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Filmmaker tells students of ‘Nightmare in Las Cruces’

MURDER MYSTERY: The billing for "A Nightmare in Las Cruces" outside the Valley Art Theatre on Mill Ave. The movie, which premiers this Friday, follows the still-unsolved murders of 4 New Mexico bowling alley over two decades ago.  (Photo by Michael Arellano)
MURDER MYSTERY: The billing for "A Nightmare in Las Cruces" outside the Valley Art Theatre on Mill Ave. The movie, which premiers this Friday, follows the still-unsolved murders of 4 New Mexico bowling alley over two decades ago. (Photo by Michael Arellano)

Independent filmmaker Charlie Minn is a man on a mission.

Minn is traveling through the Southwest promoting his new documentary, “A Nightmare in Las Cruces,” and stopped at the Tempe campus last week to prepare for Friday’s release of his film at the Valley Art Theatre on Mill Avenue.

But Minn isn’t advertising his movie for the money or glory Hollywood has to offer. Instead, he wants to create awareness and hopefully solve a 20-year-old multi-murder mystery in the town of Las Cruces, N.M.

On Feb. 10, 1990, two armed men walked into the Las Cruces Bowl, a family-owned bowling alley, and shot seven people, including four children. The men stole $5,000 from a safe, set a table on fire and left without a trace.

Three of the victims died at the bowling alley, and one more died later in a local hospital.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in New York, Minn said his life changed forever.

“I watched it on ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ 20 years ago and I’ll never forget that moment,” Minn said. “I was angered and was deeply saddened by the degree of unfairness in the barbaric nature of how kids were executed.”

The crime is the “worst in New Mexico history,” Minn said, and the fact that it was never solved and dealt with children made it something he needed to pursue.

“It was always a story that was in the back of my mind,” Minn said. “I would call the Las Cruces Police Department and ask if it was solved, and when the computer age came around, I would always search for articles and all of the articles were old. The thing had completely gone into a state of oblivion.”

In September 2009, after plans for another movie fell through, Minn began on a movie about the murders in Las Cruces.

“It had faded, and the movie business is a powerful medium, you can reach out to people and affect people’s feelings and emotions,” Minn said. “I felt this was such a compelling story to pursue.”

And Minn did pursue it, enlisting the help of students in the film production department of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces to help shoot and produce the film.

Minn said he was willing to give the college students a chance to take part in his film because he “lives for the underdog.”

He gave several presentations of “A Nightmare in Las Cruces” and the process of filmmaking at ASU’s Tempe campus last week, including one to lecturer Victoria Meng’s film studies class.

Minn stuck around for nearly an hour after Meng’s class to field questions from aspiring filmmakers and students curious about his upcoming film.

“Charlie strikes me as someone who is exceptionally passionate about his causes and his craft,” Meng said. “I think the class benefited from meeting an independent filmmaker who so clearly loves his work.”

This film is not a typical mainstream studio movie, Minn said.

It begins with the actual 4-and-a-half minute 911 call, made by 12-year-old Melissia Repass, who survived after being struck in the head by a bullet. The film also contains actual crime scene footage and photos provided by the Las Cruces Police Department, extensive interviews and one reenactment of the shooting scene, Minn said.

“The crime scene videos and photos will shock people,” he said. “I think some people might even be shocked by the trailer, but this is reality. What you’re seeing is exactly what went down.”

Minn had to overcome apprehension from police and victim’s families while making his film, he said.

Detectives in Las Cruces were skeptical about phone calls from an independent filmmaker in New York, Minn said, but his persistence created a partnership with the police to provide material for the film. He also had to convince the mother of 13-year-old Amy Houser, who died in the attack, to be interviewed for the movie.

Houser’s mother’s interview was one of the emotional highlights in the film, Minn said.

“This film is an emotional one — there was not a dry eye on the set, and there was not a dry eye in the theater. It’s just a heartbreaker,” he said. “It’s the only way I can describe this story — just a heartbreaker.”

Aside from the emotional aspects of the story, Minn is still trying to catch the killers.

There are several working theories, he said, including one that tags the shooters as hired hit men out of Mexico, possibly related to drugs or gambling.

“I believe, based on research, that these two men were there to deliver a horrific message to the bowling alley owner,” he said. “When you’re dealing with these drug cartels, it doesn’t take much for some of them to come up [from Mexico] and shoot people.”

Minn’s promotion of his film doesn’t end with this tour. Not only did he appear in an “America’s Most Wanted” segment last week to discuss the crime and movie, Minn said he’s trying to get his film shown in prisons in an effort to identify the shooters.

“In prison, there’s a lot of fighting going on,” he said. “People love to rat out the next guy, so … it could definitely promote some leads.”

The chances are good that someone in Phoenix knows something about the shooters because of its proximity to Las Cruces, Minn said, and he hopes to reach out to that person.

One shooter would be around 50 years old, and the other around 70, he said, based on descriptions of the shooters.

Minn said he has a gut feeling that at least one of them is alive, but even if they are both dead, someone knows who they are.

“I’m just trying to create awareness,” he said. “Finally it will reach that one person, and when they go out and see it, hopefully they will change their loyalties and say, ‘Wow, it was that bad.’”

Police have chased leads related to the case between San Diego and Florida, Minn said, but never returned results. The fact that modern forensic science was still in its infancy at the time also hindered the case, he said.

Still, Minn carries the story on in hopes of someday catching the men responsible.

For his next movie, he plans to take on the ASU point-shaving scandal involving two former ASU basketball players.

Stevin Smith and teammate Isaac Burton were accused of intentionally missing shots to influence the final scores of games in 1994, creating one of the nation’s largest sports gambling scandals, Minn said.

“It’s one of the most incredible college basketball stories and scandals that shook college sports,” he said. “The fact that it happened right here on this beautiful campus and city makes you believe it can happen anywhere.”

The movie is still in pre-production, but Minn said it’s a story that needs to be told.

On campus, Minn has been reaching out to students all week.

Filmmaking processes freshman Stephen LaRose said he spoke with Minn on the phone after he gave a presentation to his film studies class.

“I told him I was inspired by him and how he got started,” LaRose said. “I definitely plan on going to see the movie; I’m going to get a group of friends together and see the movie when it comes out Friday.”

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