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Celeste Zimmerman, treasurer of the Hatch Valley Chamber of Commerce, recently told the Journal that this year’s Hatch Chile Festival was “about the town of Hatch; it’s about the surrounding farmers; it’s about all of the vendors.”
But authorities say for Zimmerman and her 30-year-old son, Raymond Swingle, it was also about defrauding event attendees out of thousands by charging phony parking fees.
The 68-year-old woman allegedly ordered her son to charge attendees for parking after being told by the Hatch Chile Festival Committee that she couldn’t. She reportedly said she would charge for parking anyway and “damn the consequences.”
Zimmerman is now charged with accessory to fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud, while Swingle is charged with fraud in the Sept. 3 incident. They were booked into the Doña Ana County Detention Center but have since been released.
This year was the festival’s 50th anniversary – an event that organizers said brings up to 30,000 people from all over the country to the “Chile Capital of the World.”
Reached by phone Saturday, Swingle said he needed to speak with his attorney, but added, “you should know that we’re completely innocent and we have tons of facts to back that up.”
Swingle said he didn’t want to reveal those facts because they could be used against him and his mother.
On Facebook, the Hatch Police Department said detectives searched Swingle’s car and found more than $4,000 in cash “believed to have been collected from the victims in this case.” The department said anyone who believes they were a victim should call the agency.
The mother-son duo got roasted by many in the comments section of the Facebook post, while others came to their defense.
One person wrote, “He got you all because he only charged me $5.00.”
According to an arrest warrant affidavit filed in Doña Ana County Magistrate Court:
A New Mexico State Police officer noticed a man stopping vehicles on East Herrera Road and charging $10 for parking during the festival. The officer told the man – identified as Swingle – that he cannot charge for parking on a public road and to leave.
But police said Swingle kept stopping vehicles in front of the officer, blocking drivers in until they paid $10. The officer detained Swingle, who told him his mother, Zimmerman, told him to charge $10 for parking.
According to court records, Swingle had collected more than $863 by that time.
Lisa Neal, president of the Hatch Chile Festival Committee, told police Zimmerman was “angry and disgruntled” when the committee said she could not charge for parking during the festival. Neal said Zimmerman told her assistant she would charge for parking anyway and “damn the consequences.”
Neal told police Zimmerman had created a website – which Neal said was not approved by the committee – that told attendees there would be “a $10 contribution to park,” saying the fee will “keep the Festival going for you to enjoy.”
“There is no additional Festival Fee above the parking contribution,” the website states.