Lawyer: Parents' drug-induced psychosis played a role in death of 13-year-old boy

·7 min read

May 30—Tortured and fatally beaten, then buried in a plastic tub in a shallow grave near Nambé, 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia had been dead for two months when police found his body in January 2018.

Jeremiah's stepfather, Thomas Wayne Ferguson, was arrested and charged with killing the boy.

After Ferguson hanged himself in jail in April 2018, prosecutors struck a plea deal with Jeremiah's mother, Tracy Ann Peña, and placed the lion's share of responsibility for the boy's death on Ferguson's then-19-year-old son, Jordan Anthony Nuñez, who they said participated in abusing Jeremiah and helped bury his body.

Nuñez pleaded guilty in 2020 to two counts of recklessly permitting child abuse resulting in death and two counts of tampering with evidence as part of an agreement with prosecutors in which he faces up to 24 years in prison.

"Only Jordan, Thomas and Jeremiah know what happened in that room, but without a doubt, Jordan was an adult in that household and at times had accepted [responsibility] for Jeremiah's care," Chief Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Padgett Macias said previously. "With this responsibility comes a duty. ... [Nuñez] failed to stop Ferguson and failed to intervene to protect Jeremiah, and Jeremiah died as a result."

Nuñez was scheduled to be sentenced during a three-day hearing that was to begin Tuesday, but a state district judge postponed the hearing until late July, granting a joint motion by prosecutors and defense attorneys that the hearing be delayed in hopes it could be held in person by then.

The New Mexico Supreme Court has ordered all hearings except for jury trials to be held by phone or videoconference until further notice because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But attorneys on both sides said it would be better to hold Nuñez's sentencing hearing — which is expected to resemble a mini-trial complete with witness testimony and exhibits — in person.

District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said the lawyers hope the high court will ease its restrictions by July. If not, "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," she said.

Nuñez's attorneys, Mark A. Earnest and Theresa Duncan, recently filed a lengthy sentencing memo they say gives a more accurate picture of the roles Peña and Nuñez played in Jeremiah's death.

"The state has attempted to portray Tracy Peña as some poor, sad, distraught, constantly intoxicated victim of circumstances ... and Jordan [as] some tough, independent actor responsible for Ferguson's escalating violence," they argue.

"These portrayals ... are not accurate and the state's call for lenience for Ms. Peña but harshness for Jordan is not supported by the evidence."

The nearly 60-page document provides a glimpse into Nuñez's life before he came to live with Ferguson and Peña in 2017 and the hellish conditions inside the home, where the couple lived with their sons and Peña's then 12-year-old daughter.

It's a sad story, the lawyers wrote, but one that must be heard.

"The truth of what occurred should not and could not be locked away in bankers boxes in an attorney's storage unit," the memo says. "It needs to be told."

Nuñez was born to Ferguson and Amanda Nuñez in 1998 in Tucumcari, the memo says.

Nuñez's mother is a methamphetamine addict, according to the memo. Nuñez was the second of her five children and her only son. Ferguson began abusing his son almost as soon as Nuñez was born, the memo says.

"One time he punched [Jordan] in the stomach," the document says. "He was like three months old."

As a child, the memo says, Nuñez would be "punched in the face multiple times" for the slightest infraction.

"Jordan's childhood was marked not only by his parents' drug use and violence," the memo says, "but also by extreme neglect."

After numerous reports to child protective services, Nuñez and his four sisters were placed in foster care.

Nuñez's grandparents adopted the children in 2008, the memo says, and changed his name from Julian Ferguson to Jordan Nuñez, in hopes of protecting him from his parents. He was 10.

Nuñez adored his grandfather, the memo says, but was treated poorly by his step-grandmother (his adopted mother) who had two children of her own and resented having to care for five more.

Despite this, the memo says, Nuñez "remained loving and loyal," and people who knew him then described him as dependable, polite, hardworking and thankful.

In contrast, the memo says, Peña, the state's would-be key witness against Nuñez, has changed her story about his behavior numerous times since her arrest, and was described by friends and family as a liar who would do or say anything to benefit herself.

Nuñez went to live with his biological mother and her new boyfriend in Clovis in 2016, the memo says, and Ferguson began sending him text messages.

"Jordan and Ferguson began communicating on Jordan's 18th birthday," the memo says. "Ferguson lured Jordan to Santa Fe by sending pictures of cars, puppies, cell phones, collector sneakers and gaming systems he promised to provide his son."

Jordan initially resisted his father's overtures, the memo says, but in July 2017 he agreed to come to Santa Fe to live with Ferguson, Peña, Jeremiah and Peña's daughter, A.V.

"The state wrongly suggests that Jordan was somehow responsible for Ferguson's escalating abuse of Jeremiah," according to the memo. "But nothing could be further from the truth."

Ferguson had been violent with Peña and her children long before Nuñez arrived, the memo says.

"The violence towards Jeremiah escalated because Ms. Peña and Ferguson scapegoated the child and blamed him for his disharmony in the household," the memo says. "It had nothing to do with Jordan."

Ferguson held his family members hostage in a home in which he'd installed deadbolts on every door and locks on every window, and monitored their activities with surveillance cameras.

He and Peña would regularly isolate themselves in their bedroom, the document says, leaving the children to fend for themselves for hours at a time. "Ferguson regularly told the family that he would kill them and it would mean nothing for him to kill them," according to the memo. "[He] would threaten to cut A.V.'s throat and cut off her head if he ever saw a police officer coming to the house [and] he would kill them all before the officer could rescue them."

Ferguson's animosity toward Jeremiah — he struck him with brass knuckles, burned him, choked him, urinated on him and locked him in a dog kennel where he was forced to wear adult diapers — was likely fueled in part by paranoia and psychosis brought on by chronic methamphetamine abuse, the memo says.

In the months before Valencia's death, Ferguson and Peña appear to have developed a delusion that Jeremiah was possessed by demons and talked to friends about having him blessed by a priest.

Peña even contacted a traditional Native healer, saying in a text message: "I think something evil has attached to him n is still to get in him he talked to no one stares in corners and started growling n there is a lot of orbs n dark shadows around him," according to the memo.

"To Ferguson, at that point, Jeremiah was a demon," the memo says, "less than human, and he started treating him as such. Jordan was absolutely not a part of this madness. Jordan has never used methamphetamines in his life."

Nuñez's attorneys are asking the court to sentence Nuñez to 14 years — the low end of the sentencing range allowed by his plea agreement, arguing he is far less culpable for what went on in the family's home than the much older Peña, who under the terms of her plea agreement was sentenced to 12 years in prison for her role in her son's death.

"Jordan had no idea what he was getting into when Ferguson brought him to Santa Fe. ... He had no idea about the twisted and ruinous roots from which Ferguson and Peña's relationship thrived. He was a kid looking for a father that he never had. He just did not know he was looking for a father that he would never have. He deserves leniency from the Court," the memo says.