Antonio "Ike" DeVargas, a well known community activist in Rio Arriba County, is seeking signatures for a "citizens' grand jury" investigation into the death of his daughter, who had been locked up at the Santa Fe County jail last November.
In a letter to journalists announcing the petition, DeVargas contextualizes his daughter's death as one of a handful of inmate deaths under similar circumstances at the jail, highlighting medical negligence, "misfeasance and malfeasance" as systemic problems there.
"It's not just my daughter," DeVargas tells SFR by telephone. "There's been a person dying for lack of medical care—at least one per year. And that's just the people that have died. The people who have been tormented and tortured number in the hundreds."
He continues, "I'm really pissed off that the citizens of Santa Fe County are condoning a torture chamber right in their back yard…and I intend to do something about this."
DeVargas' plan relies on a rarely used article of the New Mexico Constitution that allows citizens to convene a grand jury by petition with either 200 signatures or at least 2% of the registered voters of a county. To succeed, Devargas would need at least 2,000 signatures.
It's a long shot, and similar citizen petitions, such as one calling for an investigation of fatal police shootings in Albuquerque in 2012, have failed.
But DeVargas is no rookie.
Last year, he led one of the few successful petitions to convene a grand jury in recent New Mexico history, alleging that the North Central Solid Waste Authority in Rio Arriba County had misappropriated public money and defrauded residents. DeVargas says the jury in that case will be convened later this month.
He is relying on his community to help him seek justice for his daughter and the others who have suffered medical negligence in the county jail.
Separate from the grand jury petition, DeVargas is suing the county over his daughter's death.
Carmela DeVargas repeatedly asked for medical attention and displayed severe symptoms of illness in the weeks leading up to her death, but was ignored and ridiculed by county jail guards, says her father. When she was finally sent to the hospital, he says doctors diagnosed her with meningitis. Carmela died on Nov. 9.
County spokeswoman Carmelina Hart refused to comment on DeVargas' effort to gather signatures and seat a grand jury, saying the county's policy is not to speak publicly about pending legal actions and adding: "It's all part of the litigation at this point in terms of Santa Fe County."
Mark Donatelli, a local civil rights lawyer who has represented multiple people in cases similar to DeVargas', applauds DeVargas' efforts.
"It's critical that the community take an interest in monitoring the level of medical care and make sure these kinds of tragedies don't take place," he says, telling SFR that medical negligence is an intermittent problem at the jail.
Donatelli blames it on a lack of county oversight, lack of funding and under-staffing issues, among other things. But he says it is fully within the capacity of the county to commission experts to conduct regular monitoring and written reports of jail conditions.
"I hope that there is a grand jury," Donatelli tells SFR. "The jail is a community facility that the community depends on to have their loved ones adequately cared for, and it just doesn't happen in so many tragic circumstances."
DeVargas will hold a public gathering and news conference in the Roundhouse Rotunda (490 Old Santa Fe Trail) at 10 am on Saturday.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Antonio DeVargas' nickname.