Willie Garcia Jr., 27, of Truth or Consequences, was arrested Thursday evening, May 17, and charged with four felony counts, including first-degree murder, second-degree arson, third-degree tampering with evidence, and third-degree burglary.
Officials have been investigating the disappearance of 27-year-old Mical Lee Culpepper – last seen on the evening of Friday, May 4 – as well as the suspicious fire that destroyed a building near Las Palomas in the early morning hours of Saturday, May 5.
Investigators have logged many hours in this investigation, and have obtained what can only be described as a mountain of evidence on which to build their case.
Firefighters responded to the structure fire and found the building, located at 15474 State Highway 187, fully engulfed in flames. Firefighters from Las Palomas, Williamsburg, Elephant Butte, Caballo and Arrey battled the blaze for several hours.
Las Palomas Fire Chief Larry Brownlee contacted the New Mexico State Fire Marshal’s Office to request assistance in determining the origin and cause of the fire.
Fire Investigator Mikel Ward and officials with the Sierra County Sheriff’s Department located several items of evidence at the scene, which led investigators to determine that the fire was in fact intentionally set.
“Additionally, there was ample evidence that all of the outbuildings and vehicles on the property had been broken into,” stated R.D. Hays, Senior Investigator with the Seventh Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
The affidavit for arrest warrant filed in Sierra County Magistrate Court on Friday, May 18, states that the evidence collected at the scene includes cut master locks, a pair of bolt cutters, as well as what appeared to be three different shoe tread patterns in and around the property.
Witnesses reported that there was a lot of fire at the scene at 4:30 a.m., and arguments were heard in the area between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.
Officials stated that the blaze had at least a 45-minute free burn time before the fire was reported, and the structure was fully engulfed in flames upon their arrival.
Las Palomas firefighters were on scene for 11 hours, and the building was still smoldering into the following day – Sunday, May 6.
Fire Investigator Ward obtained written consent from one of the owners of the property, Allan Storey, who resides in California, to search the property on Thursday, May 10.
During his investigation, Investigator Ward was contacted by a concerned citizen who told him that Willie Garcia Jr., had made statements that he and Mical Culpepper were at the property on Saturday, May 5, and had an altercation. Garcia reportedly stated that he had started the fire in an effort to destroy evidence of their fight. The individual then told Investigator Ward that when asked about Culpepper’s condition, Garcia stated, “If he’s still alive.” The individual also stated that they noticed a large burn located on the back of Garcia’s leg.
Fire Investigator Ward relayed this information to Senior Investigator Hays. Mr. Culpepper’s family was contacted, and told officials that they had not heard from him for weeks.
The two investigators met with New Mexico State Police Criminal Agent Norman Rhoades at the scene of the fire. As Investigator Ward walked the two law enforcement officials through the scene, Agent Rhoades reportedly noticed what appeared to be a human bone located in the northwest corner of the structure.
The scene was immediately secured, and a search warrant was obtained and executed through the late hours of Thursday, May 10 through early Friday, May 11. Evidence was collected, documented and forwarded to the Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI) in Albuquerque for analysis.
“Some of the evidence included burnt human remains, bone fragments, teeth, and a partially burnt shoe containing human remains, and partially burnt cloth that was attached to some of the human remains,” Investigator Hays noted in his affidavit.