Lead defendant in 'torture' case initially disqualified from serving as caregiver but appealed

May 18—ALBUQUERQUE — The lead defendant in a criminal case involving the death of a 38-year-old developmentally disabled woman in her care is a convicted felon who was initially denied an application to serve as a caregiver for the state of New Mexico.

But Angelita Chacon, 52, of Rio Rancho appealed the decision to the state Department of Health and was allowed to work under its Developmental Disabilities Waiver program, which serves some 6,800 children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Chacon is among three people arrested Wednesday in connection with the death of Mary Melero, who had been caring for Melero since at least October 2020. An arrest warrant affidavit described gruesome details of Melero's injuries and incidents of alleged abuse.

"One of the questions that I have is, 'Why was [Chacon] reinstated and what is the criteria for allowing people with criminal convictions and other red flags to serve as in-home health care providers?' " state Attorney General Raúl Torrez said at a news briefing Thursday on the case.

"It's a very concerning situation," he said.

Jodi McGinnis Porter, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health, wrote in an email Chacon, known as Angelita R. Zamora in 2014, submitted to a background check under the Caregivers Criminal History Screening Act on April 3, 2014.

Chacon was disqualified the next day, April 4, 2014.

"She submitted a request for an administrative reconsideration on April 21, 2014. A Reconsideration Committee convened May 9, 2014, and voted yes granting her reconsideration," McGinnis Porter wrote.

According to court documents, Chacon, also known as Angel Zamora, was convicted in 1999 for unlawful taking of a motor vehicle and for being a "habitual offender," indicating she had a previous felony on her record even before then.

After Chacon was denied her application to be a caregiver, "she took advantage of [the Department of Health's] appellate process," said Sean Sullivan, director of the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit of the Attorney General Office.

"She appealed and the Department of Health overturned that and allowed her to be a caregiver. That's what we know at this point," he said.

Torres said he didn't have more information about how the decision to allow Chacon to serve as a caregiver was made.

"It probably makes sense to take a very careful look at who is and is not eligible to provide this kind of care," he said.

Chacon was paid about $236,000 in Medicaid money over a nearly three-year period to care for Melero, as well as her 29-year-old special needs son.

She is among three people arrested in connection with Melero's death. Also charged were Patricia Hurtado, 42, of Rio Rancho and Luz Scott of Clovis, court records show.

Melero, who lived in Chacon's home, died in April after U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers discovered her lying on a foam pad and wrapped in a blanket in the back of a van trying to drive into Juarez at the U.S./Mexico border, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

Chacon, who was in the van with Hurtado, her live-in girlfriend, told authorities she was taking Melero to Mexico to receive medical treatment, the affidavit said. Upon closer examination, authorities found Melero with hand-sewn sutures on her lips and dirty bandages covering open wounds that appeared infected.

After Melero was transported to the hospital, medical staff found signs of chronic abuse. One doctor reported cigarette burn marks, scab marks around both of her nipples and other injuries.

"She had multiple bed sores and pressure wounds that were so severe there was even exposed bone," Torrez said.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has called the case of abuse "horrific." Torrez said the injuries Melero suffered were "nothing short of torture."

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.