It took more than five decades for James Benavidez to clear his name and receive the justice he says he long deserved.
In March, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper pardoned Benavidez, along with 16 other former offenders, for a felony burglary conviction – a crime the Ignacio man says he never committed.
“Of the hundreds of applications for pardons my office has received over the years, yours is one of the few I am granting,” Hickenlooper wrote. “Many people with criminal histories desire a second chance, and you have earned one.”
For Benavidez, who was 19 at the time of the alleged crime and is now 73 years old, announcement of the pardon was years in the making. He was at his home in Ignacio when he received the news.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” Benavidez said. “It was something I never expected to happen while I was alive. I feel great. I feel free. I don’t have this weight on my shoulders anymore.”
To understand his feelings, it is probably best to start at the beginning.
Benavidez was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1944, and his family moved to Durango about six years later, to an area known as “Mexican flats,” a small neighborhood of Hispanic families located near where Santa Rita Park is now.
A month before the alleged burglary, Benavidez had just spent two years in the U.S. Army in Bamberg, Germany.
Benavidez and court records, obtained through an open records request, depict different accounts of the crime, which occurred Dec. 14 and 15, 1963.
According to Benavidez, he was picked up that night by a childhood friend, and the two went out drinking. Unbeknownst to Benavidez, his friend had broken into Wagon Wheel Liquors earlier in the night and stole a couple bottles of whiskey.
“He didn’t say anything,” Benavidez said. “He just acted normal.”
Four days later, Benavidez said, the two were picked up by Durango police.
“There was still some liquor in the truck,” he said, “and I couldn’t prove I was innocent.”
Court records, however, include a written statement from Benavidez’s friend that says the two were out on the town drinking that night. They wanted to pick up a bottle of liquor before heading home, but all the stores were closed.
So, the two drove a car through the glass door at Wagon Wheel to get in, and took about $18 worth of alcohol, about $145 in today’s dollars. The friend noted they could have, but did not, taken more alcohol and the cash in the register.
“I just wanted enough to get drunk on,” the friend wrote.
Regardless, the two were arrested and charged with felony burglary. Court records indicate Benavidez pleaded guilty, but the Ignacio man is adamant he did not make the plea.
Benavidez faced up to 10 years in prison, but the judge at the time decided to forgo the jail sentence in favor of a strict probation period, which included no drugs or alcohol, staying out of trouble and finding a job.
But over the summer of 1964, a series of run-ins with the law and violations of his probation terms resulted in Benavidez having his probation revoked.
He maintains the events leading up to his revocation were steeped in racism. Court records indicate he quit a job when a boss told him to stop speaking Spanish at a job site, which he refused to do.
Local historian and former Fort Lewis College professor Duane Smith said a segment of the community was prejudice toward Hispanics, evidenced by the existence of the neighborhood called “Mexican flats.”
The neighborhood was pushed to the south end of town, out of sight, and it was relocated only in the mid-1970s as it became clear it was unsafe to live so close to the radioactive uranium tailings across the Animas River. “Some people moved further down the river valley and others moved closer to town,” Smith said. “It’s part of the early racist history of Durango.”
However, Benavidez clearly violated terms of his probations when he was arrested for a drunken disturbance and another charge of assault and battery that same summer, which according to his probation officer, led to his probation being revoked.
Benavidez chalked up those incidents as stupid mistakes of a young man. But because of them, still 19 years old, he was booked into the Buena Vista Correctional Facility.
Benavidez spent nine months in prison. After he was released, he successfully completed the terms of his probation and swore to stay on the right side of the law. Aside from a few minor incidents, he says he has lived up to the promise.
Over the years, Benavidez worked as a mover/truck driver, raised a family and even helped his brother start a boxing club in Ignacio. He says he has not had a drop of alcohol since 1970.
Anything indicating he had a felony conviction lay dormant for years until around 2012 when he went to buy a gun to go hunting with his nephew. The sale was denied because federal law prevents convicted felons from possessing firearms.
“I hadn’t thought about it in years, and I certainly didn’t think of myself as a felon,” Benavidez said. “That’s when I started thinking I needed to get this cleared up.”
Benavidez started an ambitious and relentless campaign on his own behalf to petition Hickenlooper for a pardon. He wrote letters to the governor, called his office and had friends send letters of support.
He even tried to catch Hickenlooper when he made visits to Durango. A few years ago, Benavidez said he waited on a bench outside Olde Tymer’s Café when Hickenlooper came to town and he knew the governor was going to eat dinner there.
“One of his secretaries wouldn’t let me talk to him,” Benavidez said.
Years went by, and Benavidez lost hope. He was not sure if the governor was receiving all his petitions and attempts to contact him, so he gave up.
Then, on March 23, around 2:30 p.m., his phone rang.
“I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered it,” Benavidez said. “This lady said, ‘I’m calling to let you know that Governor Hickenlooper has pardoned you.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
His partner, Bennie Lobato, who helped him throughout the ordeal, was right next to him.
“I think he had basically given up until he got a call that day,” she said. “It brought tears to his eyes. He was all excited.”
Hickenlooper, who has issued 40 pardons in his two terms, wrote to Benavidez to tell him that he has shown he has moved past his criminal history, and has proved to be a contributing member to the community.
“I believe you deserve a second chance, and I hope that this pardon will create opportunity for you,” he wrote. “You will now have to make the most of this opportunity. ... I believe you have it in you to move beyond past mistakes.”
These days, Benavidez and Lobato live in downtown Ignacio, taking care of three great-grandkids.
The executive order of his pardon hangs in a frame on the wall. But just as stark of a reminder is the glass door that Benavidez ended up paying for that still hangs at Wagon Wheel Liquors, almost $500 by today’s standards.
“It’s a great relief,” he said.