CENTER — The Town of Center has a history of abrupt departures and questionable behavior where its police officials are concerned, causing some to wonder if the determinations made concerning law enforcement officials have always been in the town’s best interests.
Prior to the town’s most recent hiring of Police Chief Tristan Vanzalinge, five police chiefs, one of them an interim chief, have left under unexplained or less than favorable circumstances.
In 2001, town officials accused former police Chief Hugo H. Chavez of misusing funds. Chavez vehemently denied the charges. Several prominent Center citizens rose to Chavez’s defense and accused town officials of wishing to dismiss him for not overlooking certain indiscretions regarding their relatives.
Chavez left Center that same year to accept a law enforcement position in New Mexico. He died in Las Cruces, N.M. in 2010 at the age of 46.
LeRoy Torrez was the next chief in line. He was hired by the town following Chavez’s departure despite the fact he had been previously disciplined as a police officer. In October 2010, Center trustees voted in executive session to give interim Town Administrator Mark Garcia the power to suspend anyone on the police force at will, following the board’s decision to launch a full investigation into police conduct and procedures.
Torrez and Officer Carlos Heredia, who at that time was facing felony and misdemeanor charges in a tasing incident, were both suspended until further notice. Torrez resigned his position Dec. 7, 2010 after then District Attorney David Mahonee filed felony drug charges against him. He has since become a productive member of the community.
Duane Oakes, a police lieutenant with the Alamosa Police Department, conducted an internal departmental investigation at Garcia’s request. Then former Saguache County Undersheriff Dan Warwick, now Saguache County Sheriff, was named interim police chief for the Town of Center on Oakes’ departure.
Center chose not to appoint Warwick to the chief’s position, opting to search for a new chief instead. Following one of the most transparent reviews of police chief candidates ever held in the Valley, the town hired Rio Grande Sheriff’s deputy William Lucero.
Lucero served through the recall upheaval with the town board in 2012-13 then unsuccessfully ran for Rio Grande Sheriff in 2014. He was placed on paid administrative leave pending investigation of a personnel policy violation in 2016, but resigned before the investigation took place citing health and family issues.
James Gowin was hired as Center’s next police chief in August 2016. His story about the course of his employment with Center is featured on page 1A of today’s edition.