A beloved former judge and a tarnished former sheriff both born and raised in Santa Fe met again in the most intimate of ways at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, just before Thanksgiving. For Michael Vigil, it’s a chance to stay alive—a new kidney. For Greg Solano, it’s a sort of redemption—giving one up.
Solano turned 52 on Nov. 15, just about a month after he finished serving five years on probation. Once a high-profile civil servant with political ambition for statewide office, he's been working for the last several years as a handyman and at a storage facility. People in the grocery store still call him "Sheriff," even though for years he's been saying, "Just call me Greg." He stepped down from the post in 2011 after admitting he stole county property and sold it on eBay.
Vigil wore the dignified robe of a district court judge for 18 years. He attended his retirement party four years ago armed with two surprising facts: A recently purchased lottery ticket had earned him a $1 million payout, and diabetes had destroyed his kidney function and he needed an organ transplant.
Now 64, he's won another sort of lottery in finding a match in Solano. And Solano feels lucky himself.
The surgery that moved one of Solano's kidneys into Vigil's body was among more than 300 kidney transplants at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona this year. And it went just the way doctors hoped it would.
That morning, Solano did what he was known for doing during his eight-year tenure as county sheriff: He answered a phone call from a journalist.
"I'm not really nervous," he told SFR, pausing to field questions now and then from nurses. "They've done so many tests and they've explained how it works. … I have never thought twice about it."
Both men and their families arrived at the hospital at 5 am on Tuesday, Nov. 22, and Solano went into the operating room first, where doctors performed a laparoscopic nephrectomy. Next, Vigil was wheeled into a different theater and his own team of surgeons installed the healthy organ.
By dinnertime, Solano was asking his family for Ruffles potato chips and Vigil's body was using the new kidney.
The two men are both Santa Famous, but their paths first crossed long before either of their public service careers bloomed.
The year was 1984. Vigil had been out of law school for about seven years, working in a small office in the San Francisco Street barrio with Joan Friedland and Morty Simon, handling criminal defense, civil rights and other cases. Also a part of the office was Carla Lopez, the girl who would capture Vigil's heart and become his lifelong partner. Back then, the firm was steadily gaining a reputation for serving cash-poor clients.
Solano, meanwhile, was 21 years old and grieving the sudden death of his single mother. His three siblings were without a legal guardian, and he needed help keeping his family intact. His uncle, Roman Solano, had a job cleaning the law office and suggested he ask Vigil for help.
Help, he did. With Vigil's assistance, and at no cost to the younger man, Solano gained custody of Melissa, 13, Monica, 15, and Gerald, 16.
The families weren’t particularly close after that, but it’s Santa Fe—so they weren’t particularly far either. Vigil and Lopez had three daughters, both went on to serve on the school board, and he became district judge. Solano and his wife Antoinette also started their family. He left his job at a car lot to become a cop.
Vigil and Solano kept in touch, crossing paths as a policeman and a lawyer, then as a sheriff and a judge.
"We have always been friends," Vigil said. "When I met Greg, [it] was so impressive that he was going to make an effort to keep his siblings together as a family unit. There are not too many 20-year-olds that can do that, take on those responsibilities. I know it wasn't easy for him. … He persevered and his siblings did well. They all did well."
When Solano heard that Vigil needed a kidney and was looking for a live donor, he signed up right away. By 2013, the match was confirmed and surgeons planned the procedure. Setbacks with Vigil's liver function, however, put the operation on hold. Then everyone held their breath until plans went back into motion this fall.
"This gives me a chance to thank Michael Vigil for the selfless work that he did for me," Solano said. "I'm really happy that I got his opportunity."
And since the news about the kidney transplant went public, he's heard nothing but praise for the judge.
"I can't tell you how many people say, 'He helped me out too.' I've had a lot of people say it."
Carla Lopez has witnessed the whole story unfold. While the world around them buzzed with social media, she and Vigil had been keeping his health concerns on the down-low.
Vigil had learned in the late '80s that he had inherited his family history of diabetes. Despite his efforts to manage the disease, his organs began to fail. In advance of his retirement party nearly two decades later, he had hundreds of business cards printed up: Seeking kidney donor (Blood type: O+). He told a crowd at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center that he had known for some time that he needed a transplant, but didn't feel it was appropriate to start asking people for this big favor when he was still on the bench.
This is the kind of thing Lopez has come to expect from Vigil. Even faced with dire personal risk, he's thinking of the bigger picture.
"Judge Mike" gained that nickname for the same reason lots of them come around: utility. His graduating class at St. Michael's High alone had no fewer than three Mikes, and later, there were three Vigils serving the court at the same time. But it likely also stuck because Vigil maintained a rapport with everyone in his court as a man of the people—not looking down his nose, but looking right at you.
He helped establish alternative programs for defendants who were homeless or who copped to drug and alcohol problems that made it hard to stay on the right side of the law. He often had everyone in his courtroom in chuckles.
"His approach is, 'You don't really worry until you have something to worry about,'" said Lopez. Time to worry, she said, would have been if there was no match and organ failure was setting in. But Vigil took his self-care seriously. He watched what he ate. He could still walk two miles at a time.
On Sunday, Vigil and Lopez walked for about 20 minutes in the balmy Scottsdale late morning while winds whipped bitter cold in Santa Fe. Five days after the transplant, Vigil reported that he felt sore, but he was in good spirits.
The Thanksgiving holiday was marked by the hospital's "really awful turkey dinner," he said. "It did not taste good, but I ate it. It was not a great Thanksgiving, food-wise, but I had a lot to be thankful for."
Doctors say the new kidney is "working beautifully." Vigil and Lopez have rented a house near the clinic for the next six weeks so Mayo's doctors can monitor his progress and establish the right drug combination to keep his body from rejecting the organ.
More than 40 people initially volunteered to be tested as a living donor for Vigil, who said he made the decision early on to work his way down the list chronologically. But most people dropped off with family health history or not enough matching markers. Solano moved on to the next step of spending a week at the clinic to confirm his eligibility, and surgeons scheduled the procedure. That's when Vigil's liver started acting weird and knocked him off the eligible recipient list. This April, he began dialysis.
"I did not think I was going to be eligible. It did not look good," he said. "Dialysis is the end stage for kidney disease. ... I didn't think I was preparing for death, but I thought, 'If something doesn't break here, this could be the beginning of a decline.'"
Then his liver snapped out of it (doctors are still not sure why), and with Solano still willing, they went for it.
The word "redemption" has been uttered more than once as Santa Fe starts to recount this new piece of local folklore. Solano's fall from grace stunned the community. After joining the city police force in the late '80s, he became an union leader and moved up the ranks. He took a few years off from law enforcement, then jumped in at the political level, losing his first race for Santa Fe County sheriff in 1998, but winning the job in the 2002 election with 71 percent of the vote. He won another election in 2006 and spent several years campaigning for a lieutenant governor bid that never really got off the ground. His undersheriff prepared to run for the job he couldn't seek again due to term limits.
By January of 2010, he blogged about having given up the campaign. At the same time, he was struggling mightily with his household finances. According to a State Police search warrant, Solano had, for nearly a year already, been slipping new and surplus materials out of the county offices and into delivery boxes, selling items like handcuffs and bullet proof vests for personal profit.
In November of that year, when State Police approached him with questions about his online business venture, he knew that the slippery slope he had led himself down would bottom out.
"This was wrong, illegal, unethical and dishonest," Solano said in the last statement issued in his official capacity. "Like many Americans, I have been caught up in a high mortgage, with high interest rates and was having a very hard time paying my mortgage and the bills that come with it. It has been very hard to live the last few years trying to be what is expected as an elected official and to be battling my financial problems. As an elected official, I was looked upon by the public, my family and supporters as a man of answers. Unfortunately, I am just a normal man trying to keep my family afloat during these tough financial times. This is not an excuse. What I did was wrong and cannot be justified."
Undersheriff Robert Garcia choked up as he was sworn in as sheriff that day, and eventually Solano served six weeks behind bars in the very jail that he had been responsible for as the county sheriff. He has been working to pay off the $25,000 worth of restitution that was also part of his sentence.
"It was not a good situation. I'm not proud of it," he said from the hospital bed. "I've done what I was supposed to do and that's what the courts are for and that is what the criminal justice system is for. They want people to come back and to be good citizens and I have done everything I can to do that."
At the insistence of his wife, and perhaps with their children (and grandchildren now numbering six) in mind, Solano fought the urge to skip town and has stuck around as part of the community, he wrote in a 2014 blog post—his first, and last, since he stopped writing publicly in 2010 amid the investigation. It wasn’t the family’s first brush with money problems. An SFR investigation based on public documents showed several previous debts spanning decades had gone to court and collections. Today, their former house in Fairway Village has gone to the foreclosure auction block, and the couple lives on the site of the storage facility they maintain.
It might seem convenient that Solano's return to the public eye comes in such a generous capacity—quite literally giving of himself to save a life. But Solano says his criminal conviction and the kidney donation are unrelated.
"He's a good man," he said of Vigil a day after he'd been released from the hospital. "I did it for that reason and that reason only. Not to, like, fix my appearance with the community or anything like that."
Yet, this could be the time when Santa Fe forgives him.
Vigil said he talked to Solano just once briefly during the dark days following his resignation.
"The case was pending and it was not in my court, but what I did was I just offered him my support. He needed to do what was right and we just had a brief discussion about it. I kept tabs on what was going on and I hoped for the best," he said. "It was difficult, but you know, I never lost confidence in what a good person Greg was. Because I knew the part of him that raised his siblings and did a great job with them. He made a mistake and he paid dearly for that mistake, but my opinion of him did not change as far as the character that he has and who he is."
The best outcome of their mutual assistance coming full circle, he said, is that perhaps it offers Solano self-confidence.
"Hopefully what's most important is that this helps him realize that he's a good person. And that any disappointment that he may have caused is in the past and that he can continue to be the Greg that I know, [who] is a very caring person. I think mostly it is going to help him with his own feelings about himself."
Lopez says from her perspective, the story has the right ending.
"I feel like the only way it could have been more perfect is if it had been a family member. This is not one-sided. It's not about one of them giving more than the other one. Greg wanted to step up and there is just a balance to it that I love," she said as she waited at Mayo during the surgery.
"Greg had a really good career," she continued, "and at the end, he did some stuff that wasn't good. This is a reminder that we are all human and we make mistakes and we can still all do good. We just don't get written off."
Vigil's approach to the law was always along that same tack, she said. "That was Mike's whole thing. You want people to find redemption and to find their way. For our community, that is good. When you mess up, it doesn't mean that you are a bad person. You gotta own up and move on."
ORGAN DONORS GET GIVING
Prior to his kidney transplant two days before Thanksgiving, Michael Vigil was among about 120,000 Americans on a waiting list to receive an organ.
With just 30,000 transplants conducted in an average year, the gap between supply and demand is severe. So the odds aren’t good.
Vigil had some experience beating the odds, though. Four years earlier, his Powerball ticket matched five of six numbers. Just days before his retirement as a state district court judge, he learned he’d be $1 million richer. Yet even a millionaire can’t buy a kidney (at least not legally).
So he had to depend on either waiting for the stars to align with a deceased donor with matching blood type or try to find a living donor instead.
That’s where he really cashed in, with longtime friend Greg Solano offering to donate his matching organ.
Vigil has used some of the lottery winnings to pay for Solano’s family expenses related to the procedure, but by law, he can’t offer monetary compensation in exchange for the organ. The extra money has come in handy for him, though. He says that, even with health insurance, the cost of the transplant and all the travel associated with it has been huge.
The choice to use the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, rather than a New Mexico hospital was an easy one. The facility is one of the leading transplant providers in the nation. Dr. Raymond Heilman, who heads the nephrology division, said that with advances in surgical techniques that have made the procedures safer and more successful, getting the message to potential donors is the biggest hurdle to helping more patients.
“We need to look for ways to increase organ supply,” he said. “And living donation helps tremendously.” As does having conversations with your loved ones about your wishes at death, he said; “It shouldn’t be a taboo topic.” Theoretical calculations estimate that more than 30,000 deceased donors don’t have organs harvested each year that could save the lives of others.
Getting educated about live donation typically only happens when a family member or close friend is in need, but strangers make live donations too.
Solano says he hopes that going public with the story of their successful transplant motivates other people to consider being an organ donor. “The list for people needing kidney transplants is long,” he said. “So if anyone ever thought about saving a life or making a big difference in someone else’s life, this would be a great way to do it.”
Sign up with the Motor Vehicle Division or at donatelifenm.org.