcia, his son, David Garcia, and construction contractor Derek Barnhill were indicted on 19 counts of bank fraud, money laundering and the laundering of monetary instruments.

Altogether, the Garcias and Barnhill were accused of defrauding nearly $2.5 million. The defendants pled not guilty at their arraignment on June 25. By December, Derek Barnhill had cracked and accepted a plea agreement. He took responsibility for three of the charges and he agreed to assist the prosecution in making its case against the Garcias.

The government eventually offered Vincent Garcia a deal of his own. If he pled guilty to the single charge associated with the casino purchase, the rest would be dropped—including those against his son. Garcia accepted. On Aug. 19, 2011, he pled guilty to creating the fraudulent invoice for $365,677 for the purchase of the casino. He also admitted that his actions had resulted in losses to his victims in the overall amount of $842,237.

He was steadfast, however, that although his son had been intimately involved in the company and a portion of the laundered funds had gone to pay for construction to his home, David Garcia had never been privy to the fraudulent actions of his father. “I never told David that any of the invoices for work performed and labor provided at his residence were being submitted to the banks as direct project expenses,” Vincent Garcia stated in his plea.

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
***

Over the four years since construction came to a standstill and the Anasazi became fully vacant, the building has been a magnet for crime. News stories, especially between 2008 and 2011, offer a litany of police responses and arrests for copper theft, drug use, vagrancy, vandalism and, naturally, trespassing. It got so bad that on March 22, 2011, Mayor Berry held a press conference at the site, threatening to use public nuisance laws to demolish the building if the FDIC would not come up with a plan to redevelop the structure.

The very next day, ignorant of Berry’s press conference, Mike Smith and I made our fateful plan to enter the Anasazi.

In the end, it turned out OK for us. With the help of a very giving friend who happens to be an attorney, we were able to enter a pre-prosecution diversion program. After a year of good behavior and regular check-ins with a sympathetic probation officer, the charges against us were declared “nolle prosequi”—not pursued—and expunged from our records.

Recently, things have started to look up for the Anasazi as well. According to the city’s Real Property Division Manager Suzanne Lubar, the FDIC sold the building’s promissory note to First Southern National Bank about a year ago. The Kentucky institution plans to take ownership of the property and complete its first floor retail space and parking levels, as well as clean up the exterior of the building. If all goes well, and the economy bounces back, the residential levels of the building may also be completed one day.

As for Mike and me, we now have our own complicated history with the building. The No. 1 question that we get asked, outpacing even “What was it like inside?” is: What were we thinking?

And here’s my answer. We thought that we wouldn’t get caught. That we could do this thing and get away with it and no one would come to any harm.

Vincent Garcia probably thought the same thing.

As of this writing, neither Vincent Garcia nor Derek Barnhill have been sentenced for their crimes.
 
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