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Living the Code of the West

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Robin Hopkins, Who Was Badly Wounded During A Shooting Seven Years Ago When She Was A Deputy With The Bernalillo County Sheriff’S Office, Meditates In A Hut In The Backyard Of Her Albuquerque Home. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Just before noon on Oct. 26, 2013, seven years ago on Monday, Robin Hopkins, then a deputy with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, was shot in the line of duty and nearly died.

“I had an out-of-body experience, the bright lights and everything,” said Hopkins, recalling the day that Christopher Chase, a man who wanted to kill cops, fired a bullet from a high-powered rifle through the door of her BCSO vehicle and into her thigh, shattering bone, mangling muscle and severing a major artery.

She would have died then if the shooting had not happened in front of a fire station.

“Don’t call my husband,” she remembers telling the firefighters who poured out of the station to administer the swift treatment that saved her life. “He should be feeding our son.”

Robin Hopkins fits a cowboy hat on Los Ranchos Elementary School fourth grader Edgar Quinones, 9, during a Jan. 15 session of her Code of the West program at the school.

The shooting turned Hopkins’ life around and inside out. She had many surgeries, endured intense physical rehabilitation and commenced counseling that continues to this day. She returned to partial duty with the Sheriff’s Office in 2015 but was never able to resume patrol and retired in 2018.

And she discovered that physical wounds, even hideously serious ones such as hers, heal much more quickly and completely than other kinds.

Some wounds, traumatic injuries that you tuck away untended deep inside yourself and try to forget, do not mend. They fester, waiting to blister to life when you are at your most vulnerable.

“I started thinking about what had happened to me when I was 8, how that changed me, how I became a tomboy,” Hopkins, now 51, said recently. “I was in a dark place with pain and depression. I started to ease that pain with alcohol, although I always showed up for my responsibilities. It was a struggle.”

‘Just close my eyes’

When she was a little girl, Hopkins was sexually abused by a man who was a close relative but not a member of her immediate family. She had been spending two weeks during a summer with her abuser and his wife.

“They had horses and property in Texas, and I wanted to go,” Hopkins said. “He would come into my room and do whatever he wanted to do. I would just close my eyes.”

She never told her beloved father, a Marine veteran who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, about the abuse. And she only revealed it to her mother, whom Hopkins described as a free spirit who divided her time between communes and institutions for the emotionally insecure, in 2017, the year before her mom died.

It turns out that her mother, when she was young, had been abused by the same relative.

Robin Hopkins and her son, Bronson, in Hopkins’ hospital room in December 2013, nearly two months after Hopkins, then a deputy with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, was shot and badly wounded while trying to stop a man on a shooting rampage.

One of the first things Hopkins did when she got home from that life-altering two weeks in Texas was ask her mom to cut her hair.

“I wanted to be a boy,” she said. “I thought that if I had been a boy that would not have happened to me. If that had not happened to me, I probably would not have gravitated to police work and the military.”

Hopkins finished high school in Tempe, Arizona, her home since she was 4, and joined the Marines because things like what happened to her in Texas did not happen to Marines. At least that’s what she believed.

But then, while she was a lance corporal assigned to a base in California, Hopkins was sexually assaulted by an officer during a party.

Jump start

“Officers were not even supposed to be at that party,” Hopkins said. “I fell asleep, and when I woke up he was on top of me. We were Marines. You don’t do that to each other.”

She had planned a career in the military but left after four years.

“When I became a Marine, it changed my life,” she said. “I had a paycheck. I had a new life. And (the assault) crushed me. I left honorably, but that was going to be my life.”

While still in the military, but after the rape, Hopkins married a fellow Marine, a good man with whom she felt safe. They had a son, Freedom, who is now 30 and a filmmaker, writer and artist living in Taos. But the marriage did not last.

She was raising Freedom, attending community college classes in Mesa, Arizona, and working as a guard in a men’s maximum security “no joke” prison in Florence, Arizona, when she heard that the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office in Albuquerque was recruiting deputies.

Seeing the Sheriff’s Office as a chance to jump-start her life and get it back on track, she applied, passed exams, completed law enforcement academy and joined the BCSO in 1998.

She was deeply engaged in her law enforcement career when in 2007 she met Tom Jones, a nuclear engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory. They married a few years later and had a son, Bronson, in February 2012.

Bronson was a toddler when on Oct. 26, 2013, Chase, 35, a man with a 20-year police record that included domestic violence, disorderly conduct and embezzlement, armed himself with two guns and lots of ammo and ambushed policemen at Broadway and Iron, wounding three of them and stealing a police car.

The North Valley erupted in a wail of sirens as law enforcement officers, including deputy Hopkins, then 44, went after Chase. She was driving north on Fourth Street when she encountered Chase, who was driving south in the stolen cop car. He fired a semiautomatic rifle into her vehicle as she attempted to cut him off.

Minutes later, Chase was dead, shot by police, and Hopkins was in an ambulance speeding to a hospital.

A broken world

“Being shot changed a lot of things,” Hopkins said. “You really are a different person. My military background was very conservative. But after being shot, I got in touch with my mother’s hippie roots.”

Hopkins, who joined the Air National Guard in 2008 and is a technical sergeant, recalls a Guard meeting she attended after she was wounded.

“They put me in a wheelchair, and all I wanted to do was hug people. The shooting just made me want to live in the moment.”

Joy Hopkins, 54, Robin’s sister, testifies to the changes she saw in her younger sibling.

“My sister is my favorite person in the world, but we have not always been close because we are so very different,” Joy, a hairdresser, said during a phone interview from Tempe. “She is always in control. She is a very private person.

“This incident (shooting) broke her world open. She is talking about things (the sexual abuse) she would never talk about before. I don’t think she even had these memories until this trauma. It changed her. She is more vulnerable. And she is only talking about these things now because she thinks it will help people.”

Early in her healing, Hopkins was focused on recovering as much as possible of the physically fit woman she had been before the shooting and on resuming the law enforcement career she cherished. To most people around her, it was her brave face that was most obvious.

But beneath the surface, her life was unraveling.

“My tools were getting angry and drinking,” she said. “The light would turn green, someone would honk a horn, and I would fly into a rage. That was not like me.”

In 2017, she left her husband and little boy for what would turn out to be a year’s separation.

“She needed to come undone a bit, and she didn’t want to do it around them,” Joy said. “The world has never ended up being a safe place for her, even though she is always trying to do what is right.”

Call to action

Meditation, which she had practiced even before the shooting, and counseling helped Hopkins feel her way out of the darkness.

It was during counseling sessions that she started talking about the sexual assault when she was in the military and when the long-ago sexual abuse in Texas crawled out of the closet. She believes that the emotional problems that continue to haunt her are connected to the abuse, not the shooting.

“To this day, seven years later, the shooting has not bothered me like the other stuff,” she said. “As a law enforcement officer, I had mentally prepared myself for being shot in the line of duty. That cannot compare to being raped and stripped of your defenses.”

A turning point was a session with equine gestalt coach Nancy De Santis at a ranch near Santa Fe. De Santis and her husband, Rick Iannucci, operate the nonprofit Horses for Heroes program, which helps military veterans adjust to life after combat by teaching them ranching skills.

It must have been apparent to De Santis that Hopkins had lost her way, that she needed a new purpose, a new mission.

“Nancy asked me, ‘What’s your call to action?’ ” Hopkins said.

Robin was mulling that over when she came across a book about cowboy ethics in the ranch bunkhouse and an idea began to take shape.

She had been a Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., program officer with BCSO and envisioned using that model to develop a cowboy-oriented Code of the West program for elementary school kids.

“We didn’t have to talk about drugs and alcohol, just focus on hard work and optimism,” Hopkins said. “This was an opportunity to tell kids, you are not going to end up the way I usually see people. This was my opportunity to be proactive instead of reactive as a cop.”

And it was a chance, she thought, for her to help kids deal promptly with the internal injuries that, left untreated, can infect a life forever.

“I always think there are kids who are dealing with abuse,” she said. “The more I work with kids, the more I can tell them to be authentic, be courageous, ask for help. I wouldn’t want kids to put it off as long as I did.”

Code of the West

“Howdy, y’all.”

“Good morning, deputy Hopkins.”

Hopkins is at Los Ranchos Elementary School on North Fourth Street early this past March looking out over the more than 40 kids that make up the fourth-grade classes of teachers Sharon Navarro and Kelly Marchiondo. The kids are wearing cowboy hats, bandannas and maroon T-shirts, the official Code of the West uniform.

“You guys look so good,” Hopkins says. “Your manners. What you guys do for my heart. What you do this for school. You guys don’t see it yet, but I see you as grown-ups.

“Are you ready to recite the Cowboy Motto?”

“Yes, deputy Hopkins:

“If it’s not yours, don’t take it.

“If it’s not true, don’t say it.

“If it’s not right, don’t do it.”

The 2020 Los Ranchos Code of the West class, which was cut short a week by the coronavirus pandemic, was the third at the school.

Navarro, who met Hopkins when Robin was a D.A.R.E. officer about 10 years ago, developed the history, language and arts curriculum to fit on Hopkins’ Old West framework.

Robin Hopkins leads fourth graders at Los Ranchos Elementary School in reciting the cowboy motto on Jan. 8, the first day of  her 2020 Code of the West program at the school. Hopkins, in cooperation with teachers at the school, started the program several years ago to help kids focus on hard work, optimism, making right choices and asking for help when they need it.

“In this program, we are going to compare a cattle drive to how we do things today,” Hopkins tells the class at its first session on Jan. 8. “We’ve got a lot to do before we get the herd to where we are going. The cook, the trail boss, the wranglers all help.

“Without hard work and finishing what you start, do you think your goals will work out?”

“No, deputy Hopkins.”

Navarro, an APS employee for 24 years and a teacher for more than 18 of those years, was all for giving Code of the West a try.

“I am always game for anything new that helps children become better people,” she said. “Robin’s vision was to reach children early so they make good choices as they go down the path.”

Filling a void

Perhaps Navarro sensed the program was as important to Hopkins as to the kids, that it filled a void in her.

“Robin was definitely changed after the shooting,” she said. “She was such a motivated and driven deputy. She was so passionate about her job. The shooting took something away. The impact caused her to retire early. I don’t believe she wanted to do that. She just had to.”

The BCSO Union helped fund the Code of the West program, Dan’s Boots and Saddles donated bandannas and offered the best discount they could on cowboy hats and Kaufman’s West donated the T-shirts. There are also donations from businesses and individuals.

“I loved it,” Navarro said of the program. “The kids loved it, wearing their maroon shirts all day, wearing their cowboy hats. Kids going into the eighth grade now still remember the program. It’s something they can use all their lives if they choose.”

Navarro left Los Ranchos Elementary at the start of this school year and is now working with the APS program for homeless children, but she feels certain the Code of the West has a post-pandemic future at Los Ranchos.

“Robin and I have even texted about doing the program with homeless kids,” she said.

Never die

Deep scar tissue covers much of Hopkins’ left leg. It is painful. She wears a special stocking to control swelling in that leg, and she adheres faithfully to a daily physical therapy regimen – stretching and massage.

She used to run marathons, but a brisk walking pace is the best she can manage now.

“But I can walk as fast as most people can jog,” she said. “I call it falling forward.”

Her manner in public is upbeat. She is usually smiling. But she continues to be emotionally fragile and works hard to cope with anxiety and depression.

She said if there is any message she wants people to take from her story it is not to be afraid to ask for help.

And she hopes the Code of the West program never dies. She believes the kids need it, and she knows she does.

“I don’t know what I would do without the program,” she said. “After being in front of the kids and telling them about never giving up, having a positive attitude, working hard, preaching to them that optimism will be their super power that will get them to any goal, any career they can dream of, I’d see their faces, see how much they enjoyed the program and how much they believed me, and I knew I could not give up on myself because of them.”

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