October 17, 2020

Cruel and Usual: Taos County jail accused of abuse and dysfunction

Don J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico

Joshua Acevedo outside the Taos County Detention Center in Taos.

TAOS — It was the evening of Aug. 25, 2019, and William Berry, a 63-year-old former ski lift operator, had been arrested earlier that day for driving without a license. He struggled to breathe in his cell at the Taos County Adult Detention Center and repeatedly asked the guards for his asthma medication. His requests were ignored, until finally, at 9 p.m., seven hours after Berry was booked, Sgt. Leroy Vigil told him to step out of his cell if he wanted his medicine, according to Berry.

“They lured me out with that and [then] they went to town on me,” Berry said. “It was a beat down, a good one.” 

Surveillance video obtained from that night shows Vigil throwing Berry, a tall, lanky man, to the ground, then pinning him with his knees as another officer helps restrain him. Berry, who appears to be limp, is lifted to his knees and then pushed back to the ground and pinned a second time. After that, he is taken out of view of the camera. According to Berry, Vigil threw him to the ground so hard that his dentures popped off of his gums.  

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission.

“They beat the hell out of him,” said Val Whitley, Berry’s lawyer. Whitley saw Berry two days after he was released from Holy Cross Medical Center in Taos, where he was treated for his injuries. Photos taken by New Mexico State Police show bruises and blood on Berry’s face and arms and a large contusion around his left eye. 

In an official report, Vigil defended his response as the “amount of force necessary to control [Berry’s] actions.” He said that the inmate tried to trip him and spat at him.

Vigil’s account differs from the one offered by former detention officer Rick Trujillo, who said he watched the entire incident unfold on video from the jail’s control room. Trujillo told Searchlight New Mexico that it looked to him that Berry was just trying to gain control after being pushed. 

“The guy was elderly, there was no reason” for using force, Trujillo said. 

‘His way or the highway’

Interviews with five guards — both current and former — suggest that this incident is part of a larger pattern of abuse at a jail with minimal oversight or accountability. A 10-week investigation by Searchlight, in collaboration with a new Taos-based print publication called The Noseeum, relied on more than three dozen interviews with guards, former inmates, lawyers and others familiar with the jail, as well as hundreds of pages of files and several hours of videos obtained by public records requests, spanning a five-year period.

Many guards’ names are mentioned in 10 use-of-force grievances filed by inmates between 2014 and 2020. But one name comes up more than any other, both in the grievances and interviews, and that is Leroy Vigil, now director of the Taos County jail.

Guards describe Vigil, a stocky man with close-cropped hair who has worked at the jail since 2013, as a haphazard administrator who plays favorites among the staff and rarely interacts with inmates except when there is a problem. “It’s his way or the highway,” said Trujillo, adding that he personally saw Vigil use excessive force on inmates on multiple occasions.  

Three current officers, who asked to remain unnamed for fear of retaliation, said they also witnessed Vigil’s use of force in several instances. Two guards recalled him boasting about how many cans of pepper spray he’d used on inmates. Another said that among inmates there’s a general understanding that Vigil “treats them like animals.” 

“There’s always one person who doesn’t know how to turn that off — just force, force, force,” the officer said, describing Vigil.

Vigil’s former boss also recognized a problem. Nelson Abeyta, the jail’s administrator between 2016 and 2018, said he was particularly troubled by Vigil’s use of pepper spray on inmates who were already restrained.

“I said, ‘Why don’t you try talking these people down as opposed to using your little can of aerosol?’” Abeyta recalled in a recent interview. “I should have probably fired the guy.” 

So it came as a surprise to some when, in May, Vigil was promoted two levels above his rank as sergeant to that of interim director — the top job at the jail and the equivalent of warden. In that job, he currently oversees a staff of 21 and up to 88 inmates. 

Taos County Manager Brent Jaramillo said he promoted Vigil because “he’s firm, fair and consistent.” Jaramillo, who is responsible for oversight of the jail, said he was unaware of a use-of-force issue. He said that he had never heard about the incident with Berry, though it happened during his tenure, and that he should have been told. Of the many use-of-force complaints against Vigil, Jaramillo said: “It’s news to me.” 

Vigil, for his part, denied that he had a history of using excessive force. “Frequently officers encounter situations involving physical resistance by a detainee or are targets of an attack while conducting their duties,” he wrote in an emailed response to Searchlight’s questions. “When a use-of-force situation comes up, we are trained to resolve the situation to the best of our ability.”

Over the last five years, inmate grievances against Vigil have included the following: 

  • In October 2016, an inmate named Alex Rey said Vigil called him a “bitch” and slammed a cell door on his hand, breaking some bones. (An internal review concluded that the inmate caused his own injury.) 
  • In July 2017, inmate Christian Orozco filed a grievance saying that Vigil banged his head against the floor, pepper sprayed him in the nose, placed his knee on his neck and choked him during a conflict with guards. (An official response concluded that the inmate was suicidal and verbally threatened a staff member.) 
  • In December 2019, an inmate named Antonio Aragon filed a complaint that Vigil had cuffed him so tightly that he bled, slammed him against the wall in the shower, and “threw him around.” (An administrator said he found Aragon’s claims to be unsubstantiated.) 

Taos County officials said no disciplinary action has been taken against detention center staff relating to use-of-force complaints in the past five years.

One of the more disturbing incidents happened in November 2017 with inmate Joshua Acevedo following an argument over phone privileges. According to the official incident report, he was ordered out of his cell and placed in handcuffs; guards moved to restrain him. Acevedo said he was then strapped to a plastic restraint chair and pepper sprayed in the face, after which a fabric sack known as a “spit hood” was placed over his head. Abeyta, who was administrator at the time, confirmed the account and said he reprimanded Vigil for “using force [on Acevedo] like it was going out of style.”

After that, Acevedo said, he was wheeled to the showers, where Vigil held him under running water. It’s common practice to rinse pepper spray from inmates’ eyes, but not with a spit hood covering the face, according to guards. “He basically waterboarded me,” Acevedo said. “I felt like I couldn’t breathe… It was torture.” Surveillance video shows Acevedo in the restraint chair being wheeled from one room to another, the spit hood covering his face.

In an official report of the incident, Vigil wrote that his use of force was justified because Acevedo had been “extremely combative” and “uncooperative” and had attempted to bite the officers. Trujillo said in an interview with Searchlight that investigations into Vigil’s use of force don’t go anywhere, because “he knows how to word things and write reports; he knows how to cover himself.”

Vigil countered that that kind of deception is not possible, given the facility’s large array of surveillance cameras. But many of the videos Searchlight acquired through public records requests showed guards bringing inmates into rooms beyond the sight of cameras.

“What happens in the jail stays in the jail,” Trujillo said.

One step forward

The New Mexico Association of Counties, a nonpartisan group that represents public employees and elected officials, runs an accreditation program to help detention centers maintain basic standards. The requirements stipulate that jails follow strict policies on use of force and the reporting of such incidents. Nine out of 33 counties in New Mexico have received accreditation. The association says Taos County has never applied. (Vigil said getting the accreditation would be costly and time-consuming.)

The association’s general counsel Grace Philips said, “If we can help counties stay out of trouble, it’s a lot better than just defending lawsuits that come in.” Since 2015, Taos County has spent nearly $1.5 million in settlements with former inmates over claims that include battery, negligence, and personal or bodily injury. It is unclear how many of those settlements are related to claims of excessive force. 

The county has, however, attempted to hold jail authorities accountable when they’ve transgressed, firing at least three administrators over the last eight years, as the Taos News has reported. In 2016, administrator Johna Gonzales was terminated for allegedly firing a detention officer who raised concerns about use of force. (Gonzales later filed a lawsuit against the county alleging a hostile work environment, among other claims. The case was settled.) In 2012, administrator William Cordova was fired in part for the supposed presence of contraband in the jail. Six years later, a similar issue led to administrator Nelson Abeyta’s firing after two guards were arrested on charges of trafficking drugs inside the jail. (Abeyta said he was blamed for long-standing issues he was trying to fix.)

In February, it seemed as if things were finally starting to turn around. The county hired Karen De La Roche, an outsider who came with decades of experience, as director. De La Roche had worked at many different levels of corrections in Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi, and most recently was assistant warden at the Lincoln County Detention Center in Carrizozo, New Mexico. 

Four current guards at the jail, all of whom declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said De La Roche was well-liked by staff and inmates alike. They said they admired her rehabilitative approach to corrections, citing her efforts to introduce substance abuse services and a GED program. “She cared about the employees and all about inmate rights and making sure they are treated with respect, and we were too,” said Trujillo. 

Then, in March, after De La Roche had been running the jail for a month, a workplace rift developed between her and Tammy Jaramillo, the jail’s health administrator — and the wife of County Manager Brent Jaramillo. 

Within weeks their disagreements intensified. The two filed hostile work environment complaints against one another, and in May, the county placed them both on administrative leave and launched an investigation, as first reported by the Taos News. This month, the investigation determined that Jaramillo had violated policy by threatening to withhold funding from De La Roche in retaliation for changes De La Roche had made at the jail. (Jaramillo’s lawyer, Heather Burke, said her client was being used as a “political pawn”; Jaramillo herself told Searchlight that the investigation was “unjust.” De La Roche declined to comment.) 

The same month as De La Roche’s forced resignation, Trujillo, the former guard, said he was fired without explanation. When pressed by Searchlight, County Manager Jaramillo declined to give a reason. Trujillo said he believed it was because he spoke up on De La Roche’s behalf.

Two steps back

With De La Roche gone, guards said, morale is low. They said they are overworked — the jail is currently understaffed by 14 people — and that the detention center has reverted to a focus on punishment instead of rehabilitation. With Vigil now in charge, one guard said the philosophy has become “to keep people locked down or warehouse them.”

County Manager Jaramillo acknowledged that there is room for improvement. He blamed the detention center’s issues on the lack of good and consistent leadership, understaffing, poor pay for officers and a need for better staff training. Jaramillo said he wanted to add continuing education for the guards, including behavioral health and empathy training. He also said he would look for a new administrator to replace Vigil — “somebody that’s going to treat the detainees as human beings” — following the conclusion of the De La Roche investigation. 

That replacement hasn’t happened yet. In the last month, two more excessive force incidents were recorded with Vigil’s name attached. The first occurred on Aug. 21, when an inmate named Roland Sisco was seen by medical staff after being pepper sprayed and reporting “visible signs of trauma.” According to the official incident report, Sisco was being verbally aggressive, so Vigil ordered him to be handcuffed, and then Sisco was pepper sprayed while in his cell. 

Four days later, on Aug. 25, inmate Julie Velarde told jail staff she was suicidal but refused to change into an anti-suicide smock, a one-piece garment that prevents an inmate from tying a noose. According to the incident report, Vigil told her she’d be pepper sprayed if she didn’t cooperate. Video shows she was not being physically threatening. Moments later, a staff member sprayed Velarde. 

Despite Vigil’s many alleged use-of-force incidents, current guards stressed that the jail’s issues go beyond him. “There’s no training, we’re underpaid, and the county doesn’t do anything no matter what you do,” one officer said. “They’re showing that, outside of killing someone, you won’t get fired.”

As for William Berry, who suffered injuries from the encounter with Vigil in 2019, he said he was sentenced in March to spend seven days at the detention center stemming from his earlier arrest. He never showed up. “I can’t force myself to do it. I am afraid,” he said. “I really am afraid of those people.” 

There is now a warrant out for Berry’s arrest. 

Elizabeth Flock is an Emmy Award-winning journalist with a focus on gender and justice, and the author of “The Heart is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai.” Her work has appeared on the PBS NewsHour, in the New Yorker, the New York Times and many other publications. She is based in Taos.  

Mark Scialla is an Emmy Award-winning journalist who is a contributing producer to Al Jazeera’s investigative documentary series Fault Lines, and who has also written and made films for National Geographic, The Guardian, Vice, PBS NewsHour and more. He is based in Taos. 

This story was published in collaboration with the Taos-based publication The Noseeum.