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Lawsuit alleges Espanola cop assaults teen after Nerf ball thrown at patrol car

SANTA FE —A new lawsuit alleges that an Española police officer confronted a woman and her four children outside the family home, choked one boy and tried to punch another because one of the children threw a Nerf football at the officer’s patrol car.

The suit alleges officer John Vigil choked a teenaged boy and proceeded to lift him in the air so his feet were dangling and the boy couldn’t breathe.

The lawsuit further alleges that Vigil was hired against the recommendation of Española police Lt. Christian Lopez, who did a pre-hire background check. Lopez knew of Vigil’s “reputation as a ‘hothead’ who was quick to anger,” the lawsuit maintains.

The suit on behalf of Dolores Tapia and her two teenaged sons was filed Tuesday in state District Court by Santa Fe attorney John Day. Named as defendants are Vigil, the city of Española and the Española Police Department.

Española police chief Eric Garcia, who was not with the department of the time of the alleged incident, said Vigil is not longer with the department. Vigil was hired provisionally under the requirement that he become certified with the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy within a specified time period, which did not happen, Garcia said.

According to the lawsuit, Tapia was returning home from church with her children on June 30, 2012 when she saw a man later identified as officer Vigil “inside the family’s van, rummaging through the glove compartment.” Because it was dark she didn’t know at first that the he was a police officer.

Vigil said he “could do whatever he wanted” when Tapia asked what he was doing. Using expletives, Vigil said “he was going to arrest Ms. Tapia and her son for her son’s having thrown the Nerf football at his car.” She apologized and called the 15-year-old and a 10-year-old outside to apologize and the younger child said it was an accident.

Other officers arrived and Vigil became angrier, threatening Tapia and the children. “Do you think I am scared of you because my supervisor is here,?” Vigil asked. Tapia responded, “I am not afraid of you.”

Vigil lunged at her “and it looked as if he was going to hit her” as her 14-year-old son stepped in and told Vigil “to back away from his mother,” the lawsuit states.

Vigil grabbed the boy “around the neck with both hands and began to choke him” and “picked him up so that (his) feet were dangling above the ground and shook him.” The boy couldn’t breathe “and was gasping for air and making choking noises” as his “face turned bright red, and then blue,” according to the suit.

Two officers and the 15-year-old pulled Vigil off the boy and Vigil lunged at the 15-year-old “swinging his fists.” The boy ran as the officer chased him into the street “swinging punches at him.” The 10-year-old twins ran crying into the house, the suit states.

The 14-year-old was treated at a hospital emergency room for severe throat pain, nausea, headache and laboring breathing.

The Tapias made a formal report to the police department but there was no one “assigned or qualified to conduct internal affairs investigations,” the lawsuit said. Attorney Frank Coppler, who represents Española, could not be reached.