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Inmate Accused Of More Crimes During Furlough

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Brian Maass By Brian Maass
CBS4 Investigates
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LA JUNTA, Colo. (CBS4) – The chief judge in Otero County is being criticized for furloughing a criminal who had a history of running from authorities. The action led to the inmate running again and eluding authorities for eight more months, during which time they say he committed additional felonies.

“He got the furlough and took off on us,” said Otero County District Attorney Jim Bullock.

Bullock was talking about Johnny Ray Nunez, a 30 year old with a lengthy arrest and conviction record, according to state records. Nunez has been convicted of assault, obstructing police and has previously been arrested for burglary and menacing.

Last April, Nunez was again in jail on felony charges of eluding police in Rocky Ford and leading them on a chase.

“He always fights and resists,” said Rocky Ford Police Captain Micky Bethel, who said he was involved in the 2013 chase and arrest of Nunez.

But as Nunez was about to be sentenced by Otero County Chief Judge Mark MacDonnell, Nunez made a request, according to Bullock.

“He made the request for several hours to have the opportunity to take care of business and say goodbye to his family. We certainly objected given the history of the case,” said Bullock. “I understand what the Judge was trying to accomplish but Nunez was not a good candidate for the furlough.”

Over prosecution objections, Judge MacDonnell agreed to release the prisoner for a few hours so he could say his final goodbyes before possibly being sent to prison. Nunez never returned from the furlough, disappearing into the community.

“Law enforcement was very disappointed,” said Bullock. “I know they were not happy with the furlough.”

The sheriff’s office and police departments throughout Otero County spent time and resources hunting for Nunez, month after month, but never found him. Seven months after he was furloughed, while he was on the run, authorities charge Nunez broke the law again and charged him with felony menacing.

Finally, in December 2013, eight months after he was furloughed, police in La Junta apprehended Nunez and jailed him again.

Judge MacDonnell did not return calls from CBS4 seeking explanations for why he decided to grant the long-time criminal a furlough.

“He is unable under ethical cannons to comment on a live case,” said Jon Sarche, public information coordinator for the Colorado Judicial Branch.

Otero County Sheriff Chris Johnson refused to allow CBS4 to interview Johnny Nunez.

“Probably not going to happen at this time,” Johnson wrote in an email. “I do not allow press interviews here anyway. We are a small facility, and a news crew coming in here disrupts our jail operations and is a security issue. When Mr. Nunez leaves our custody permanently, you can then arrange to interview him.”

District Attorney Bullock praised Judge MacDonnell as being fair and open-minded, but he said the Nunez case will likely make some rural judges more reticent to grant furloughs.

“I think the judge is going to take a harder and closer look in the future,” said Bullock.

Across Colorado, Judges occasionally grant furloughs for medical reasons, funerals and extreme personal circumstances for inmates, like visiting a dying relative.

Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett said furloughs have their place.

“If somebody is being held on a relatively minor charge and they need to do something that will help maintain their family relationships or help them in a personal way, that may actually be beneficial.”

But the veteran prosecutor says furlough requests need to be carefully evaluated.

“The downside to these furloughs from a district attorney’s perspective is you are dealing with people who may be dangerous and who are in custody for a reason and they are wanting to not be in custody for a while.”

In Otero County, prosecutor Bullock believes the Nunez debacle will cause Judges to be more careful about granting furloughs in the future.

“I think the judge is going to take a harder and closer look in the future,” said Bullock.

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