In the early morning hours of July 28th, 2021, Maria Jacquez heard her son’s car start and leave the driveway. She thought that maybe Kenneth was going out to pick up a girl, and settled back down to sleep.
A couple of hours later, Maria woke up to find Kenneth’s car gone from the driveway. Concerned, she called him multiple times. On the final try, Kenneth answered his phone. He told Maria that two men had attacked him and left him in a canyon. He didn’t know where he was.
Kenneth was born on May 18th, 1995. He was raised in Belen, New Mexico, a small town of seven thousand people. Kenneth’s family describe him as a loving, thoughtful, caring young man who loved hanging out with kids. Kenneth had a mental disability, his mental age being about the same as someone who was fifteen years old. He also had a nine-year-old daughter who lived at home with him, his mother, father, and brother. “He was a very happy person, very outgoing, always messing around,” his mother told me. “He was like a kid, he wasn’t 26 mentally. He was about fifteen years old. He had a mental disability. He loved his family. We were very close. He never liked to be alone.”
In 2019, Kenneth had been charged with the murder of Brian Johnson of Portales. According to the Valencia County News-Bulletin, there was a heated argument between Kenneth and Brian, who were each in separate cars. Kenneth allegedly shot Brian from the backseat of the car, which was driven by Vidal Ortega. Vidal and Kenneth both fled the scene, and Brian died 3 days later after being transported to the University of New Mexico Hospital. Kenneth and Vidal were both apprehended later on; Kenneth was charged with first-degree murder, tampering with evidence, and receiving stolen property. Vidal was charged with harboring a fugitive, tampering with evidence, and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Maria told me, “Honestly, today, I don’t know if my son was the actual shooter. I’ve always questioned it. He never wanted to tell me. But they were mad at him, they would call him a rat in jail because he would call me crying. He said they were mad because they kept saying Vidal should never have been charged with anything at all.” She tried to talk to Kenneth about what happened, but he told her, “Just leave it at that, Mom.”
Kenneth was ultimately convicted of manslaughter and was released in February of 2021.
“Kenneth was in danger”
During the late-night hours of July 27th, 2021, Kenneth told his mother that he saw three men in the alley behind their home. Maria says, “I looked out the back door, and I said, ‘Son, there’s nobody there. Just come inside and lock the door.’ But now I think, what if there was, and they got him and broke the fence to get him out?”
When Maria woke up the next morning and found her son’s car gone, she called him.
The first call did not receive service.
The second call went to voicemail.
The third call, at 9:04 AM, was answered by Kenneth.
“He said ‘Hello,’ and I said, ‘Son, where are you at?’ He said, ‘I don’t know,’ and I said, ‘What do you mean you don’t know?’ He said, ‘I’m somewhere in the mountains.’ I told him to get in his car and find his way out. He said his car wasn’t there. He gave me two names of the people that left him out there. He said the back of his head was hurting him. I told him I was going to go looking for him, and he said ‘I don’t think you’re ever going to find me, Mom. I don’t even know where I’m at.’ I told him, ‘I’m going to find you, son, I’m going to go looking for you right now.’” Maria’s voice broke. “He said, ‘Mom, can you bring me something to drink? I’m thirsty.’ And I never found him.”
Kenneth told her that he thought he was somewhere near the Los Lunas hill, but “way, way, way in the back.” Maria immediately drove to Los Lunas and looked for Kenneth anywhere she could think of that matched his description of desert and mountains. She then drove to Highway 6 to look for Kenneth. She attempted to call him several more times, even through Facebook Messenger, thinking that Kenneth could show her over video where he was, but he never answered again.
Maria felt sick to her stomach, so she stopped at her mother’s house to call the Valencia County Sheriff’s Department. They told her to call the Belen Police Department, who told Maria that she needed to be at home to file the report. Maria, her mother, and her granddaughter arrived at Maria’s home, only to be told that despite Kenneth’s conversation with his mother, his inability to know where he was, and his disability, they would have to wait 24 hours to file a missing person’s report. “I told him my son wasn’t missing, he was in danger, and he was somewhere that he needed help, that he had a disability.” She was told that even after the missing person’s report was filed, the report would simply go into a database, and there was nothing that the police could do for Kenneth. They also mentioned that she should get Kenneth’s dental records ready.
Maria even attempted to file a report with the state police, but she was given the same answer- wait 24 hours. A Brittany Alert was never issued for Kenneth.
When Maria filed the official report, they were told that Kenneth’s phone had pinged somewhere near the Double Eagle Airport near Rio Rancho. They immediately went to Rio Rancho and began searching. A search team from the National Guard came to help for one day, but it was canceled the next day for an unknown reason. The family was on their own. Fortunately, a search team headed by Amanda Kimbrel-Romero, the mother of murdered Albuquerque teen Collin Romero, came to help the family.
The family called Bernalillo County, Sandoval County, and anyone they could think of, but they found that Kenneth wasn’t yet listed as missing on the database. Lena, Kenneth’s aunt, said that Sandoval County was the most helpful, but they were unable to assist with the search as the ping was not in their district. However, they were instrumental in getting the state police to respond to the family.
On the third day, the state police came out to the area the family was searching. Maria says that the police interviewed her, briefly drove up the hill, looked around the area, and left.
“There has to be more help for the families that go through this. How can they choose who is worth finding and who’s not worth finding if everybody is human?”
Kenneth’s body is found
“Our friend Latiyah got on the phone and would not stop, until she got ahold of somebody from Isleta because we couldn’t go back there… and finally a ranger from Isleta found my son’s body. That’s the only way, or he would’ve still been out there.”
On August 13th, Kenneth’s body was found in Bernalillo County, several hundred yards from where his car was found on the Isleta Reservation. A barbed-wire fence separates the two districts, and his body was just ten feet past the fence on the Isleta side. However, Kenneth’s body was not formally identified until August 18th.
The area where Kenneth’s body was found was very far from where his cell phone had pinged. Lena said, “If we would’ve known, if they [the police] would’ve helped us understand it… there’s a possibility we could’ve found him alive.” The family had asked the state police to bring in search dogs, helicopters, and a search team. They were told that a helicopter had been sent out, but they never saw one while searching.
The police are currently not investigating Kenneth’s death as a homicide, but the family has reason to believe that it should be investigated as such.
Kenneth, his mother, father, brother, and daughter all lived together in a single house in Belen. The majority of houses in Belen are relatively small and someone opening the backdoor could be heard from all parts of the house. I was confused about how someone could take Kenneth without anyone hearing, but when I walked into the family’s house, I understood.
The Jacquez family’s house is a six-bedroom house. The back door is off the porch area, which is close to the driveway, and Kenneth’s bedroom was located directly off the back door. In early July, Belen had a heavy rainstorm and a break in an irrigation ditch which caused the lower parts of the city to flood. Kenneth’s brother’s bedroom, which was lower than the rest of the house, flooded and was damaged. So the night of July 27th, Kenneth’s brother was sleeping on the couch instead of his usual room which was located directly off Kenneth’s. A washer and dryer area and a bathroom separate Kenneth’s room from the original and main part of the house.
View from Kenneth’s bedroom towards the backdoor. A bathroom separates Kenneth’s room from the living room and kitchen.
In the early morning hours of July 27th, Kenneths’s daughter heard some thuds coming from her father’s room, but they were muffled sounds and she soon went back to sleep. Maria heard Kenneth’s car starting in the early morning hours, but thought he might be going to see a girl. Nothing else was heard that night.
The back door, leading immediately to Kenneth’s bedroom, had been busted in. The walk-through gate had been broken, as well as the gate that enclosed the property. Additionally, Kenneth’s laundry basket was missing along with some of his things, and of course, his car, a recently purchased 2006 Dodge Charger.
The broken walk-through gate
Maria told me, “The state police told me that they were not able to get fingerprints from the car. They said there was too much sand.” Kenneth’s car had scratches down the length of it, scratches and dents on the hood and roof, and some sand on the wheel wells and on the floor inside. The back of the passenger seat had been ripped near the bottom, the foam falling out from under the leather. There were also several tools in the car which did not belong to Kenneth or his family. Kenneth’s phone was found, charging in the car, despite having answered his mother’s call, and his laundry basket of missing items was on the backseat. A black tarp was also in the backseat; the tarp was not fingerprinted.
The front of Kenneth’s car after his death
The roof of Kenneth’s car was dented
Kenneth’s shoes were recovered with his body. His family had been told that he had been completely undressed, except for his shoes. He didn’t even have socks on. His shoes were also covered in sand.
The Ransom Text
Almost a footnote to Kenneth’s bizarre and tragic case, a family member received a ransom text from an unknown person. A cursory search revealed that the number originated from a web service called Bandwidth. The area code suggested that the texter was in Point Arena, California.
The police told Maria that the report from OMI (Office of the Medical Investigator) and the police report would be available within 90 days. November 16th is 90 business days from the date that Kenneth was formally identified. The cause of death has not been released.
During our final interview, Kenneth’s mother and two aunts held hands on the couch, holding tight to each other in the aftermath. “A lot of us have a past,” said Lena. “A lot of us have done things in our lives that we regret, and that we’re not proud of. But that doesn’t mean that one person’s life is more valuable than the next. Each life is valuable, and it doesn’t matter your past. And honestly, I feel like because of his past, they judged him. And they just felt like, ‘It’s just another person off the streets.'”
“We just want everybody to know that Kenneth was not a missing person. He answered his phone, and he needed help, and we did not get that help,” said Lupe. “We suffer a bad pain everyday.”
In all of their pain, the family has been incredibly grateful for the community that went out to help find Kenneth, and for the support given in the aftermath. The family continues to fight for a full investigation into Kenneth’s death- they want the police to recognize his death as a homicide and investigate it as such.
If you have any information on Kenneth’s death, please call the Belen Police Department at (505) 966-2680 or the New Mexico State Police at (505) 841-9256. The Jacquez family is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of individuals associated with Kenneth’s death.
You can also sign a petition to investigate Kenneth’s death as a homicide at change.org.