BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Charges were filed in Los Alamos Magistrate Court Thursday against Los Alamos County Sheriff and former Deputy Police Chief Jason Wardlow-Herrera, former Los Alamos Public Schools Human Resources Director and LAHS Head Girls Volleyball Coach Joe Palmer, Asst. Head Coach Natalie Passalacqua and Asst. Coach Bianca Enriquez in connection with alleged alcohol consumption August 18 on the Los Alamos High School Campus. All four are charged with possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages on public school grounds, a petty misdemeanor.
On August 24 LAPS Supt. Jennifer Guy announced that the district had begun an investigation into reports that members of the coaching staff had alcohol on campus. She said the district had thoroughly reviewed video footage from August 18 and interviewed staff, parents, and students. Guy noted that the district was “unable to identify clear evidence of possession of alcohol on campus”.
In his statement of probable cause, LAPD Sgt. Chris Ross, said he was made aware August 22 of an allegation that the LAHS Volleyball coaching staff may have consumed alcohol on school grounds during what he called an overnight volleyball practice event (but was described elsewhere as a “lock-in”) from the evening of August 18 to the morning of August 19.
Ross said he gave LAPS time to conduct their internal employment investigation before he started officially investigating the matter on August 25 when he met with Supt. Guy who provided him with a summary of what had transpired during the volleyball practice from her investigation. Those involved were named by Ross as Wardlow-Herrera, Palmer, Passalacqua and Enriquez as well as Assistant coaches Sophia Salazar and Gabriela Vallejos. Supt. Guy informed Ross that they were able to determine from admissions that some of the volleyball coaches had consumed alcohol prior to the practice. Ross’s statement of probable cause states that Enriquez admitted to drinking at Smith’s Marketplace and Salazar admitted to drinking at Bathtub Row Brewing Co-Op.
When he interviewed Salazar August 28, Ross said she told him the volleyball event started poorly because there was little to no guidance for the night. She said she was expecting a plan of events and for team building exercises/drills to be conducted throughout the evening but that no direction was provided. At around 8:30 or 9 p.m. Salazar said she noticed that she and Vallejos were the only coaches inside the gym with all the players. Salazar said she texted Coach Joe Palmer asking him where the rest of the coaching staff was. She told Ross that Palmer did not respond initially, that she went to her vehicle during this time to get some items and that Palmer texted he during this time to tell her he just saw her walk in.
Salazar told Ross she then realized the coaches were outside in the parking lot. She said she observed a black SUV parked in the parking lot, that the engine was running but the lights were off. Ross’s report states that Salazar told him she then recognized the vehicle, that the driver was Jason Wardlow-Herrera, and that the other coaches were in the vehicle as well. When Ross asked her who was in the vehicle Salazar said Wardlow-Herrera was in the driver’s seat, Enriquez was in the passenger seat, Palmer was sitting behind the front passenger seat, and Passalacqua was sitting behind the driver’s seat. Salazar also entered the vehicle and sat next to Enriquez. Salazar told Ross she knew there was alcohol in the vehicle and that a few of the players approached the vehicle as well while she was sitting in the vehicle and could have noticed alcohol in the vehicle as well. Salazar told Ross that the drinks were already poured into the coaching staff cups. She said there was bourbon, vodka and tequila inside the vehicle. Ross said he asked Salazar if she had anything to drink while sitting in the vehicle and that she responded, “Not at this time”. Ross said Salazar told him she saw Palmer, Passalacqua and Enriquez drinking alcohol while sitting inside the vehicle and that Salazar had explained that Wardlow-Herrera left and returned later around 10 p.m. with more alcohol.
Salazar said when Wardlow Herrera returned the second time he brought more alcohol and that at that point she did take a shot of tequila inside the vehicle while the other coaches had a few more drinks and filled up various bottles or cups. Salazar said there was a plastic cup with vodka in it, a cup with tequila, vodka and cranberry juice and lastly a Coke bottle that had bourbon inside. She noted which coach was drinking from each container and that Wardlow-Herrera had to leave by a specific time. Salazar told Ross that the night got out of control because of the bottle Enriquez had.
Ross’s report states that Salazar explained that around midnight all the coaches went to the parking lot and sat around in a circle drinking and talking while the players were inside the gym. Salazar told Ross that periodically Enriquez’s kids would come out to be with their mom and that she would take them back into the gym. While sitting on the ground, Salazar said Enriquez shared a drink with her and she didn’t like it. In the report Salazar says that Coach Vallejos became emotional and ill and that around 2 a.m. the other coaches went inside and that she pulled her car around by Palmer’s vehicle to conceal Vallejos and that she stayed in her vehicle with Vallejos until around 5 a.m. when they went inside to sleep.
Ross’s report states that when he interviewed Vallejos on August 30, she told him she stayed inside the gym for the majority of the first half of the practice with the players doing team-building exercises. Vallejos said around midnight is when Salazar came into the gym and told her there was a coaches meeting outside. She said when she went outside all the other coaches were sitting in a circle near the Athletic Director’s parking spot in the “Jock Lot”. She said she took three sips from a cup in the middle of the group but the drink was nasty-tasting. Asked what it tasted like, Vallejos said “liquor” – “not like one liquor but a mixture of liquors”. Vallejos told Ross that during the coaches meeting Palmer had started to yell and had been very mean to her. She said the “belittling became so intense that it started to make her cry and vomit” and that she was told by Palmer to go to the other side of his truck to vomit. She said shortly after that the other coaches went inside the building.
On October 24, Ross’s report indicates that he executed a search warrant at LAPS for security camera footage, LAPS policies and training materials regarding alcohol use and any correspondence from the coaches to parents about the overnight practice. He outlines details of policies for employees that were reviewed. He notes that the district provided him with a copy of a coaches meeting agenda and sign-in roster for all attendees at the August 13 meeting. He said the agenda included a bullet point item read , “Alcohol, drugs, tobacco, vaping. It goes without saying that coaches should not be consuming anything of this nature on trips or when you are responsible for students. Also, alcohol should not be present at your banquets.”
The August 13 coaches meeting was attended by and signed by Enriquez, Wardlow-Herrera, Palmer, Passalacqua, Salazar and Vallejos.
Ross’s statement states that the security footage provided by LAPS below are the observations which are confirmed with witness statements. The time stamp on the video includes all times used in the below notes and the date starts on August 18 and ends on August 19. Most of the cameras are focused on the Jock Lot, which is a parking lot located on the campus of LAHS that is used daily as a parking lot for staff and students attending the high school and is the main parking lot used for attending events at Griffith Gym, Ross said.
“At 20:26, a black SUV pulls into the Jock Lot and parks in the fire lane near the entrance to the gym. The SUV matches the description provided by Sophia Salazar as being owned and operated by Jason Wardlow- Herrera. The first person that exits the gym and walks to the SUV is Enriquez at 20:28 and enters the front passenger area seat. At 20:29, Palmer and Passalacqua exit the gym and walk to the front passenger door area of the SUV and remain there for about one minute,” Ross said.
“At 20:30 Passalacqua enters the SUV in the rear passenger side and Palmer walks away from the vehicle. The SUV leaves the area shortly after Natalie enters and goes out of view of any cameras. At 20:41 a black SUV returns to the Jock Lot. The SUV parks one parking spot north of Palmer’s truck. The SUV matches the description provided by Salazar as being owned and operated by Wardlow-Herrera. The SUV remains in the parking lot until 22:15 when the video stops as the SUV is starting to reverse out of the parking lot. During the time the SUV is parked several people enter and exit the SUV; the best time to identify people being in and around the SUV is when the SUV departs.
“Based on the video footage provided I recognize I can identify Joe Palmer, Bianca Enriquez, Nancy Passalacqua and Sophia Salazar. On August 19 at 00:04 hours, the coaches come out to the parking lot and sit in the vacant parking space south of Palmer’s truck. This is for the coaches meeting that Salazar and Vallejos described to me. All the coaches are present during the meeting and it’s observed that Enriquez’s children come outside for her and she then takes them back inside the gym during this period. The coaches are seen passing cups to one another and taking drinks. There are cups on the ground in the middle where coaches are seen picking them up and drinking from them throughout the meeting. The area the coaches are sitting in is within the Jock Lot and is about 30 feet away from an entrance to the gym.
“At 02:02 Vallejos is observed going on her knees and bending over and Salazar is caring for her. Vallejos describes this event to me as when she started to vomit. At 02:04 Salazar is seen escorting Vallejos to the other side of the truck and it appears she continues to vomit. After Vallejos moves to the other side of the truck it appears the three remaining coaches start to pick up their items and Enriquez takes her child with her back inside the gym. At 02:05 Sophia walks out of view to get her vehicle and parks next to Palmer’s truck. She and Vallejos sit inside Salazar’s vehicle.
“Attempts were made to schedule an interview with Palmer, Passalacqua, Enriquez and Wardlow-Herrera. No one returned my calls to schedule an interview.
“Based on the witness statements and the confessions provided by Salazar and Vallejos which confirm that alcohol was present and consumed by Los Alamos High School volleyball coaching staff members on Los Alamos High School property on the evening of August 18, 2023 and August 19, 2023, alcohol was possessed by the coaching staff inside a vehicle owned and operated by Jason Wardlow-Herrera in the Jock Lot located on LAHS property. Joseph Palmer, Natalie Passalacqua, Bianca Enriquez and Jason Wardlow-Herrera are being summoned for violating state law – alcoholic beverages prohibited on public school grounds,” Ross said.
LAPS Supt. Jennifer Guy said Friday morning that LAPS administration received an anonymous tip on Monday, August 21 that some of the players were talking about an LAHS volleyball team event held on Friday, August 18.
“There were reports that some of the coaching staff were intoxicated at the event. We took this report very seriously and immediately began an investigation. We notified the Los Alamos Police Department and took appropriate action with staff. It is against the law for anyone to have alcohol on a school campus. We appreciate the quick response from LAPD,” Guy said. “This week we were notified that LAPD has filed charges against three of our former volleyball coaches for having alcohol on school grounds. This is a personnel matter and we cannot comment except to say that student safety is our top priority. We do not condone any behavior that puts our students at risk or violates the law.”
Los Alamos Magistrate Court records show that Wardlow Herrera is slated for arraignment at 9 a.m. Dec. 5, Passalacqua at 9 a.m. Dec. 6, Palmer at 9 a.m. Dec. 7, and Enriquez at 10 a.m. Dec. 7.