A new lawsuit contradicts an official account of a 2021 incident that killed a man and injured several others when gunshots fired by Socorro County law enforcement officers ignited an oxygen tank, resulting in an explosion.
The family of the man killed in the explosion filed a lawsuit alleging that two Socorro County Sheriff’s deputies opened fire without provocation, contradicting the law enforcement narrative that deputies returned fire after they were fired upon.
Max Jaramillo, 29, died at the scene after a gunshot struck an oxygen tank in the bed of a pickup truck, causing a large explosion in rural Veguita, south of Belen, on June 17, 2021.
Jaramillo’s wife, Audra Jaramillo, filed a wrongful death lawsuit on June 20, alleging that two deputies opened fire without provocation “within approximately 10 seconds after arriving at the property.”
The lawsuit, filed in 13th Judicial District Court, names as defendants the Socorro County Board of County Commissioners, the Socorro County Sheriff’s Office, Lt. Richard Lopez and Deputy Carlos Valenzuela. The family is seeking unspecified damages.
Socorro County Sheriff Lee Armijo said last week that the two deputies returned fire after they were fired upon.
“They pulled up and they got shot at,” he said.
Armijo said he was unfamiliar with the lawsuit and declined additional comment. Armijo was elected in 2022 and was not sheriff at the time of the incident.
New Mexico State Police officers who investigated the incident said in a written statement issued in July 2021 that Lopez and Valenzuela were dispatched to an address in Veguita in response to a 911 call from a neighbor who reported that several people were shooting guns in the area.
When the deputies arrived, Dean Gross, 38, of Albuquerque, “fired at least one shot at the deputies,” the State Police statement said. Both deputies returned fire when “the Dodge pickup was struck by gunfire and there was an explosion.”
Gross, 38, of Albuquerque, was charged with two counts of aggravated assault for allegedly shooting at Lopez and Valenzuela. Those charges were later dismissed in October 2021 because Gross is in federal custody and “is currently unavailable to appear before this court,” court records show.
The lawsuit challenges that account, alleging that “none of the persons with Mr. Jaramillo at the time discharged a firearm at or towards (Lopez or Valenzuela) before the law enforcement officers opened fire.”
Deputies later found Jaramillo deceased in an arroyo, State Police said in the statement. Gross, another man and a woman at the scene were transported to a hospital with injuries from the explosion, it said.
The lawsuit said the group was “shooting firearms at an abandoned and vacant mobile home for recreation,” at the time of the incident. The group included the person who owned the vacant mobile home, the suit said.
“Jaramillo thus had lawful authority” to be at the site “and to discharge firearms” at the abandoned structure, it said.
Albuquerque attorney Jacob R. Candalaria is representing the plaintiff.