New Mexico (KRQE) – “If anything happens to me, you will be taken care of.“This promise is heard time and time again by families of couples and anyone in law enforcement.
But, what if they catch the virus on duty and die of COVID-19? In New Mexico, the family of a fallen deputy had to fight to get what they thought they deserved.
The latest from KRQE Investigations
Deputy Brian Vannata of the Curry County Sheriff’s Department died on January 3, 2022 at a hospital in Albuquerque. “The sheriff’s department came and took us home,” shared his mother, Kay Vanatta. “Every town we went to, they picked up more police cars. And, it was a very neat honor. ” One of many honors for the man who served 12 years in law enforcement.
Brian Vannata 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 go back to where my grandfather was and where you served the community and when you go to dinner, people go ‘Hey, I know you. You were at my house the other night,'” Brian’s father, Charlie Vannata, explained.
Brian is a third generation lawmaker. His grandfather worked for the FBI and Charlie has held various law enforcement positions throughout 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 see each other and have each other’s back was amazing,” Charlie said.
“He loved serving his community. That is why he took legal action. He just had a great personality,” shared Christina Vannata. She married Brian in 2015. The two met when he transported patients to the hospital where she worked. Christina brought two sons into Brian’s life. “They weren’t his biologically, but they became his, ” Cristina said through tears. “If anyone said they were Brian’s stepchildren, he would punch them in the face. He did not see them as stepchildren. They were his boys.”
The two boys are now growing up without her. Brian died months before his oldest high school graduation. On December 18, 2021, he tested positive for COVID-19. The deputy, who was not vaccinated, spent two weeks on a ventilator, including Christmas and New Year’s. He died on January 3 at the age of 34. “When I took my husband to the emergency room, I never thought it would be the last time I would see him,” Christina said.
On top of the grief, Christina had to spend 6 months after her husband died fighting for line of duty benefits. “He did less. He didn’t just sit in the office all day,” she said. “He didn’t sit in his car anywhere. He was very active in his work. So I have no doubt that he is up to this duty. None.” Workers’ compensation documents submitted by Curry County agree, the county believes their deputy was exposed to the virus while on patrol. But, Christina shared, “They denied it. They are, they are insisting that he did not get COVID on duty. ”
KRQE tried to question the privately run New Mexico County Insurance Authority Pool and was told: “Discussion or decision to deny any claim is privileged.”
After the denial, Brian’s wife and children are missing out on more than $600,000 in workers’ compensation — 13 years of his salary — and additional state retirement funds. “So now he just gets what he puts in. He doesn’t get the fallen officer’s retirement, which is great,” explained Brian’s father, Charlie.
Trying to recover at least some of the workers’ compensation money, Christina hired a lawyer to fight the insurance authority’s decision. She settled instead of dealing with the court process. They will pay Brian’s family a total of $15,000. “I have a lot of anger,” Christina told KRQE. “Because my husband served his community, he served the people of his community and there is nothing.”
Brian’s family could receive up to $390,000 from the federal government, though. A law passed in 2020 expanded the Department of Justice’s public safety officer benefits program to include the presumption that an officer contracted COVID-19 when employed. So, for the feds, Deputy Vannatta died in the line of duty.
“We need to eliminate cases where families are being asked to prove the unprovable,” Congressman Cory Booker of New Jersey told his colleagues. As a sponsor of the bill, he spoke before the vote that would change the law. It has three parameters:
- The officer worked from January 1, 2020 to December 31, 2021,
- Contraction of COVID-19 within 45 days of the last day on duty;
- And, they had COVID-19 when they died.
So what about state governments? The governor of New Mexico issued an executive order similar to the feds, but it only applied to state employees. County representatives work for their local government.
The story continues below:
“The more claims you have, the more money you have to pay to cover your claims,” said Brian’s father, Charlie. “So it could affect the county’s bottom dollar as far as their insurance premiums.” Reporter Ann Pierret asked, “Do you think that—” Without hesitation, Charlie said, “It’s going to have some effect.”
KRQE attempted to reach Curry County Manager Lance Pyle, who also serves as chairman of the board that governs the New Mexico County Insurance Authority. He declined the phone call, but said the board would not rule on the claims and “my heart breaks for the family at their loss.”
“Not once has the county manager reached out,” said Brian’s wife, Christina. Brian’s mother, Kay, shook her head, adding, “It’s hard to understand.” The Vannattas feel abandoned by their county leaders, outside of the sheriff’s department. “They didn’t attend her funeral — and that, that bothers me,” Kay shared.
Bryan’s death alerted Curry County to what they call an “oversight.” Vannattas believed that his $50,000 life insurance would be doubled because he died in the line of duty. But Curry County didn’t pay for that extra benefit. They are now. So till July 1, 2022, families of fallen officers can get up to $100,000 on top of their chosen policy. The “inspection” was too late to benefit Brian’s family.
“You know, I’d hate for another spouse to have to go through what I went through,” Christina said.
Brian is the second New Mexico lawmaker to die from COVID-19. The Colfax County undersheriff died of the virus in September 2021. His sheriff said he had been in similar trouble with an insurance company.
During this year’s legislative session, New Mexico lawmakers voted to increase supplemental benefits provided to families of fallen officers. They can now receive a million dollars on top of the officer’s retirement and life insurance. A committee made up of the attorney general, the New Mexico state police chief and the Fraternal Order of Police president determined if the officer’s death was a line of duty death. Because the law was passed after Deputy Bannatta’s death, his family is not eligible.