ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s stunning to think that 10 years have passed since Pojoaque Pueblo police officer Kevin Schultz plunged into the rushing waters of the upper Rio Grande to save the life of a drowning child only to lose his own.
But then you look at the people and the things he left behind on that Aug. 17, 2002, church outing he and his family were attending near Pilar, and you see the evidence of a decade gone on without him.
His son, Kaegan, was in elementary school then, four years younger than the 12-year-old boy Schultz rescued that day. This week, Kaegan starts classes as a freshman at the University of New Mexico.
Schultz’s wife, Cheryl, wore her hair short then. She loved him, loved their home in Arroyo Seco and loved her life as a police officer’s wife.
Her hair cascades down to her waist now. Last December, she graduated with honors from UNM. Last month, she re-entered the workforce as a paralegal.
She is trying to sell the home.
She is trying to move on.
She still loves her husband, still aches from missing him, still fights to honor what he did with his dying breath and to set precedent that will benefit other law enforcement officers and first responders who risk their lives no matter if they are on or off the clock.
Because those men and women are never off the clock.
Last Wednesday, two days before the 10th anniversary of her husband’s death, Cheryl Schultz took a seat in the back of a Santa Fe courtroom and listened as the state Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments on whether her husband was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.
That it has been 10 years with no resolution on the matter is not only stunning, it is unconscionable.
And it is indicative of the breakdown of a system that’s supposed to be simple for the grieving and the injured to access without need of an attorney or the courts. This system and those people involved let Cheryl Schultz, her son and the memory of a brave and selfless cop down.
The first and worst to fail them was Pojoaque Police Chief John Garcia, who Schultz has said comforted her in her time of loss by assuring her that he would take care of filing the paperwork for workers’ compensation and all other benefits due her.
But 14 months after her husband’s death, she learned he had not filed.
“I called him a coward,” she said.
According to his deposition, Garcia said he was unsure whether he had ever made her that promise or whether her husband had been killed in the line of duty.
This, after the Department of Justice; the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.; the Coast Guard; the New Mexico Department of Public Safety and the Pojoaque Pueblo itself had all declared that Kevin Schultz was killed in the line of duty.
She filed for the workers’ compensation herself against the pueblo tribal police and its insurer, New Mexico Mutual Insurance Co.
And here is where things begin to get complicated. The workers’ compensation mediator dismissed Cheryl Schultz’s claim and recommended that she obtain a lawyer. She found one — an arduous task since few attorneys practice in workers’ compensation claims —and a second complaint was filed June 18, 2004.
And then the workers’ compensation judge ruled that the statute of limitations in which to file a claim had passed.
Thus began a series of legal twists and turns that have taken her case twice before the state Court of Appeals and once previously before the state Supreme Court.
Last Wednesday, Schultz’s attorney, George Weeth, argued to the Supreme Court that the conduct of the employer should be considered in this matter and that the mediator should have counseled Cheryl Schultz about the deadlines for filing.
But Richard Shane, attorney for the Pojoaque police and the New Mexico Mutual Insurance Co., countered that there had been no findings that his clients had acted inappropriately.
The justices heard an hour of the attorneys’ oral arguments, pelting Shane with questions that appeared to indicate an unease with the way the workers’ compensation system had worked — or didn’t work — in this case. It could be months before they issue an opinion, months more should the case be kicked back to the state Court of Appeals.
For Cheryl Schultz, it has never been about the money — an estimated $307,755 — but about protecting those who protect us.
“Police officers have the public and department expectation to respond whether or not they are on duty,” she said.”But they don’t have the backup if things go south.”
Last Friday, she and her family and friends planned to travel to the site along the Rio Grande where Kevin Schultz gave his life to save a child 10 years ago. They will remember him as a hero. They will remember him with honor, and they will hope again that eventually others will do the same.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal