Arsonist Policeman Gets His City Sued

     TUCUMCARI, N.M. (CN) — Thanks to a New Mexico policeman who burned down a hotel after a night of partying, the City of Tucumcari and six of its police officers find themselves defendants in a civil lawsuit.
     Former Tucumcari police Officer Dustin Lopez is serving 4½ years in state prison for burning down the Payless Inn on Route 66, then burning down an abandoned house after he saw firefighters tackle the first fire. Lopez pleaded guilty to both arsons in July 2015 and was sentenced that September along with Robert Sandoval, who got 3½ years.
     They burned down the buildings in September 2014 and pleaded guilty to arson, conspiracy and breaking and entering, in both fires.
     The hotel owners, Lawrence and Martha Phillip, say Lopez was hired because he was the nephew of a police sergeant, and that standard psychological testing — had it been administered before hiring — would have disqualified him for his history of alcoholism and mental disorders.
     Through their company Maggie Ventures, the Phillips sued the city, its police chief, deputy chief and four other officers, on Aug. 31 in Quay County Court.
     Tucumcari, a town of about 6,000 on the plains of northeast New Mexico, bills itself as the largest town between Amarillo, Texas and Albuquerque.
     The Phillips say in the lawsuit that the city gave Lopez a free ride as a cop, ignoring his “drinking alcohol while on duty, insubordination, disorderly conduct, aiding and abetting a known felon to void arrest, aiding and abetting a probationer to avoid arrest for probation violation, and other conduct unbecoming a police officer.”
     After violating its own nepotism policy by hiring him, the city and its police force enabled “a culture of indifference whereby supervisors and other officers came to ignore or not report the conduct of Officer Lopez, including investigating him for crimes,” the complaint states.
     The Payless Inn was built as a Sheraton Motor Inn in the 1960s. Until Lopez and Sandoval burned it down, it was one of a string of hotels from the 1950s and ’60s, many of which still dot Tucumcari’s main drag, Historic Route 66.
     Lopez knew the hotel was empty when he burned it because he’d talked with Lawrence Philip about keeping it safe until it was up and running. “Lopez told me that he would personally make sure nothing would happen to our property,” Phillip told the Quay County Sun after Lopez was sentenced. “It blew my mind when I later found out that Lopez was involved in the fire that destroyed the very building he promised to look after.”
     The Phillips bought the hotel in February 2014 and were moving to Tucumcari when they spoke with the police about safety in May that year, according to the lawsuit and the local newspaper, which estimated the value of the hotel as $155,115.
     The Phillips seeks damages for negligence, negligent hiring and supervision, deliberate indifference and civil rights violations.
     Tucumcari City Manager Jared Langenegger said the city is aware of the lawsuit and is consulting with attorneys.
     The Phillips are represented by Richard Queener, of Clovis.

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