McALLEN — A U.S. Border Patrol committee has determined that Javier Vega Jr. died in the line of duty, a hard-won reversal for border agents in deep South Texas, where Vega was stationed, and the slain agent’s family who were with him at the time of his death.
“It means so much that Harvey finally gets the respect and recognition he deserves,” said Marie Vega, Javier’s mother, calling her son by his family nickname. “He paid the ultimate sacrifice protecting us.”
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Ismael Hernandez-Vallejo, 43, and Gustavo Tijerina-Sandoval, 32, who were arrested the same night. Both men, who were in the country illegally, are from Mexico and are now facing capital murder and attempted capital murder charges.
A committee of U.S. Border Patrol sector chiefs initially found no link between Vega’s employment and his death, but the same committee reversed itself this week, determining that his death should be classified as having occurred in the line of duty. The brief official statement noted the committee “revisited the original decision in light of information identified by Willacy County Sheriff’s Department investigators.” There was no mention about what kind of information was discovered and officials had no comment Wednesday. The case is under a gag order.
“Vega’s actions were indicative of his law enforcement training and that he instinctively reacted, placing himself in harm’s way to stop a criminal act and protect the lives of others,” wrote Mark Morgan, head of U.S. Border Patrol, in the statement. “I concur with the committee’s determination.”
Vega will be added to the CBP Valor Memorial, and the agency’s complete investigation will be provided to the Public Safety Officers Benefits board, which will conduct an independent review of the circumstances of Vega’s death for inclusion in the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.
A former Marine, Vega had long had his sights set on becoming a Border Patrol agent, according to his widow, Andrea. He applied to the largest federal law enforcement agency four times before receiving an assignment in Kingsville in 2008.
One night several years ago, Vega’s neighbor roused him to inspect suspicious noises coming from the brush behind their homes. In the early hours of the morning, Vega and his neighbor, who is also a border agent, apprehended around 15 immigrants while still in their pajamas.
“’You're off, let them go’,” Andrea Brown Vega recalled telling her husband. “But even on their time off they're still working."
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Congressman Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville along with U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, and John Carter, R-Round Rock, sent a letter last week urging U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske to reclassify Vega’s death, which would provide his family with appropriate benefits.
Vega had three children, all sons: two with Brown Vega, ages 11 and 15; and a 20-year-old from a previous marriage.
“Agent Vega dedicated his life to serving our country and protecting his community,” Cornyn said. “While today’s announcement is long overdue, this recognition will honor his service and begin to ensure his family receives the benefits they deserve. “
Marie Vega said Wednesday that the struggle to have her son recognized was never about the benefits.
“But when you’re alone in a room … you start thinking, ‘you know what, he earned it’,” she said.