The reluctant heroine is Rosalie Davila Rosas. She is strong of character and beautiful in looks with an abundantly generous and loving heart. She has two sweet children, Matthew (4) and Kayla (3). Every day, they talk about their Papa and why he went to work one day and never came home.
Rosalie is the wife of slain Border Patrol agent Robert W. Rosas Jr. who was murdered July 23, 2009 in the Campo area of the desert by illegal immigrants who were members of a suspected drug cartel.
His death set off a nation-wide firestorm of awareness of the dangers our Border Patrol agents experience every single day. And it has put a recognizable face to the men and women who risk their lives while protecting our borders.
In the midst of this maelstrom are Rosalie and the children. As the sun rises each day and she wakes to an empty bed without Robert, she navigates every moment to honor her husband’s memory, and continues to raise their children with the values and integrity he embodied.
Now two years following Robert’s untimely death, his wife has diverted the financial outpourings of a grieving populace to establish a foundation in his name that generously gives back to their beloved Imperial County in the form of student scholarships and community donations.
“Sometimes I feel like I’ve lived the life of a 90-year-old woman,” Rosalie said sadly. “I’ve been married, divorced, given birth to two children and now I’m a widow. What more is there?” Her voice stumbled on the word “widow,” as she spoke.
She doesn’t like the word, she said, nor the emotions it elicits from others. The pity, the woeful glances, the sadness.
If she allows herself to dwell on the full force of what has been taken from her and their children, she would fall into a deep despair, of no help to anyone. And so she does not go there. Instead, she celebrates what they had for a brief time: a fun-loving, sweet and devoted husband and father. The love of her life.
To understand her courageous journey of raising their children alone, it is important to go back to Rosalie and Robert’s storybook romance and how they became who they were.
The eldest daughter, Rosalie was the second eldest child of six children belonging to Edgar and Rosalie Davila, a hard-working couple who live on a farm located between Holtville and El Centro. Along with her siblings, she attended Meadows Union country school, and graduated in 1997 from Central Union High.
Although she and Robert were the same age and met in high school, they never dated, but still shared the same group of friends, she said. Both were athletes at Central with Robert playing baseball, a sport he continued to participate in throughout his life.
A country girl, Rosalie obediently performed the necessary farm chores and once even castrated a pig.
“My dad would raise and sell animals and he would have to castrate many of them,” she said. “After high school, my dad told me it would be a test. If I really wanted to be a nurse, I would know (for certain) if I could do it.” She was successful, without hesitation, and her proud father told her she just might make it to be a surgeon.
Embarrassed, she never talked about it until she told Robert. He didn’t believe her until she described the procedure step by step. “He just started laughing,” she recalled.
“I began working at the age of 13 cleaning houses, babysitting for farmers in Holtville,” she said. “Now that I look back, I am thankful for my mom (making me do it) because it helped me become humble and at the same time, going to the nice homes made me strive to do well in school. I would think, ‘Someday, that’s how I want to live.’”
In high school, she volunteered as a candy striper at the El Centro hospital. Her senior year, she successfully completed a Certified Nursing Assistant course and a phlebotomy class, qualifying her to go straight to work in the emergency room as a unit secretary/emergency department aide. While there, she made many good friends and contacts in the health care world.
A strong work ethic was something she and Robert had in common. She proudly described him as a man who had goals and knew where he wanted to go. “He was always a go-getter,” she said.
Starting young, Robert’s first job was at Costco, and soon he earned enough to purchase a condo at the early age of 20. He wore his first law enforcement uniform in 2000 when he was hired at Centinela State Prison as a correctional officer. His second uniform came from his 2001 to 2003 stint in the El Centro Reserve Police Department. And then in 2006, he reached his life’s goal when he passed the academy and joined the Border Patrol.
During the same time, Rosalie’s life took a different turn. Her parents were quite strict with her, their eldest daughter. She made a decision at 18 to marry a man she didn’t know well. It turned out he was a jealous man and physically abusive. At 20, she divorced him and moved back with her parents.
Raised with a devout Roman Catholic background, she felt like a failure. The disastrous marriage soured her on romance, and she dedicated herself to finishing her nursing degree and gaining a career in health care. Marrying someone else and having children was not on her radar.
Still working at El Centro Regional Medical Center’s ER, she was able to put herself through Imperial Valley College’s prestigious nursing program. At the same time, she reconnected with Robert, who was a correctional officer, and they began to see each other as “just friends.”
“I know Robert, and I know nothing more could happen between us,” she told herself at the time. She thought he would not seek anything more than a genuine friendship.
Their shifts overlapped, and he made it a habit to bring her a store-bought coffee, one of her favorite vices, every night when he got off at 10 p.m.
She confided in him about her angst over her first marriage, and they talked of their goals. He told her of his vision to one day become a Border Patrol agent. While working at the prison was a great job, he was an outdoor-type man, and being inside all day was getting to him, he said.
Soon, they began to date, and realized their close friendship was the perfect start to a relationship.
This continued for seven years until Robert began pushing for marriage. But Rosalie resisted. He countered, arguing it wasn’t fair he was penalized because of another man’s mistakes. Finally, they planned to marry after he went to New Mexico to attend the Border Patrol academy. Desiring to see other areas outside of the Valley, she registered as a traveling nurse.
Her first assignment, at Los Angeles County Hospital rehab center, was a tough one caring for quadriplegics and paraplegics. Her heart broke as she watched many of the patients’ loved ones stop coming by to visit or support them. That job, as well as one in El Centro working with cancer patients, gave her a heavy dose of compassion and gratefulness for the blessings she had.
The couple kept a long distance romance going with Robert flying into LAX to see her on his weekends off, and she would alternately head to a meeting point halfway to New Mexico to spend time with him.
They finally married in 2007 and settled in the San Diego area. That same year, their son Robert Matthew was born prematurely. His middle name, the one by which he is called, means “gift from God.” To Rosalie’s consternation, she became pregnant with their daughter less than a year later. But Robert was ecstatic, she said, and calmed her fears of two babies in diapers with his delight in having another child.
Because of high housing costs, the couple made the decision to move back to the Valley to be close to family and bought a new house in a development with streets named, ironically, after fallen law enforcement officers.
The first months of 2009 were idyllic. Both of them turned 30 that year, and they threw each other elaborate birthday parties, celebrating with their friends and their children. Everything was perfect, just as Rosalie had always dreamed.
The smallest details of that sad Thursday night in July remain etched in Rosalie’s memory. It began just like any other evening that Robert worked the swing shift. In preparation for Kayla’s upcoming first birthday party, Rosalie was writing out invitations, and they were fanned out all over the dining room table while the ink dried. A vase full of red roses that Robert had bought for her from Costco graced the room with color and fragrance.
Between 10 and 11 p.m., she received a cryptic text from one of her friends asking if she was alone. When Rosalie answered “yes,” the friend asked if she could come by. Assuming it was because she needed to confide or talk, Rosalie graciously invited her to come on over, even though it was late.
The loud knock at midnight echoed throughout the house. Expecting her friend, she swung open the door and spotted lots of cars, a sea of green Border Patrol uniforms and the El Centro deputy chief standing there.
Sitting her on the couch, they broke the news that Robert had been involved in a shooting. At first, she did not grasp the seriousness of it, and asked to go to the hospital to see him immediately. The answering looks on their faces told her the truth.
In the beginning, she was angry with God, she said. As faithful church attendees, Robert and Rosalie went to as many services as possible and were raising the kids in a life of Christian faith.
“Why, God?” she questioned. “If we’ve always trusted in you?” But with time, she began to understand that life is not perfect and things happen out of human control.
For many hours, she prayed on her knees. “God, you allowed this. And if you allowed this, then you're going to have to get us through this.” Later, she found a bookmark in Robert’s Bible with scripture marked: “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you.”
With faith, she left the investigation and logistics of finding the men responsible for Robert’s death in the hands of law enforcement.
“I gave it to God instead of making myself sick about it,” she said.
And it’s worked. In less than two years, most of the men involved have been located and arrested, with one already convicted and sentenced. Details of the case are being kept confidential as Federal Bureau of Investigation officials build an evidence trail strong enough to convict the rest of them.
Every day of court, of trials, of sentencing, Rosalie is there watching the process of justice deal with Robert’s killers. She never goes alone as the Border Patrol makes sure someone from the agency is always sitting with her for moral support.
Her experiences in the courtroom have given her a special insight and ability to help other grieving spouses going through the same emotions, and she makes a point of helping by accompanying them to the sentencings.
But Robert’s memory is not engulfed or obscured by the cases involving his killers. Instead, Rosalie purposely focuses on his vibrant and unforgettable life.
Their home is filled with beautifully framed photographs of Robert. Their wedding picture occupies one wall. Robert laughing with the kids is on another. One photo of a handsome and proud Robert wearing his green Border Patrol uniform is hung directly in front of the bottom of the stairs just so the kids can spot it as they come down each morning.
It’s Rosalie’s attempt to keep his memory alive for Matthew and Kayla. And it is comforting to her to keep things as close to the way they were two years ago, before that fateful knock on the door.
A large picture frame, bought several months before Robert’s death, is hung in a prominent place in their living room. Filled with photos of them smiling as children, and then as a couple dating, and finally, married with their own kids, the frame is graced with the words: Live, Laugh, Love. “It’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.”
Rosalie is amazed at the prophetic message, but didn’t notice it until a clergyman pointed it out to her. She is comforted by the fact that Robert lived his life to the fullest during his short 30 years.
“We decorated this house together,” she said, looking around. “I just can’t leave. I still feel a big part of him here.”
Even his closet with all his uniforms and dirty clothes hamper remains the same, she confessed. Just the smell of him can bring comfort to her when she is feeling overwhelmed. And the privacy of their bedroom is the one place she can let down and grieve.
The first months were heart-wrenching, she said, as life continued on all around her just as it had before he was killed. Every night at 2 a.m., she listened for the train that routinely went by their house and would roll over to see if he was home yet. The sound of the garage door opening in the early morning hours used to alert her that he had just pulled in from the end of his shift. But now the empty bed and hollow silence of the garage jolts her from a deep sleep and triggers the ache of realization he will never come home again.
A year before his death, Robert purchased an off-road quad, something he’d always wanted. Taking the video camera with them, the family headed to the desert and Rosalie recorded him, laughing, full of life, as he sped around the sand dunes. The last video she has is one of all of them swimming, splashing and laughing at a local pool the weekend before he was murdered. That footage is what she sent to the America’s Most Wanted television show as they searched for Robert’s killers.
The memories are cherished by her as they watch the videos together, Robert’s giddiness and love for his kids so apparent—there for them to remember forever.
When the reality of his death kicked in, Rosalie panicked and worried about supporting their family. Certainly, going back to nursing was the best option, and she knew she’d have to work several jobs to remain in the home they both loved so much.
But then money began trickling in. Letter by letter. Note by note. All were filled with change, dollar bills and sweet condolences from strangers from all over the world who were touched by the tiny faces of Robert’s children. The amount was enough that they could live off of it for six months until she received his death benefit from the agency, she said.
In December, she and the kids attended a police academy graduation at Palomar College. Organizers sat them in the front row, and as each cadet crossed the stage for the diploma, they passed by her and laid a single pink rose in her lap commemorating Robert. When they finished, her lap was filled with 40 delicate roses. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, they presented her with a check for thousands of dollars fundraised by the cadets themselves, along with a matching sum from an anonymous donor.
Tears filled her eyes while recounting her shock and gratefulness for the way she and her children have been taken care of. On her first Mother’s Day alone, she received flowers, she said. And on her birthday, she receives bouquets of flowers purchased by her husband’s fellow agents – just the way Robert used to do for her.
The kids are remembered too. She smiled while remembering their excitement when a group of agents and their families descended upon their home to donate and install a swing set and playhouse for Kayla and Matthew as their birthday gifts on behalf of the station and agents..
“The kids will always love and remember what the Border Patrol agents have done for them,” she said.
“Despite our tragedy and everything we've gone through, God has blessed us with wonderful people who continue to show their support to us and to my husband's memory. Our Valley has amazing people,wonderful supportive businesses and our local law enforcement agencies have shown us the true meaning of the word 'brotherhood,'” she said. “I don't ever want people to feel sorry for us, because I know with God's help we will be okay."
In January 2010, she returned to school in order to finish her Bachelor’s in nursing, but laid those plans aside when Robert’s mother became ill so that she could help take care of her until her death. It was the right thing to do, she believed. And while nursing has always be an important part of her life, she has remained a stay-at-home mom as she attempts to give the kids as normal a life as possible.
The task would be impossible without the help and support of her parents and family, she admitted. They willingly babysit the children whenever she needs to address foundation business, or just take a break. And her sisters, who’ve always been her best friends, are the perfect confidants when she needs a sympathetic ear.
“I have put my nursing career on hold for now,” she explained. “The scarring my children have from my husband’s murder will affect them for their entire lifetime. So they are my full-time job now. They need me one hundred percent to help them grow up secure and full of faith.”
This hasn’t been easy with their many, many questions and “whys,” she said. Their days are full of her recounting stories of their daddy, things he would say, his love for them and trying to explain to a three and four-year-old why they have to grow up without him.
At the same time, she is acutely aware that her duty is to raise the kids in the same manner Robert would want – with a strong work ethic, community spirit and a sense of humility.
“Robert never had anything handed to him,” she said. “I don’t want our kids to ever think they’ll have everything handed to them.”
Meanwhile, the honors and recognition ceremonies keep rolling in. Most recently, the El Centro city council voted to name a new memorial park after Robert. She and the kids have traveled around the United States including Washington, D.C. several times, San Diego and Orange County where dignitaries, legislative representatives and ranking law enforcement officers bestow their accolades.
With the help of close family, friends, and Robert’s cousins, Rosalie established the Robert W. Rosas Jr. Memorial Foundation as a safe depository for all money collected from various fundraising activities. The Campo station has established an Annual Robert W. Rosas Jr. Memorial Golf Tournament, and the proceeds go to the foundation. Also, El Centro Sector Border Patrol agents have led a football tourney to raise funds for the foundation. To date, thousands of dollars in scholarships have been awarded to needy high school seniors who are hand-picked as exemplifying Robert’s integrity and work ethics.
“The foundation is a way to honor Robert and his memory,” she said.
Another main event near to Rosalie’s heart is an annual softball tournament established in his name that is held in the Valley each year. Local players and law enforcement teams from far and wide — nearly 300 players — come in to play in the spring tourney. So many come, she said, that they have had to turn away teams because there are not enough fields in the Valley to accommodate everyone.
“That is where my love is, because that was where his first love was, softball,” she said.
In the meantime, Kayla and Matthew have become quite the travelers.
“People go out of their way to honor my husband,” she said. “The least we can do is attend the ceremonies. I have tons of pictures (of their travels).”
In the fall of 2009, she received a phone call from Michael Conner, president of the Border Patrol Foundation, a national, non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to providing emergency resources for the families of fallen officers while creating a better understanding of security provided at American borders. What he told her astounded both of them.
After years of delays with considering and negotiating the formation of a much-needed foundation for the families of slain Border Patrol officers, Conner and other dignitaries met and signed the final paperwork in Phoenix on July 23, 2009 – the exact day that Robert was killed.
The coincidence apparently shook Conner to the core, but it was not as unexpected for Rosalie who has learned none of them were really in control of the events of their lives, she said.
In November 2009, just a few months after Robert’s death, she was invited to speak at the Foundation’s first annual recognition dinner. To her surprise, her simple speech left the audience of nearly 100 people in tears. The all-male board of directors realized her viewpoint could provide invaluable help, and asked her to join the board as its sole female member. Although she declined for several weeks, the directors assured her the post would not take her away from the children, so she finally agreed. Her message is an important one.
“I feel that our tragedy has not only helped us have a better appreciation for life, but also deep appreciation and gratitude for all the men and women who serve our country: military, fire and law enforcement. Because they too step out each day and face the same risks my husband did,” she explained. “They put their lives on the line each day for all of us.”
“My kids have learned to spot them quickly,” she went on. “And if we are close enough, we simply thank them for their service. It might be the last thank you they get before their life is sacrificed just like Robert’s.”
On the 23rd of every month, she, Matthew and Kayla visit the cross in the desert marking where Robert was killed, not to grieve, but to thank God for bringing them through another month, she said.
“As they grow older, I want them to be able to go to that cross out there and not be angry that they don't have their dad,” she said. “Instead of having bitterness in their hearts, I want them to remember they often visited the cross with me, and they helped decorate it, and that they would even play nearby it.”