Retiring NM police chaplain initially pursued CO career to ‘make a difference’
While serving as a Marine in Japan, Jose Villegas saw news about the deadly riot at the New Mexico State Penitentiary and decided to become a corrections officer
By Daniel J. Chacón
The Santa Fe New Mexican
SANTA FE, N.M. — Pauline Chavez drove up to a chaotic scene at Larragoite Elementary School nearly 21 years ago when she went to pick up her 11-year-old son from a ski trip.
“Everybody was just frantic,” Chavez recalled of that fateful day on March 2, 1999. “Cars were going in all directions, and they said there was a bad accident.”
Chavez and other anxious parents were directed to a staging area at Fort Marcy Recreation Complex, where Chavez nervously awaited news about her little boy, Eric, as she watched other moms and dads reunite with their children.
It was there, she said, that she crossed paths with a kind and caring stranger named José Villegas Sr., who stayed by her side from the time she slipped and fell on the floor at Fort Marcy until the time she received word hours later that Eric had died when a private bus carrying schoolchildren home from the Santa Fe ski basin crashed into a rock embankment after the brakes failed.
“If José wasn’t there, I don’t know what I would’ve done,” Chavez said. “I think he was sent to me as a guardian angel.”
Other people who have crossed paths with the police chaplain in times of tragedy, sorrow and heartache have expressed a similar sentiment about Villegas, who is retiring in January after more than two decades of being a spiritual adviser, counselor, friend and shoulder to cry on.
“It hurts, pero keep in mind that I have a family,” Villegas, 61, said of his decision to retire. “My ministry now is my wife and my children and my grandchildren.”
Chief Andrew Padilla said Villegas has represented the Santa Fe Police Department well and helped countless people over the past two decades, from law enforcement officers going through personal struggles to families of murder victims.
“This is all voluntary — he wasn’t a paid member or anything like that,” Padilla said. “Not only does he support us, he supports the Albuquerque Police Department, BCSO [Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office]. The list goes on of all the local surrounding agencies that also call him out. Even the [Santa Fe County] Sheriff’s Department would rely on his services as well.”
In an email, Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza said he appreciated Villegas’ “service to law enforcement and the public over the years for the counsel and consoling, which he provided with care, compassion and dedication.”
Padilla said the next police chaplain will have big shoes to fill.
“Although [Villegas] may be small in stature, I think his heart is the size of his whole body,” Padilla said of the 5-foot-3 police chaplain.
Affectionately known as “Chappy,” Villegas comes from humble beginnings. A Yaqui Indian, he was born and raised in Arizona, growing up in the reservation town of Guadalupe and in south Phoenix. He was the son of farmworkers, growing up poor and living in Phoenix’s hardscrabble projects.
“It’s nothing compared to what they have now. They’re living in luxury hotels — a la ve,” said Villegas, a jokester who speaks a mix of English and Spanish — or Spanglish — with people who are bilingual.
A devout Catholic, Villegas said he moved to Santa Fe to attend the Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary with the intent of becoming a priest. But Villegas said he eventually realized the priesthood wasn’t his calling.
“I wanted to be married and have children. I wanted to own a Ford truck,” he said.
After a short stint in the National Guard, which he said wasn’t “rough enough” for him, Villegas enlisted in the Marine Corps.
“Don’t freak out, ese,” he said. “I left the quiet life of a seminary life to go into the Marine Corps.”
After boot camp, he returned to Santa Fe, where he saw a young woman he had met while he was in the seminary. He said he followed the woman, Kathy Rose Salazar, into a store and struck up a conversation. They soon started dating, and she became his wife.
“She’s my rock,” he said.
While serving as a Marine in Japan, Villegas said he saw news about the deadly riot at the New Mexico State Penitentiary. It was then that he decided to pursue a career in corrections.
“I’m going to make a difference in someone’s life,” he told himself at the time.
After working at the state penitentiary from 1982-88, where he made law enforcement connections, Villegas said he went to work in security as a “protective officer” for Los Alamos National Laboratory.
In 1991, he joined the Santa Fe Police Department as a dispatcher and said he became its “unofficial” police chaplain as he juggled a variety of jobs.
“People were reaching out to me, and I was reaching out to them and helping them out with their grief and loss,” including line-of-duty deaths, he said.
While working as a police dispatcher, he said he obtained a bachelor’s degree in organizational psychology from the now-defunct College of Santa Fe. He later earned a master’s in education with an emphasis on counseling.
“My forte is trauma, PTSD,” he said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. “I never gave up my educational goals.”
Villegas left the police department in 1998 and went back to work at the state penitentiary as a psychologist and counselor for prisoners. He later worked at the Santa Fe County jail as a special projects administrator.
“I did my practicum at the ER, so I got to see the actual trauma cases,” he said. “Gunshot victims. People dying. The whole pedo, I got it there.”
After working 32 years in government, Villegas retired in October 2015. His last job was as an emergency management specialist with the Santa Fe Fire Department, he said.
It was March 1999 when his role — and profile — in the community changed.
Villegas said he traveled downtown and found out about the bus crash. He said he went to the area around Fort Marcy and met up with a police sergeant who asked Villegas to go to the recreation center and offer help to the many families gathered there.
“When I went in there, the first mother that came across my path was Pauline [Chavez],” he said, referring to the mother of the sixth grader who was killed in the crash.
The accident, huge news throughout the state, also claimed the life of chaperone Gary Apodaca, 44.
State and federal investigators determined the driver lost control of the bus filled with schoolchildren and their chaperones when the brakes failed because they had not been properly maintained. Ray Sena, an ex-chairman of the state Democratic Party who operated the privately run Shuttlejack Bus Co., pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and attempted child abuse resulting in death in 2002 and served time in prison.
Like many other Santa Fe families, Villegas said the fatal crash changed his life.
“A week later, the Santa Fe Police Officers Association said, ‘You know what? José, we love what you’re doing. … Would you like to come on board as police chaplain, and the police officers association and the department will support you?’ ” Villegas recalled.
“I knew the calling was there — the calling from the time I left the seminary,” he said. “Tata dios has always been giving me signs of, ‘Do you want to help somebody? Here you are.’ ”
Villegas said the role of police chaplain has brought countless “heart-wrenching moments,” from suicides and homicides to the deaths of babies. He’s also been called upon when people die at home or in hospice.
“Santa [Fe] and Northern New Mexico is still small enough where todos se conocen,” he said. “Everybody knows everybody.”
In a Dec. 7 Facebook post, Villegas announced his retirement. Scores of people wished him well and thanked him for coming to their aid.
“You were a godsend when we lost Chris,” Margaret Salazar wrote. “We can never thank you enough for all you did for our family in a time of need. God bless.”
Former police Chief Aric Wheeler also thanked Villegas for his hard work and dedication.
“So many years, so many scenes, so many heartaches, so many prayers!” Wheeler wrote. “You have served the city of Santa Fe with true faith and dedication. The chaplain program will never be the same.”
In 2004, Villegas received the 2004 Volunteer for Victims award for the more than 1,400 volunteer hours he devoted in 2003 to victims and their families, as well as police officers. The award was presented to Villegas by then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Villegas said he doesn’t know exactly how many hours he’s volunteered as police chaplain since he took on the role officially in 1999. But he knows it’s a lot.
“Sometimes I would end up with two calls a day,” he said. “I was a lone ranger, man.”
Villegas is not just known as a police chaplain. He has also been a community activist — he protested a controversial image of a bare-midriffed Virgin of Guadalupe in an exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art. He’s also been a neighborhood organizer, a role that earned him a 10 Who Made a Difference award from The New Mexican in 1994.
But it’s the role of police chaplain that has brought him his greatest notoriety, and at times, his heaviest burdens.
“Of course it weighs on me because I’m not a Superman chaplain,” he said of the role he sometimes plays as the bearer of terrible news.
He said his faith in God has helped guide him.
“He’s healed my soul with his ultimate graces to do this work and to be able to be strong for the families and even my own family. That’s why not everybody can do this,” he said. “You’re called by God to do this work.”
After more than two decades, Chavez, the mother of the 11-year-old boy killed in the 1999 bus accident, calls Villegas a “saint.”
“Every year, I have a Mass for Eric,” she said. “Every year from the day he passed until now, and José has gone to every single one of those Masses, except one when he was out of town. I don’t even have to tell him.”
Like Villegas, Chavez also gives credit to Villegas’ wife, Kathy Rose.
“I’ve never met anyone like José and Kathy,” she said. “They just give and give and give, never want anything in return.”
Though he’s retiring, Villegas said he would make himself available if necessary.
“You can’t take the Chappy out of me, bro,” he said. “You can’t take the chaplain like you can’t take the police or firefighter when they retire. You can’t take it away from them because they’ll always be police officers or firefighters. Same with the chaplain.
“You can’t take the Chappy out of me.”
©2019 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)