Antonio DeVargas’ anger becomes palpable as he talks about the death of his daughter, Carmela DeVargas.
His voice shakes when he recalls their final telephone conversations, in which his daughter said she was desperately ill and described how Santa Fe County jail guards mocked her and laughed as she writhed in pain.
His tones become hollow as he describes learning she was in the intensive care unit at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center and then how she succumbed to meningitis 15 days later at a hospital in Albuquerque.
Antonio DeVargas, who lives in Servilleta and is known to many in Northern New Mexico as Ikie, calls his daughter’s death a negligent homicide because he believes jail employees ignored her repeated requests for medical care that he believes could have saved her life.
He said it has become his mission to learn why jail employees ignored her requests to see a doctor and, in the process, hold those responsible accountable. He already has recruited help: Antonio DeVargas said his lawyer, Richard Rosenstock, plans to file a notice of tort claim — the first step toward a civil lawsuit — against the jail in the coming weeks.
But he knows nothing will bring his daughter back.
“It’s too late,” he said. “She’s dead.”
Santa Fe County officials said they could not comment specifically on Carmela DeVargas’ death or her care due to the threatened litigation.
“Inmate medical care cases present some of the largest potential exposures to local and state governments, both nationwide and locally,” Santa Fe County Manager Katherine Miller wrote in an email. “Consequently, our policy of not commenting on pending, threatened, and anticipated litigation is especially strong relative to such cases and potential issues that could be raised with them.”
Carmela DeVargas, 34, died Nov. 9, less than two months after she was booked into the jail on a probation violation. It’s not clear whether she was ill when she entered the facility, but Antonio DeVargas said doctors told him she had meningitis, which led to sepsis and caused damage to her brain stem and spinal cord.
He said that by the time she was transferred from the jail to the hospital, she was paralyzed from the neck down and could not breathe on her own. While at the hospital, two guards watched over her 24 hours a day and her legs were shackled — despite doctors later telling Antonio and Elisa DeVargas, one of Carmela DeVargas’ three sisters, that she would never have walked again.
Family members are still waiting for details about what Carmela DeVargas experienced in the jail, and they are asking questions about whether jail administrators and employees followed their rules for providing medical care and notifying families of serious illness or injury.
The jail has been plagued for years with allegations of abuse and medical neglect.
The family of Breanna Vasquez, who was 22, settled with the county for $400,000 after she died of meningitis two days after being booked into the jail on a probation violation in 2014. Court records say guards accused her of faking her illness.
A 12-person class-action lawsuit filed in 2016 accused the jail of failing to protect the health of inmates who became ill from debris and particulates kicked into the air during a construction project.
In 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice conducted an on-site investigation of the facility and found medical staff failed to identify people coming into the jail with serious medical needs and provide them appropriate care. Investigators also found staff failed to provide acute medical care in a timely manner.
In a follow-up email sent Friday, Miller wrote the facility has not been notified of suspected or confirmed meningitis cases there in the past two months.
“Critical incidents are always the subject of internal review, the goals of which are to identify what actually happened, as well as potential policy violations,” she wrote.
Miller contends the cause of Carmela DeVargas’ death will never be known because her family did not authorize an autopsy, but Antonio DeVargas disputes that.
“There was no purpose in it,” he said. “The cause and manner of death were fully known.”
About two weeks after Carmela DeVargas was booked into the jail Sept. 19, she called her dad, complaining of a severe fever that wouldn’t go away. She told her father she hadn’t yet seen a doctor. He said she also told him about several guards who laughed and made fun of her when she told them she felt sick.
In recent interviews, two women who were in jail with Carmela DeVargas said they saw firsthand how she was treated.
“Carmela went through hell,” said Alma Anaya, who was booked into the jail Aug. 9, a little over a month before Carmela DeVargas.
“I don’t know how many [medical request] forms we put in stating that she was not feeling good,” Anaya said. “She was sweating, she kept feeling clammy, her headaches were starting.”
Anaya also saw Carmela DeVargas ask guards for help.
“ ‘You’re just kicking from heroin,’ they kept telling her,” Anaya said of Carmela DeVargas’ conversations with jail guards. “ ‘Go shoot up more heroin up your arm.’ So Carmela would go lay down and say, ‘I don’t even want to bother with them.’ ”
Eva Aragon, another fellow inmate, said she went back to a calendar she kept in jail — one that contained notes. She kept a record of Carmela DeVargas’ struggles and reported them to her family after the woman’s death.
Aragon said Carmela DeVargas was too weak to climb into the top bunk and pulled her mattress onto the floor to sleep. Her clothes were soaked with sweat, Aragon said.
“She was crying, telling me, ‘Eva, tell them I’m sick. I’m sick. They’re going to let me die. Tell my dad. Please, please,’ ” Aragon said. “She was begging me for help.”
That was when Carmela DeVargas finally was taken to see a doctor at the jail, Aragon said.
Antonio DeVargas said he later received a phone call from his daughter, who said she had been given some antibiotics and was feeling a little better.
It didn’t last.
About a week later, her headaches were back and worse than before, Antonio DeVargas said. Carmela DeVargas’ health continued to deteriorate and she was taken to Christus St. Vincent.
By that time, it might have been too late.
A difficult past
It doesn’t take long to learn Carmela DeVargas, who lived in Servilleta and attended schools near Ojo Caliente and Pecos, lived a difficult life.
Santa Fe County jail records show she had been booked into the jail 13 times, including on a DWI charge, since 2008. Many of her problems, her sister Elisa said, stemmed from substance use that only got worse after their mother died of cancer in 2014.
Carmela DeVargas had two children. Her son, Andres, eventually was placed into the custody of the state Children, Youth and Families Department due to neglect because she could not properly care for him through her grief, Elisa DeVargas wrote in an email. Losing her son was another trauma that caused her to spiral further into substance abuse, her sister said.
“While he was in foster care, she almost completed a rehab program in Rio Rancho but was kicked out two weeks before finishing due to relapse. But she was really trying her best and that was the most healthy we had seen her in awhile,” her sister wrote. She stressed Carmela DeVargas never physically abused her children.
Elisa DeVargas said that while drug use, including heroin, was part of Carmela DeVargas’ life, she added that it “wasn’t everything about her.”
“I wrote her eulogy and I chose to do that because I wanted to focus on things that were positive about her,” Elisa DeVargas said. “She really enjoyed music, she loved singing, when she was younger she had a really beautiful voice.”
Andres, now 7, was adopted by Antonio DeVargas. Carmela DeVargas’ younger daughter, Maria Tanuz, was adopted by a third cousin. Both were open adoptions, Elisa DeVargas wrote, and the children still had some contact with their mother.
The probation violation that landed Carmela DeVargas back in jail in September stemmed from events in March 2017, as she continued to battle drug use.
According to an affidavit for an arrest warrant, Carmela DeVargas’ boyfriend at the time, Richard Terwilliger, was accused of stealing $140,000 from a safe at a home where he was doing carpentry and electrical work. Carmela DeVargas was arrested on charges of larceny, conspiracy and tampering with evidence after detectives used interviews and recordings of jail phone calls between her and Terwilliger as the basis for accusing her of moving money from the safe from one location to another.
A judge sentenced her to 4½ years of probation, according to court records. When she did not attend her drug court program and failed to comply with her release order, a bench warrant was issued for her arrest, and she was labeled as an absconder in May. She was arrested in September and sent back to jail. She was scheduled to have a status conference on her case Nov. 7.
At the hospital
Family members say they know by her wristband that Carmela DeVargas was transported to Christus St. Vincent on Oct. 20. They weren’t aware she was there, however, until Oct. 24, and by that time, her prognosis was grim.
Elisa and Antonio DeVargas spoke to doctors privately Oct. 25 and learned Carmela DeVargas was paralyzed from the neck down and would never recover.
“Her only two options would be on life support and be transferred to a facility that could take her, which would be out of state, or turn off life support and end her life,” Elisa DeVargas said.
Doctors gave Carmela DeVargas until Oct. 27 to decide what she wanted to do, Elisa DeVargas said.
Although Carmela DeVargas was unable to speak in the hospital, Elisa DeVargas said, she communicated with her family through blinks and mouthing words. She let them know she wanted to be disconnected from life support at Christus St. Vincent on Oct. 28.
Mentally, Carmela DeVargas was all there, Antonio DeVargas said, and she was the one to make that decision.
The night before she was to be disconnected from life support, Elisa DeVargas and another sister spent the night with Carmela DeVargas. At that time, she took a respiratory test and was able to take a few breaths on her own. That led to a request to move her to University of New Mexico Hospital, where she could see specialists and have other scans to see if there was hope for some kind of miracle.
To facilitate the move, the family worked with a hospital liaison to ask jail Warden Derek Williams to release Carmela DeVargas from custody, Elisa DeVargas said. That meant she could travel without guards.
While at UNM, doctors confirmed Carmela DeVargas’ grim prognosis, and she once again made the decision to be disconnected from life support.
On Nov. 9, Antonio DeVargas said his daughter asked to have her breathing tube removed so she could try to eat, though doctors warned it would likely cause her to aspirate.
She ate some ice cream anyway. Then she told her sister to have her disconnected from life support once she became unconscious.
“It was later that evening that I just told the doctors to follow her wishes,” said Elisa DeVargas, who was given power of attorney by her ailing sister.
It’s been nearly a month since Carmela DeVargas’ death, and her father — a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran — is trying to get someone to investigate what happened.
The pain, he said, is all-consuming. In his quest, he has approached the District Attorney’s Office, which told him he needed to obtain a police report about his daughter’s death. He went to the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, which declined to take his report and referred him to New Mexico State Police.
He is still waiting to make a report.
In the meantime, he is busy raising Andres — an inquisitive boy who understands much of what is going on. His grandson asks a lot of questions, Antonio DeVargas said, and some days are especially hard.
Antonio DeVargas said he plans to hold a silent vigil to remember Carmela DeVargas at the jail Dec. 15.
“I know the guards will take the flowers down as soon as we are done. … It’s not going to bring Carmela back anyways, but I am not going to let them forget what they did,” he said.