After coming home from a party in the early morning hours of Saturday, three teenagers in Albuquerque, New Mexico allegedly used bricks, sticks, and a metal fence pole to attack three homeless men sleeping in a vacant lot — eventually killing two of the men, to the point that authorities are struggling to identify them.
On Saturday, police arrested and received statements of admittance from Alex Rios, 18, along with a 16- and 15-year-old, in connection with the crime. The charges against Rios include murder, while his underage friends will likely be charged with murder and tried as adults.
In interviews with the police, the trio admitted to their crimes in disturbing detail. According to the 15-year-old's statement they took turns picking up cinder blocks over their heads and smashing them into the victims' faces. They also confessed to beating up around 50 homeless men in the last year.
Simon Drobik, a public information officer in the Albuquerque police department, told VICE News that the investigation is complete and that the three teens are each being held on $5 million bail — an amount almost unheard of for the city.
"I was getting sick to my stomach over both the brutality and the age of the boys," Drobik said. "Usually acts of violence are quick, a shooting or stabbing, and the act of violence is over... this act of violence lasted 20 minutes to an hour."
Drobik said it was troubling that the crime was committed by such young people. He said the perpetrators of violent crimes seem to be getting younger and expressed concerns over parenting failures.
"I had read stories about kids hurting homeless people, I knew it was happening, but now it's happening in our town," he said. "We're part of the bigger story."
Michael Stoops, the director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), told VICE News that there has been a consistent trend in crimes against homeless people, which are typically committed by young men.
"What happened in Albuquerque is unfortunate, but it's not unique, it happens on a regular basis," he said. "What is unique is the brutality the young men are alleged to have committed."
Stoops and NCH have been tracking these statistics for 15 years, and based on 2013 findings, 85 percent of the perpetrators were younger than 30. While they come from all socioeconomic levels, Stoops said the attackers tend to be white men from the suburbs who are "bored to death."
What is most striking to Stoops is the fact that the boys admitted to attacking some 50 homeless people over the course of the last year. The confession seems to corroborate with the fact that other homeless people in the neighborhood recognized the teens from previous attacks. Stoops said if it is true, or even somewhat true, he has never seen such a large figure.
"None of the incidences were reported to the police department, not even one," he said. "It's clear to me that law enforcement is not on top of what is happening to the unsheltered population."
Stoops said if there had been officers regularly on the ground and interacting with homeless people in the area, they would have been clued in to the issue.
According to Drobik, Albuquerque police officers frequently patrol the area where the crime occurred, but it can be challenging because the homeless population does not report crimes. He also said he believes the boys would have committed the act regardless.
'Homeless people are among the most vulnerable to victimization and violent crimes than any group in our society.'
Drobik said they are currently "running up against a brick wall" trying to get information about the boys' alleged string of attacks. He said they are working with community actors to get the word out for anyone who has been attacked to report it to the police.
University of Pennsylvania professor Dennis Culhane told VICE News that it's important for police to engage with the community, especially when trying to get details for this crime.
"Homeless people are among the most vulnerable to victimization and violent crimes than any group in our society," Culhane said, explaining that half of homeless people report having been crime victims, most of which go unreported. "It's not as though homeless people feel free to reach out to law enforcement."
In order to find justice in Albuquerque, Stoops said police will need to create better relationships with the city's homeless. He said the fact that all of the teens' previous attacks went unreported shows a strong distrust of the police among the homeless population. This might not be surprising after this year's protests against police brutality in Albuquerque, along with an incident where video footage surfaced of officers shooting a homeless man in March.
'There is a lack of relationship locally, and I suspect nationally, between homeless and the police.'
Jeremy Reynalds, who has worked with Albuquerque's homeless for more than 30 years and currently runs the Joy Junction shelter just outside of town, told VICE News that frequent ticketing of homeless individuals and police tendency to "bait" aggressive reactions from homeless people has created a problematic situation in the community.
"There is a lack of relationship locally, and I suspect nationally, between homeless and the police," he said, explaining that even a minor criminal record from a ticket for panhandling, for example, is enough to keep a homeless person from reporting an attack or crime against them.
While New Mexico is under the microscope, Stoops and Culhane agreed that the problem spans nationwide. According to the NCH study Vulnerable to Hate: A Survey of Crimes & Violence Committed Against Homeless People in 2013, there were 109 reported attacks against homeless in 2013, roughly consistent with figures over the last five years. Along with recommendations of increased police and community engagement, as well as education programs in schools to break down homeless stereotypes, Stoops also sees the importance of passing protective legislation.
For the fourth Congressional session in a row, Stoops has endorsed a bill (HR1136) that would amend the Hate Crimes Statistics Act to include crimes against the homeless. In 2013, New Mexico state senator Bill O'Neill pushed for a bill that would have classified attacks against homeless people as hate crimes, but the initiative was never voted on. O'Neill said on Tuesday he plans to reintroduce the bill.
"I wonder if the legislation was enacted, would that have made a difference?" Stoops said. "HR1136 has 23 sponsors, no one from New Mexico yet, but after this who knows, maybe someone will sign on."
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB