In 2017, Albuquerque Police Officer Ryan Holets made national headlines after encountering a pregnant homeless woman on his shift who was about to shoot up heroin. Holets offered to adopt the woman’s unborn child, who he later named Hope, and helped her into recovery.
The heartwarming story was referenced by former President Donald Trump in his 2018 State of the Union address while discussing the opioid epidemic and in 2020 Holets gave a speech at the Republican National Convention about Trump’s efforts to combat opioid deaths.
But in July, a anti-abortion group in New Mexico put up a billboard along an interstate exit near a late term abortion clinic that features two photos of Holets—including one of him holding his adopted daughter. “My favorite right is life,” the billboard reads.
On Tuesday, the Albuquerque Police Department told KRQE Holets image was used without his permission.
Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for the department, said Holets was approached months before about the use of his image and declined because it is a violation of department policy for his image in uniform to be used for a political campaign. “The group used the images anyway, without permission and contrary to the wishes of a police officer who has distinguished himself for his integrity,” said Gallegos.
On Tuesday, the billboard was taken down.
Ethel Maharg, the executive director of the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico, told The Daily Beast the criticism over the billboard was “odd” given that it had been up for nearly two months. Maharg, who recently announced her intention to run for governor of New Mexico as a Republican, said she believes the controversy is politically motivated and has more to do with Texas’ new abortion bill than it does with Holets’ issues with his image.
“It became a problem only after I announced that I’m a candidate for governor, because it had been fine,” she told The Daily Beast.
Although she said she hasn’t spoken to Holets about the matter, she said she hadn’t previously heard of any complaints from him or the police department over the visible sign that sits on a major interstate running through the city. “If there was ever a problem or complaint,” she said, “then I would have heard about it.”
Holets did not respond to a request for comment. The Albuquerque Police Department also did not respond to a request for comment.
Maharg, 65, told The Daily Beast the billboard was stripped down without her permission on Tuesday by Lamar Advertising, who rented her the space.
But Diane Aragon-Iafornaro, a representative for Lamar Advertising, said the billboard is digital and that their client, Right to Life Committee of New Mexico, decided to change the artwork. “It may be that it was all over the media and they decided it was the best thing,” she said. “We don’t ever ask. They just sent us new artwork and we switched it.”
Maharg also told The Daily Beast that she never asked Holets for permission to use his image because she believed them to be in the public domain. “He’s all over the internet,” she said of Holets, adding that in the other image on the billboard he is holding her own granddaughter in a photo taken at a ceremony honoring him.
Maharg said she’d called the chief of police and would get clarity about why their statement was put out. “Ryan is a good man,” she said. “I have nothing but respect for him and for the department here and I do not want anything to harm any of them.”
Although Holets’ adoption story has been largely referenced by opioid addiction advocates, it has also been taken up by anti-abortion advocates like Maharg who point to adoption as an alternative to abortion.
Maharg said the site of the billboard featuring Holets was located right off an I-25 interstate exit that leads to Southwestern Women’s Options, a late term abortion clinic. “You can’t miss it,” she said. Nonetheless, she insists the location wasn’t deliberately chosen and said it was a “God thing.”
A receptionist for Southwestern Women’s Options told The Daily Beast that anti-abortion billboards go up periodically around town, but that nobody had particularly noticed Maharg’s.
Despite the billboard being taken down, Maharg vowed to replace it. “We have more,” she said. “We have a whole bunch of them.”