Take two men with a temper, and mix them with alcohol, a gun, and union business. The results can be lethal. That was the case five years ago at International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 611 in Albuquerque. Andrew Palmer, former union president and business manager, shot union member and independent contractor Chris Romero to death after an argument at a local bar over union financial affairs. Charged with one count of murder, Palmer, now 58, belatedly went on trial last month. That Palmer was the triggerman is not in doubt – in fact, he’d turned himself into police on the day of the shooting. But the circumstances surrounding the death were ambiguous enough to produce a hung jury on April 27 following several days of deliberation.
Chris Romero wasn’t an easy guy to get along with. John W. Johnson, whom Palmer appointed as the union’s dispatcher in 1999, testified about one scary encounter. As dispatcher, Johnson’s job was to keep a log of union members looking for work and to take calls from contractors needing electricians for a particular job. Johnson said Romero, who lived in nearby Los Lunas, N.M., often was in an angry mood when he came in to sign the log book. On one occasion in 2001, Romero allegedly had brandished a weapon. “He became agitated,” Johnson recalled. “Then he made an inappropriate remark to one of the ladies and I told him to stop and he pulled a knife out of his shirt.” Romero said he was only joking. Johnson wasn’t laughing. But he decided against filing a grievance with the union or a complaint with the police.
But Andrew Palmer wasn’t in the best position to plead self-defense – at least not on the basis of events occurring in late afternoon July 27, 2002. According to testimony, Palmer and Romero had been in a local bar that day, and got into a dispute. Romero seemed to have a legitimate beef. Archie Romero told the Albuquerque Journal not long after the shooting that his brother Chris had accrued about $30,000 in retirement money, and wanted to borrow against it to start a business. Palmer refused to give permission. Romero asked a second time, and Palmer’s answer again was no. Romero at that point allegedly threatened to kill him. But there could have been something else at work. Archie Romero stated that his late brother had knowledge of unspecified financial indiscretions committed by local leaders. In other words, this could have been blackmail or at least the fear of it.
As Palmer’s side of the story had it, Romero continued to act aggressively, prompting Palmer to leave the bar. Romero followed him out the door. Fearing an assault, Palmer went to his car and grabbed a .357 revolver, pointing it at Romero. Romero backed off. Palmer then got into his car and drove north on Coors Road. After talking to another union member on his cell phone, Palmer made a U-turn. At that point, Palmer saw Romero from his rear view mirror aggressively following him. Palmer tried to elude him. He turned onto Juniper Road, and pulled his car over in anticipation of Romero pulling over as well. Romero did pull over, parking his vehicle nearby. Palmer carried his gun, walked up to Romero’s car and told him to leave him alone. Romero responded with a barking “woof” noise and quickly flinched. At that point, Palmer shot Romero in the chest. Romero died after being taken by ambulance to University of New Mexico Hospital.
So was this legitimate self-defense on Palmer’s part? Archie Romero doesn’t think so. He insisted his brother was afraid of guns, especially in that kind of situation. Almost anyone, he said, would reflexively appear to go for a gun, with or without one. Even Palmer admitted that he did not see any weapon in Romero’s hands. Police, moreover, found no gun in Romero’s truck. Still, Romero had acted in a threatening manner during the period preceding the shooting. And Palmer had reason to believe his life was in danger. “A rash decision to kill is not deliberate,” said defense attorney Billy Blackburn. But one of the prosecutors, Jonathan Ibarra, countered that eyewitness testimony established Palmer as the aggressor. It was Palmer who cut Romero’s vehicle off on Juniper, he said. Additionally, Romero was sitting in his car with his seat belt fastened. Thus, it was unlikely he was planning to remove a gun from his glove compartment. The killing was premeditated, said Ibarra, even if the decision to shoot had occurred in just a few seconds.
Since this wasn’t a cut-and-dried case of murder, delays have been numerous. The trial itself had been postponed at least seven times since 2004 before finally getting under way this April. Palmer has been out on bail since his arrest in 2002. In absence of a verdict, prosecutors plan to retry the case. In the meantime, Romero’s family reportedly has filed a civil suit against both Palmer and IBEW Local 611. If and when these actions are resolved, there may be yet another issue on the horizon: What happened to the allegedly misappropriated union funds? Andrew Palmer probably knows the answer to that one better than anyone else. If evidence indicates he’s a thief, he would have that much more of an incentive to cop a plea. (Albuquerque Journal, 4/18/07, 4/20/07).
The wheels of justice grind slowly, but eventually they arrive at their destination. In August 2010, Andrew Palmer pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in Chris Romero’s death following three trials that ended in hung juries. He then was sentenced to one year of house arrest plus five years of probation.