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Recall effort against San Luis Valley DA moves forward

More victims come forward with allegations of victims rights violations
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Posted at 9:45 PM, Jun 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-28 00:47:18-04

ALAMOSA, Colo. — Barbara Vigil was known as the “Grandma of Saguache,” and loved dancing with her family.

“She helped everybody. She was just a kind, loving woman,” her daughter-in-law, Tammy Vigil, said. “They would do all the powwows over in the valley.”

But three days before Thanksgiving in 2019, Tammy and her family’s world came crashing down. Barbara, 76, was heading home from work when she was T-boned by a black pickup truck that was going more than 100 miles per hour. She was killed on impact.

“When we got the news, it didn’t hit,” Tammy Vigil said. “And then I told my husband, and he just fell to the ground. And he’s like, 'No, no. That can’t be.' You know, 'That can’t be.'”

The driver of the other car, 28-year-old Jason Huntress, was facing a list of charges that included vehicular homicide, vehicular assault, reckless driving, speeding and possession of marijuana and marijuana concentrate following the crash. But due to a plea deal offered by 12th Judicial District Attorney Alonzo Payne, Huntress did not spend a day in jail.

Against the family’s wishes, Huntress was given a four-year deferred sentence and probation for pleading guilty to vehicular homicide and careless driving. All drug charges were dropped.

As a part of the deferred sentence, if Huntress abides by the conditions of his probation, all charges will be dropped from his record. Huntress' attorneys did not return repeated requests for comment. Denver7 Investigates also tried to reach Huntress, but emails were not returned.

“They made us feel like our mom’s life didn’t matter,” Tammy Vigil said. “[Payne] just wasn’t interested in prosecuting it. I mean, that’s the bottom line.”

The Vigil family is one of roughly a dozen to file a complaint with Colorado victim rights organizations regarding Payne, and is the latest to come forward to share their story of mistreatment from that office. It comes as a recall effort against Payne, funded by the City of Alamosa, moves forward after enough signatures were deemed valid on the petition.

Last week, the Colorado Secretary of State announced that it had verified enough signatures to trigger a recall against Payne. After a 15-day protest period, the governor will set an election date within 30-60 days.

Denver7 Investigates has spent months looking into the issues in the 12th Judicial District that represents six counties in southwest Colorado.

“This is the last thing we wanted to be spending our time on,” Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks previously told Denver7 Investigates after the city allotted $10,000 toward a recall effort. “We need, though, a district attorney who’s going to file cases and tell the truth and not abuse the victims.”

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser is currently investigating Payne’s office amid allegations it violated victims' rights and didn’t follow up with crime victims about plea deals, as required by law.

“We actually weren’t notified until after they had made the plea or offered him the plea agreement,” Tammy Vigil said.

In addition to some victims filing complaints, the Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center also filed its own patterns and practices complaint with the attorney general.

The complaint alleges that Payne has “repeatedly extended offers to defendants that are inappropriate under the circumstances,” and has “shown an extreme reluctance to take cases to trial.”

Legal director Kazi Houston said the complaint was filed due to an increase in the number of cases from that jurisdiction.

“It denies justice, denies safety to people,” she said. “It’s embarrassing for our state. It’s a systemic problem.”

Payne did not respond to requests for an interview about the Vigils’ complaint and the further recall efforts. In a previous interview with Denver7 Investigates, he took some responsibility for his office’s treatment of crime victims and said he would abide by any findings from the attorney general.

“I have empathy for (victims) and we are making conscious efforts on a regular basis to make sure that we have victim contact, especially on the most serious cases,” Payne said.

However, he was unapologetic for his take on criminal justice reform.

“I ran on changing the criminal legal system. I ran on emptying the jails,” he said. “I intend to do it and I’m doing it.”

Payne said he still believes he has voter support and that a recall election will be unsuccessful.

For the Vigils, Tammy says they don’t want Barbara’s story to be forgotten.

“It has been the heaviest load that our families ever had to carry,” she said. “We want justice for our mother."