NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – “If anything happens to me, you’ll be taken care of.” That’s the promise spouses and families of anyone in law enforcement have heard time and again.
But, what if they die of COVID-19 after seemingly catching the virus on duty? In New Mexico, one fallen deputy’s family had to wage a fight to get what they believe they deserve.
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Deputy Bryan Vannatta of the Curry County Sheriff’s Department died on January 3, 2022, at a hospital in Albuquerque. “The Sheriff’s Department came and escorted us home,” his Mom, Kay Vannatta shared. “Every town we went through, they picked up more police cars. And, it was a very neat honor.” One of several honors for the man who served 12 years in law enforcement.
Bryan Vannatta began his career with the United States Border Patrol, before returning home to Curry County, where he worked for the Texico Police Department and Sheriff’s Department. “He said I want to come back where my granddad and where you served the community and when you went into dinner, people go ‘Hey, I know you. You were at my house the other night,’” Bryan’s Dad, Charlie Vannatta explained.
Bryan is a third-generation lawman. His Grandpa worked for the FBI and Charlie has held various law enforcement positions across the state, including Sheriff of Curry County. The Department needed help during the pandemic, so they asked Charlie to come out of retirement. For two weeks in 2021, he and his son became partners. “To get to do that, and to watch each other and watch each other’s back was amazing,” Charlie said.
“He loved serving his community. That’s why he did law enforcement. He just had a great personality,” Christina Vannatta shared. She married Bryan in 2015. The two met when he transported a patient to the hospital where she worked. Christina brought two sons into Bryan’s life. “They were not his biologically, but they became his,” Christina said through tears. “If anybody were to say they were Bryan’s step kids, he probably punch them in the face. He did not look at them as stepkids. They were his boys.”
The two boys are now growing up without him. Bryan died months before his oldest’s high school graduation. He tested positive for COVID-19 on December 18, 2021. The Deputy, who was not vaccinated, spent two weeks on a ventilator including Christmas and New Year’s. He passed away on January 3rd at just 34 years old. “I never would have thought when I took my husband to the emergency room that that was the last time I was gonna actually be able to see him,” Christina said.
On top of grieving, Christina had to spend the 6 months after her husband died fighting for his line-of-duty death benefits. “He worked. He didn’t just sit at the office all day,” she explained. “He didn’t go sit somewhere in his car. He was very active in his job. So I have no doubt that he caught this on duty. None.” The workers’ compensation paperwork submitted by Curry County agrees, saying the County presumes their Deputy was exposed to the virus while on patrol. But, Christina shared “They denied it. They’re, they’re insistent that he did not get COVID on duty.”
KRQE tried to question the privately-run New Mexico County Insurance Authority Pool and was told: “the discussion or decision to deny any claim is privileged.”
With the denial, Bryan’s wife and kids are missing out on more than $600,000 from workers’ compensation – 13 years of his salary – and extra state retirement funds. “So now he only gets what he’s put in. He doesn’t get Fallen Officer retirement, which is huge,” Bryan’s Dad, Charlie, explained.
Trying to recover at least some of the workers’ compensation money, Christina hired a lawyer to fight the Insurance Authority’s ruling. She settled, rather than dealing with the court process. They’ll pay Bryan’s family $15,000 total. “I have a lot of anger built up,” Christina told KRQE. “Just because my husband served his community, he served the people of his community and there’s nothing.”
Bryan’s family could be getting up to $390,000 from the federal government, though. A law passed in 2020 expanded the Department of Justice’s Public Safety Officers Benefits Program to now say it should be presumed an officer who contracts COVID-19 got it on the job. So, to the feds, Deputy Vannatta did die in the line of duty.
“We must eliminate the instances in which families are asked to prove what is unprovable,” Congressman Cory Booker of New Jersey said to his colleagues. As a sponsor of the bill, he spoke before the vote that would result in the law changing. It has three criteria:
- The officer worked between January 1, 2020 to December 31, 2021,
- Contracted COVID-19 within 45 days of their last day on duty,
- And, had COVID-19 when they died.
So what about the state government? New Mexico’s Governor issued an executive order similar to the feds’, but it only applies to state employees. County deputies work for their local government.
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“The more claims you have, the more money you have to pay to cover your claims,” Bryan’s Dad, Charlie said. “So it could affect the County’s bottom dollar as far as their premium for insurance.” Reporter Ann Pierret asked, “Do you think that’s –” Without hesitation, Charlie cut in, “It has to have some bearing on it.”
KRQE tried to reach Curry County’s Manager Lance Pyle, who also serves as Chair of the Board that governs the New Mexico County Insurance Authority. He refused a phone call, but emailed to say the Board doesn’t make decisions on claims and “my heart breaks for the family on their loss.”
“The County Manager has not reached out, not one time,” Bryan’s wife, Christina said. Bryan’s Mom, Kay, shook her head, adding, “It’s hard to understand.” The Vannattas feel, outside of the Sheriff’s Department, their county leaders have abandoned them. “They didn’t attend his funeral – and that, that bothers me,” Kay shared.
Bryan’s death also alerted Curry County to what they’re calling an “oversight.” The Vannattas believed his $50,000 life insurance would double since he died in the line of duty. But Curry County hadn’t been paying for that added benefit. They are now. So as of July 1, 2022, families of fallen officers could receive up to $100,000 on top of their chosen policy. The “oversight” was caught too late for Bryan’s family to benefit.
“You know, I would hate for another spouse to have to go through what I’ve gone through,” Christina said.
Bryan is the second New Mexican lawman to die from COVID-19. The Colfax County Undersheriff died of the virus in September 2021. His Sheriff said he ran into the same trouble with the insurance company.
In this year’s legislative session, New Mexican lawmakers voted to increase the supplemental benefit provided to families of fallen officers. They could now receive one million dollars on top of the officer’s retirement and life insurance. A committee made up of the Attorney General, New Mexico State Police Chief and Fraternal Order of Police President determined if the officer’s death is considered a line of duty death. Because this law passed after Deputy Vannatta’s death, his family is not eligible.