Rogelio Vasquez’s extraordinary redemption story culminated this fall when the governor signed a conditional commutation that will release him from prison 22 years into a 46-year sentence.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s actions followed the state Clemency and Pardons Board’s unanimous vote to recommend Vasquez’s early release. Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks, who prosecuted Vasquez in 1999, also recommended commutation, largely based on the changes that Vasquez made in his life while behind bars.
“In the crucible of a highly controlled custodial environment, he has developed an unlikely new character trait – the ability to care for and about others,” the prosecutor wrote. “Empathy does not come easy for many caught up in the criminal justice system.”
During the clemency hearing, the attorney representing Vasquez described how a near-death experience in prison made his client realize he was wasting his life and hurting himself and those whom he loved. He made a miraculous turnaround, embracing sobriety, getting an education, mentoring others, becoming active in a prison ministry and dedicating himself to helping sick and dying prisoners.
“It was the lowest days of Roger’s life but it was also the day his extraordinary redemption began,” attorney Kevin Kehoe said, explaining that Vasquez uses the name “Roger.”
As Banks noted, Vasquez’s 1998 crime spree shocked the Whidbey Island community — especially the small town of Coupeville, where a decade earlier two deputies were killed in the Island County jail.
Vasquez, who was a Mount Vernon resident, was arrested in Skagit County on suspicion of bank robbery. Deputy Frank Gavin transported him to Island County Jail on a misdemeanor warrant but wasn’t aware Vasquez was high on cocaine and suffering from prolonged sleep deprivation. Vasquez dislocated his own thumb and slipped out of handcuffs on the ride.
When the deputy opened the van’s door outside the jail in Coupeville, Vasquez knocked him down, took his gun and pistol whipped him. Dressed in bright jail overalls, Vasquez ran through the quiet streets of the town, stopping traffic, breaking into homes and assaulting several people. He ended up stealing a car and crashing it after leading police on a chase.
A jury found Vasquez guilty of 17 charges, including robbery in the first degree, escape in the second degree, two counts of burglary in the first degree and several counts of assault in the second degree.
If it wasn’t for the 1995 Hard Time for Armed Crime Act, Vasquez would have received a standard-range sentence of 14.25 years in prison. But the act adds time for crimes that were committed when an offender is armed with a firearm. In this case, the gun enhancements, which run consecutively, increased the sentence by an extra 32 years.
A 46-year sentence is more than a decade longer than the average sentence for first-degree murder in the state, Vasquez’s attorneys noted in his petition for clemency. If Vasquez served his entire sentence, he would be released in 2044, when he is 76 years old.
Gavins — who has since passed away — had to have stitches and an elderly woman suffered a black eye and bruises, but nobody sustained lasting physical injuries.
In a letter addressing Vasquez’s clemency request, Island County Sheriff Rick Felici recalled how terrified Gavin was following the assault. Felici spoke to Gavin while he was in the hospital afterward. Gavin believed the only reason Vasquez didn’t shoot him was that he couldn’t figure out how to take the safety off his gun. Gavin was never the same afterward, Felici remembered.
In regard to clemency, Felici wrote that he is torn between his belief that people have the capacity for change and the importance of Vasquez taking responsibility for “a series of extremely violent acts.”
“I sincerely hope that during his time in prison, he has taken the opportunity to reflect on his life and that if granted clemency he will spend the rest of his life as a decent and productive member of society,” the sheriff wrote.
Vasquez, who was one of seven children, was born in Oregon and his family later settled in Southern California, where his parents worked as migrant laborers. The family moved to Skagit County when he was 11 years old, but he had difficulty in school and dropped out in 10th grade to work in the fields picking strawberries and raspberries, according to his petition.
Vasquez started using drugs when he was 12. At age 17, he was using cocaine and became addicted. The drug changed his personality and wreaked havoc on his relationships. To pay for the drugs, he started committing crimes.
Vasquez had an extensive criminal history when he committed the crimes in Coupeville. He had spent more than four years in federal prison for the crime of felon in possession of a firearm and was sent back for nearly two years after being arrested for possession of a firearm and attempting to elude a pursuing police vehicle.
After being sentenced in the Island County case, Vasquez continued using cocaine and methamphetamine in prison. But then a near-tragedy in 2006 changed everything for Vasquez. He explained how he smuggled cocaine into solitary confinement and it ruptured inside his body.
“I was so helpless,” he said. “I wanted to hug my mama so bad and make amends.”
Vasquez laid down in his cell to die, telling the Lord he was so sorry he had ruined the beautiful life he had been given. He apologized for the people he hurt.
Miraculously, Vasquez survived and used the insight to rebuild his life. His regret and his commitment to change is deep and sincere, his petition states.
Vasquez stopped using drugs and petitioned to be allowed into treatment programs, which are normally reserved for inmates within five years of release. But his persistence paid off and he was accepted into Smart Recovery.
Vasquez returned to his Catholic roots, running a Spanish-language Bible study and became involved in services, becoming a mentor to younger men. He’s halfway to an associates degree through the University Beyond Bars program and worked as a member of the Prison Advisory Committee, advising the prison regarding equality in education. He was part of a pioneering mentoring program since its inception and became a role model for a diversity of prisoners, from drug users to gang members.
Perhaps most significantly, Vasquez was a caretaker of the sick and disabled through the Men of Compassion program. He was there for men few others cared for as they died in prison; he risked contracting COVID-19 in caring for the men and was infected the virus.
Fellow inmates, prison officials, a prison chaplain and family members all wrote letters or spoke on behalf of Vasquez. Cheryl Angeletti-Harris, a member of the Clemency and Pardons Board, said during the clemency hearing that Vasquez represents a rare case in which someone is truly rehabilitated in prison.
Under the conditional commutation, a transition plan is described in which Vasquez must complete a work release program and serve three years of Department of Corrections supervision, which will include drug testing and other conditions. He already has two job offers.
Before voting to recommend clemency, the board members emphasized that the world has changed since Vasquez lived in the outside world and that it will be challenging for him to stay on the straight and narrow path. If he strays, they warned, he will end up back where he started.