CORRECTION: Lawsuit: Pecos school officials turned blind eye to sexual abuse of students

·7 min read

May 8—Correction appended

A new lawsuit in U.S. District Court accuses Pecos Independent School District officials of ignoring staff's repeated sexual assaults of students over the past decade, failing to prevent the abuse and retaliating against people who reported the misconduct.

Two of the three men named as defendants in the complaint are now top-ranking officials in the Española Public School District.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday on behalf of Jane Doe, a former Pecos High School basketball player who prosecutors say was sexually exploited by assistant boys basketball coach Joshua Rico during the 2019-20 school year when she was a 14-year-old freshman.

In addition to the Pecos school board, the lawsuit names Rico, former Pecos Schools Superintendent Fred Trujillo, and former Pecos Middle School Principal and athletic director Michael Lister as defendants.

It details allegations, criminal charges and civil settlements going back to 2013 as evidence school officials were aware employees were sexually abusing students but did nothing even in the face of reports from staffers, parents and other community members about inappropriate behavior by teachers, coaches and janitorial staff.

Pecos school board President Darlene Ortiz did not respond to messages seeking comment Friday.

Pecos Superintendent Debra Sena-Holton asked a reporter to send questions in writing but did not respond to the written inquiry or a subsequent phone call.

The 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office charged Rico with 10 felony counts in February 2020 — including criminal sexual penetration, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, extortion, distribution of child pornography and criminal sexual communication with a child — after prosecutors say he sexually exploited three girls between 2013 and 2019, including Jane Doe.

Rico used fake names to befriend young girls on social media platforms, enticed them to send compromising photos and then used those photos to blackmail the girls into sending him more photos or engaging in sex acts by threatening to publish the photos online, according to a New Mexico State Police arrest warrant affidavit.

Neither Rico nor his attorney responded to messages seeking comment Friday.

Online court records indicate prosecutor Thomas Clayton dismissed the charges against Rico in October, "pending further investigation and with intent to refile."

"Part of it was the COVID situation and some of the demands defense was making at the time," Clayton said in a phone interview Friday, adding that Rico's defense team wanted to conduct an in-person preliminary hearing and "interrogate the young ladies" and Clayton didn't want to put anyone at risk of catching the virus.

Clayton said he does intend to refile charges, "but it will be dependent on what happens with the United States Attorney's Office," which he says is pursuing separate criminal charges against Rico based on the same set of facts.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said Friday he could neither confirm nor deny the office is investigating Rico.

Rico is the third Pecos schools coach to be charged with criminal sex acts against children in the past five years.

In 2019, former boys assistant coach Dominick Baca pleaded guilty to raping two Pecos High School students in 2017 and 2018. In 2018, former Pecos Middle School boys coach Apolonio Blea was charged with raping a 14-year-old female Mora student while he was a basketball manager at Mora in 2016. His case was dismissed in 2019 pending further investigation and was never refiled.

The school district paid about $1.5 million in 2018 and 2019 to settle two complaints filed by Baca's victims, according to the new lawsuit.

State prosecutors charged former Pecos Schools janitor Louie Vigil with 35 felony counts of child rape or molestation in 2017 in connection with allegations he'd violated a male relative dozens of times starting in 2012, court records show.

Vigil pleaded guilty to five of the counts in 2018 and was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

Most of these incidents occurred during the administration of former Superintendent Fred Trujillo — now superintendent of Española Public Schools — according to the new complaint. Trujillo received reports from a number of sources about his staff's inappropriate conduct with students, but he never did anything about it, the lawsuit says.

For example, the lawsuit alleges, a Pecos High School teacher reported seeing a female teacher passionately embracing a student. But when the teacher reported his observation, "Trujillo became visibly agitated and told [the teacher] that his word was not good enough and to stay away from gossip."

The following year, the lawsuit says, a former Pecos High School principal told Trujillo the same female teacher had allegedly been exchanging nude photos with another student and had sex with a student.

"Trujillo became extremely agitated and told [the former principal] she had no proof," the lawsuit says. Despite subsequent reports from students and parents about the woman's inappropriate behavior with male students, the woman was never disciplined and still works at the school, according to the complaint.

Trujillo placed the person who reported the incident on administrative leave and did not renew her contract the following year.

Trujillo assigned Sena-Holton to investigate, the lawsuit says, but "no thorough investigation was ever conducted," and Trujillo promoted the teacher who had been the subject of the allegations.

When Baca, the former assistant basketball coach, was arrested on charges of having raped students, the lawsuit says, Trujillo didn't fire him and instead went to the jail to accept Baca's resignation letter and thanked Baca in writing for his service to the school.

"Even at that juncture, after three students came forward with allegations against Baca," the lawsuit says, Pecos schools did not conduct an investigation.

Trujillo did not respond to messages Friday seeking comment.

Española School Board President Gilbert Serrano said Friday the school board did a "very thorough investigation" of Trujillo when considering whether to hire him about a year ago, "and his credentials checked out."

Serrano said the board was aware of some of the problems in Pecos but concluded Trujillo handled them appropriately.

"These were just allegations at the time," Serrano added. "A superintendent can't know everything that is going on in his school. He hears things and reacts."

Asked if he was troubled by Jane Doe's allegations against Trujillo, Serrano responded: "Allegations are allegations. Everybody has their day in court. My dealings with Fred are in Española, and in Española he has done a very good job."

It isn't that he doesn't care, he added. "But I don't know what happened in Pecos. If those allegations are in court, it's beyond my control."

Two other men mentioned in the lawsuit also work in Española schools now.

Lister — the former Pecos Middle School principal and athletic coordinator — is now chief operations officer and Title IX coordinator for Española Public Schools.

One of Jane Doe's allegations against Lister is that he violated Title IX regulations by failing to protect her from abuse based on her gender.

Even after multiple students had made allegations against Rico, the lawsuit says, Lister downplayed the gravity of the situation and announced during a staff meeting "those girls are not as innocent as you think."

Lister did not respond to messages seeking comment Friday.

Former Pecos High School head basketball coach Ira Harge Jr. — now athletic director in Española — is another person mentioned in the lawsuit as an official who was indifferent to Baca's sexual abuse of students.

According to the lawsuit, Harge testified as part of a civil complaint against Baca that he learned Baca had been having sexual relationships with several mothers of members of the Pecos High School basketball team and had sex with the teacher allegedly protected by Trujillo "over 50 times."

"Coach Harge's response to this clearly inappropriate conduct was to simply tell Baca to 'be careful,' " according to the lawsuit, "expressing concern for him, rather than the students."

Harge, who is not named as a defendant in the complaint, did not respond to a message seeking comment Friday afternoon.

"[Pecos Independent School District] has a pattern and practice of failing to properly investigate complaints of sexual abuse of students," the lawsuit says, "failing to take appropriate disciplinary action against sexual predators, targeting or retaliating against individuals who reported sexual abuse allegations and failing to train [school] employees to recognize, prevent and intervene in matters of student sexual abuse."

The lawsuit says Pecos Schools' actions and inactions constitute negligence and seeks an unspecified amount in damages for Jane Doe.

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that a lawsuit said a coach became aware an assistant coach was having sex with members of the basketball team. The lawsuit said the coach had become aware the assistant was having sex with players' mothers.