Valencia County Sheriff’s Posse

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Arena dust swirled up into the air as a gust of spring wind blew off the dry mesa.

Sandy Donahay is the Valencia County Sheriff’s Posse secretary, and has been with the group for three years. She is one of the coordinators of the Family Fun Day scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, April 13, for riders 21 and older at the posse arena in Belen.

The Valencia County Sheriff’s Posse pulled their hats down low while trying to settle their agitated horses.

But weather is not an issue for these seasoned riders who have ridden for hours in deep mountain snow, thundering cloud bursts or blazing hot temperatures in search of missing people or escaped convicts for the state police and county sheriff’s department.

They have ridden on the mesas, in the mountains and on the river, sometimes as deputized sheriffs, sometimes not, but always willing to be of service.

Riding for a cause, helping raise money for Relay for Life, St. Jude Children’s charity, the Girls and Boys Ranch, and other organizations as well as giving pony rides on Cops Night Out are activities the posse enjoy.

Leonard Carrillo, the posse captain, has helped with the Belen fireworks display on the Fourth of July, Rio Abajo Days when it had a rodeo and several posse members decorate their horses in lights for the Los Lunas Christmas Light parade.

They are just fun-loving horse people who like to ride with others.

“I joined to use my horse, belong to a group here, and get involved with the community,” said Don Jinzo, a 30-year veteran posse member. “And we do. We try to do rides every month, get together to do something.”

On Saturday, April 13, at the Valencia County Sheriff’s Posse arena they are hosting an adult horseback fun day for people over age 21 in hopes of recruiting new members for fun and community service, said Sandy Donahay, the posse secretary.

Prospective posse members must own their own horse and have their own transportation, said her husband, posse Lt. Rick Donahay.

The event is free and will feature a variety of horse games, pole-bending, barrel and flag racing and other horse sports for beginners, intermediate and advanced riders.

The posse has won numerous first-place awards for posse round ups, parade formation, farthest traveled, best specialty group, best horse group, mounted posse and others from the New Mexico State Fair, Magdalena Old Timer’s Parade, Socorro County Fair, Valencia County Fair, the Whole Enchilada Fiesta, Sandoval County Sheriff’s Posse, Truth or Consequences Fiesta Days, El Paso Sheriff’s Posse and the annual Dona Ana County posse round up, among others.

They have a great deal of fun getting together for trail rides, as well.

A few of the rides have become a tradition over the years, such as the 135-mile endurance ride to El Santuario de Chimayó.

“It takes three days to ride over there,” said Gene Vallejos, a 57-year veteran member and former posse chief. “Not all the posse, but some of them. We did it for years.”

“They couldn’t carry their bedding, so we’d have to meet them at night with bedding and food,” said his wife, Peggy, the posse treasurer.

Several of the posse members ride 75 miles from Belen to Magdalena every July for the Old Timer’s Day rodeo and parade.

“And street dance, but we can’t tell you about that unless we’re in Magdalena,” says Jinzo with a chuckle.

“What happens in Magdalena stays in Magdalena,” says Vallejos with a deep belly laugh.

A group of the members also meet up and trek out around the base of Tomé Hill on Easter, then they ride over to the Ervin’s residence in Tomé to eat, said Joanie Erven, a posse member for 12 years with her husband, Eddy Erven, the posse chief.

On the long trips, some of those who didn’t ride will bring in a chuck wagon truck full of food for a cook-out, and many of the shorter rides end in a potluck dinner.

They ride out to the mesa from the river or find other scenic adventures.

The posse was formed in 1954 to assist the New Mexico State Police Department, the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office and local municipalities.

“And we were a spin-off from the county fair,” said Phillip Baca, a posse member for 33 years. “The county fair always had a rodeo, and at one time, felt it was too much for the fair (board) to handle, so the sheriff’s posse formed and have handled the rodeo for years.”

Last year, during the state fair parade, a drunken motorist drove into the parade, causing quite a commotion and plenty of news coverage.

“They said that the chief of police stopped him, but in all actuality, the guy was coming up and Eddy ran his horse up in front of the car,” said Thomas Montoya Sr., a 10-year member. “They didn’t mention anything about that in the news.”

Sandy Donahay joined the posse chief in blocking the intoxicated driver, and the police were quick to take advantage of the situation and grab him.

It’s almost funny except several people from To’hajiilee with their children were almost hit by the car.

“He would have hurt a lot of people,” Erven said.

Right after that incident, his daughter, Becky Johnson, also a posse member, gave CPR to a child choking on a piece of candy.

“All these people were panicking, they didn’t know what to do,” said her mother, Joanie Erven.

One of the most famous searches the posse was involved in was Hollywood producer Michael Todd’s plane crash in the Zuni Mountains in 1958.

The posse was also called when Rio Communities’ 19-year-old Tara Calico, a University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus student, disappeared on Sept. 20, 1988.

“That was one that we searched for weeks,” said Vallejos.

A few years back, armed, deputized posse members found an old trailer that an escaped convict from Los Lunas was hiding in. They circled the trailer to hold him there until state police and the county sheriff department arrived.

They have searched for plane crashes, lost hunters in the various mountain ranges, a father and son lost in the Manzano Mountains on Isleta Pueblo, and saved the life of a Belen hunter who had gotten lost in a snow storm and was traveling toward the Hub City when he had a heart attack.

“We found him alive in a ditch by a water tank and rode in there and carried him out on horseback,” Vallejos said. “There was about 2 1/2 feet of snow. Jeeps couldn’t get in there.”

Another search involved a boy from Meadow Lake, who, it was discovered, had run away from home because of an abusive sister, Joanie said.

“All his friends hid him out in a little shack and they were bringing him food and clothes,” she said.

That search brought out the state police, sheriff’s department, helicopters and airplanes.

If you are interested in joining the Valencia County Sheriff’s Posse, call Eddy Erven at 306-5523.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.