County investigates death of jail inmate

File photo

The Taos County Adult Detention Center, where 31-year-old Nicholas Herrera was found deceased on Jan. 5.

Updated January 13.

Taos County officials are investigating the death of a detainee at the Taos County jail who was found unresponsive in his bunk around 6:45 a.m. on Jan. 5, according to a statement from the county.

Nicholas Herrera, 31, of Ignacio, Colorado, “was found unresponsive by detention personnel” during their regular 30-minute medical checks, read a press release. “The in-house medical staff was called immediately and arrived to find detention personnel checking for any vitals,” it continued.

The county said they followed traditional procedures, contacting the local EMS, law enforcement and the Office of the Medical Investigator. Detention Director Danny Garcia was also on scene as investigations began.

Herrera was pronounced dead at the scene, and had no known medical history, according to the press release. His official cause of death was still under investigation as of press time Wednesday (Jan. 12).

Herrera was arrested on Jan. 4 after being pulled over for speeding in El Prado, according to court documents. Before stopping his vehicle, he allegedly tried to evade officers before he was taken into custody and charged with resisting or evading arrest (a misdemeanor); speeding; and not having a driver’s license (both petty misdemeanors).

County and jail staff say they performed half-hour checks throughout the night between 3:30 a.m. and 6:45 a.m., when they say Herrera was found unresponsive. However, two sources have come forward to the Taos News with conflicting information, both alleging that Herrera was not checked on from 3:30 a.m. until 8:30 a.m. when breakfast was delivered.

Nicholas’ mother, Natalie Richards, said her son was only checked on hourly, and claims no checks were performed after 3:30 a.m. The wife of another inmate at the jail, who commented on the condition of anonymity, confirmed Richards’ account.

Richards said her son was mostly healthy upon entering the jail and had no reason to suspect anything would happen. “Even if he had an underlying mental condition, he still died in their care,” she said in a phone call. Though she had not received the official autopsy results as of press time she said she was already planning to have a second autopsy performed.

Herrera's death is the most recent in a string  (both due to suicide and overdoses) and controversy at the jail.

A family sued the county after their son, Jonathan Bourg, overdosed and died while incarcerated at the facility in 2016. Eventually, another man admitted guilt to his death in a plea deal that ultimately saw the involuntary manslaughter charge dropped.

Several weeks before Bourg’s death, Juan Espinoza-Garcia killed himself with a bedsheet while at the jail for drug charges after he was saved from an overdose in the Walmart parking lot.

In 2018, the Taos County Sheriff’s Office arrested two detention center employees, Dominic Torrez and Phillip Ortiz, for transporting heroin and other drugs to detainees. 

In 2020, a former jail director, Karen De La Roche, and health care assistance supervisor Tammy Jaramillo were both placed on administrative leave following an investigation. Later that year, a piece by two journalists working for Searchlight New Mexico explored allegations of excessive force at the jail on the part of jailers, including Leroy Vigil, who replaced De La Roche as interim director following her departure.

The Taos News learned this month that the county recently hired its newest jail director, Danny Garcia, a former New Mexico State Police officer.

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