Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The deputy chief at the Bernalillo County jail will retire at the end of the week after an investigation found he referred to an inmate using a racial slur.
Deputy Chief Aaron Vigil’s official last day at the Metropolitan Detention Center is Friday, but he has not been to the jail since early August, said Julia Rivera, an MDC spokeswoman.
Vigil, who has worked at MDC since November 2018, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the matter.
Rivera said Vigil used “Nigg” in a text message referring to Clifton White, a 36-year-old Black man who was heavily involved in the Black Lives Matter movement at the time of his arrest.
“It was brought to our attention that Deputy Chief Aaron Vigil had engaged in communication of a derogatory nature regarding an inmate in our custody,” Rivera said. “When we were made aware of the situation, it was swiftly communicated to the appropriate channels for investigation.”
Bernalillo County Manager Julie Morgas Baca said that after a decision-making panel recommended termination, Vigil “saw the writing on the wall and he submitted his papers to retire.”
Selinda Guerrero, White’s wife and a local social justice activist, said the language is nothing new, but the evidence is.
“These are high-ranking officials – and they do this all the time – they do this in the prison, they do this in our communities when they engage with us,” she said. “… I’m just really … glad somebody was brave enough in the structure to be able to come forward (and) to put it out to the public so the entire community can see.”
Guerrero said a whistleblower told her of the incident in early August, alleging MDC was “trying to keep it quiet” and leave it at a written reprimand in an attempt to save Vigil’s career.
The whistleblower told Guerrero the text thread was between Vigil and two others, from the Albuquerque Police Department and the New Mexico Corrections Department, and she said those other officials need to be held accountable.
Joseph Trujeque, president of the Bernalillo County Corrections Officer Association union, called the allegations against Vigil “appalling.”
“That has no place in the setting of a correctional facility, let alone in the public,” he said, adding that the incident reflects badly on “every single one of us.”
Trujeque said he was told that – in a text message exchange with MDC Maj. Michael Alvarado – Vigil called White “the N-word.” He said that a few days later, Vigil called Alvarado into his office, took his phone and demanded the passcode to delete the message.
Trujeque said Alvarado reported the incident to MDC Chief Greg Richardson a week later, but “nothing was done.” He said the investigation started after another employee filed a complaint with the county.
“I expressed my concerns to the county manager because the rumor was out, and everybody knew about it and it looked like the county was trying to cover it up,” he said.
Trujeque said he spoke with Richardson and Morgas Baca, suggesting that Vigil be put on administrative leave during the investigation.
Vigil was put on administrative leave immediately thereafter, and Trujeque said Richardson also needed to be held accountable if he was made aware of the message and didn’t act.
Rivera disputed those claims and said Richardson referred the incident to human resources for investigation after Alvarado told him. Morgas Baca said the case wasn’t “swept underneath the carpet.”
Trujeque said he also spoke “extensively” with Vigil, who confirmed that “something was said” in the message, but denied using that word, something Trujeque said he takes “with a grain of salt.”
“He’s in charge of the largest correctional facility in the state – our jail is larger than all the prisons,” he said. “To make a statement like that, it brings bad light on everybody, especially with everything that’s going on nowadays.”
White was arrested June 1 for violating parole and is now in the Los Lunas prison.
According to court records, White – who pleaded guilty to armed robbery and trafficking in 2003 – violated parole by having “multiple negative contacts” with Albuquerque police, failing to report to probation and parole by curfew, being the suspect in an auto theft and calling prisoners at the Los Lunas prison.
The June arrest of White came in the hours leading up to a BLM protest after George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police.
White came to the attention of police on May 28, after a BLM protest in Southeast Albuquerque, when he and others confronted officers as they made a traffic stop on four young men in a shooting investigation. An ensuing standoff between riot police and the crowd resulted in officers deploying smoke and leaving the young men’s vehicle unattended at the scene.
Police say that White took the vehicle and that officers followed him to the university area, where he was briefly detained. Although he was not charged, police told White’s parole officer about the May 28 incident and he was arrested.
In the months since the arrest, a large movement has gathered on social media and in the streets seeking White’s release and accusing authorities of targeting him for being involved in the BLM movement.
Guerrero said she hopes the revelations about Vigil will shine a light on how minorities are treated through policing and prisons.
“This is what we’re talking about when we talk about the abuse of state violence, and the way we are devalued and dehumanized,” she said. “Now, here’s the evidence, finally, something in the public record. Now, there’s something from the inside, where people can see clearly that this is the culture.”