A sheriff’s deputy plunges into her job

On her first day of work, Vigil rescues a couple from icy Narraguinnep

DEPUTY ROSALEE VIGILThe sheriff’s deputy quickly stripped off her duty belt and tied the rope around her waist. Motivated by the frantic screams of the two people struggling in the frigid lake, she crawled across the perilously thin ice toward the open water.

Reaching the fragile edge just as the desperate woman slipped below the surface, the deputy grabbed the woman’s shirt and began to pull her above water. As the ice began to give way beneath her, Deputy Rosalee Vigil couldn’t believe this was happening on her very first day of work as a law-enforcement officer.

The day of the incident — Sunday, Jan. 16 — was already noteworthy for Vigil. Having just completed field training, the rookie was ready for her first day on patrol — alone — for the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office.

“I was nervous,” Vigil said. “You never know what’s going to happen on this job. I was scared.”

To dispel her fears, Vigil focused on her law-enforcement training, which provided a foundation of skills to begin her job as a sheriff’s deputy —not the career path she had started on. “I was going to school to be a nurse,” she said. But she wanted more diversity in her work life. “Being a deputy is something different every day. It’s something deep down I wanted to do.”

So Vigil put herself through the law-enforcement academy in Durango, attending part-time over a nine-month period so she wouldn’t be away from her children for too long. In fact, Vigil so impressed her instructors that she was offered a job with the Durango Police Department — an offer she declined in order to work in Montezuma County.

“This is where I grew up and where I want to raise my kids,” she said. “I’ll do anything I can to make the community safe for my family.”

Part of that commitment to her community will include working as the school resource officer for the sheriff’s office and DARE instructor. “I’m young so the kids seem to connect with me,” Vigil said. “I love kids.”

Vigil is the only female deputy on patrol for the sheriff’s office; however, she said she hasn’t had any difficulties being a woman in a male-dominated profession.

“The guys (other deputies) are like my big brothers,” she said. “We’re one big family, and if something is going wrong, they’ll be there for me.”

Vigil said her fellow deputies were also supportive of her during the 14 weeks of field training, during which she accompanied them on patrol to prepare her to go out on her own. But no amount of training had prepared her for that remarkable first day.

Vigil’s inaugural morning had been uneventful. But that quickly changed. That afternoon as she was honing her skills on traffic patrol near Highways 491 and 184, a call came in about an overturned boat at Narraguinnep Reservoir. Two people were possibly still in the water.

The victims were Leanette and Santiago Gutierrez of Fruitland, N.M., who had been in a canoe in a small spot of open water, fishing. They could not be reached for comment for this story.

“The other deputy (on duty) was down near (the) M&M (Truck Stop, 15 miles away),” Vigil said. “So I got on the radio and told him I was in the area and would go over there.”

When Vigil reached the scene she knew right away the boaters were in a desperate situation.

“The guy was screaming he couldn’t swim,” she said. “I told him to keep moving to stay warm. Then the girl started to go under.”

Vigil quickly realized the victims were not going to make it until a rescue crew arrived. “I just knew I couldn’t stand there and watch two people die,” she said.

Vigil grabbed a tow rope from a wit-ness at the scene, Dave Epps, who had called 911. She said Epps was instrumental in executing the rescue. “He’s just a regular ol’ guy driving by, and took the time out of his life to help me.” Epps held the rope as Vigil crawled out on the ice. She got to the edge just as the woman went under.

“I grabbed her shirt and pulled her up above the water,” Vigil said. “I started pulling her up, and her weight and my weight combined started to break the ice.

“I got onto my knees and pulled her on top of me. That was the point that I went in.”

As the two women plunged into the icy water, Epps pulled on the rope and Vigil somehow managed to keep her grip on the drowning woman.

“I kept ahold of her shirt with one hand and had the other hand on the ice,” Vigil said. “We fell through the ice like that two or three times.”

Vigil was finally able to pull Leanette up onto the ice and help her crawl to the shore, where other deputies waited. “I put her on the shore and went back after the guy,” Vigil said. “By the time I got to the edge of the ice, he was waiting for me.”

Soaked and quickly becoming hypothermic, Vigil fought to help Santiago. “By this time I was freezing,” she said. “The ice kept going and my strength was nothing.”

But it was sufficient for her to keep the man’s head above water as they fell through the ice again. Vigil held on to him with her last bit of strength as the pair was pulled to shore.

The victims, along with Vigil, were transported to the emergency room at Southwest Memorial, where they were treated for hypothermia. All three came through without injury.

Vigil said she will never forget her first day on the job and the incident that earned her the nickname “The Little Mermaid.” But she is modest about her role in the dramatic rescue.

“I can’t believe I did it,” Vigil said. “It was a rewarding experience. Just another day at the job. . . . I love it.”

From February 2005.