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Mora County sheriff resigns in scandal

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Embattled Mora County Sheriff Thomas Garza resigned last week as part of a plea agreement in which he surrendered his law enforcement certification and pleaded no contest to tampering with public records for having deputies falsify reports in 2012.

Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Gerald Baca accepted the plea and issued a year’s deferred sentence with unsupervised probation. If Garza violates his probation, he could be put in jail for the remainder of the sentence.

Garza, who began his term as sheriff on Jan. 1, 2011, resigned effective Dec. 12, the same day the plea deal was accepted. As part of the plea, he also agreed never to seek certification again as a sworn law enforcement officer.

County Manager Rebecca Montoya said this week that Undersheriff Clarence Vigil is now serving as acting interim sheriff.

She said Tuesday she planned to call a special meeting of the County Commission next Monday to have him appointed interim sheriff.

Garza was the subject of two complaints brought by the Attorney General’s Office in the past two years.

One incident from May 2012 involved Garza getting into a physical altercation with one of his deputies after the deputy refused Garza’s order to let a friend of his off on a DWI.

Garza subsequently served a four-month suspension and was placed on one-year suspension by the state Law Enforcement Academy Board.

In February, the Attorney General’s Office brought charges of tampering with public records and criminal solicitation, both fourth-degree felonies, stemming from a burglary of approximately 20 firearms. It is that case in which Garza pleaded no contest to tampering with public records.

The criminal solicitation charge was dropped as part of the plea deal.

According to the initial statement of probable cause, Mora County deputies Lee Allingham and Stephen Mora told investigators with the Attorney General’s Office and New Mexico State Police that Garza urged them to falsify reports of a gun theft in March 2012.

The deputies said Garza asked them to alter the facts in their reports detailing the circumstances under which some of the guns were recovered and a suspect was arrested. They told investigators that even though Garza was directly involved in the arrest, the sheriff didn’t want his name mentioned in the reports because his wife worked for the magistrate court and she wouldn’t be able to handle the case if Garza was involved.

They said that Garza justified falsifying the report to protect the person who led them to the weapons. Allingham said he ignored Garza’s request because the sheriff had all the information regarding the suspect and the recovery of the firearms. Allingham’s report wasn’t submitted until after he had been fired by Garza.

The firing came after Allingham and Garza were involved in a dispute, captured on an audio-recording by Mora, in which the sheriff ordered Allingham to release Garza’s friend during a DWI stop and the deputy refused.

Mora told investigators after he turned in his report on the firearms incident, Garza had him make changes and resubmit the report. Mora also said that even though the report was dated March 29, 2012, it wasn’t finalized until sometime later.

Mora is a co-plaintiff in a separate case brought against Garza and former County Manager Thomas Sanchez a year ago. Mora and Jessica Medina, a former 911 dispatcher, were fired after turning over to State Police recordings of the April 7, 2012, DWI stop in which Allingham and Garza scuffled. They are charging breach of contract, wrongful termination, and violations of the Human Rights, Whistleblower’s and Inspection of Public Records acts.

County Manager Montoya said it would be up to the commission to decide how to go about filling the sheriff’s position on a permanent basis.

“Right now, we’re taking care of an immediate problem, and the immediate solution is to appoint an interim sheriff,” she said. “We just want to do the right thing and act on this so there’s no glitches in the system if something happens.”

Montoya said the county is covered by three certified deputies in addition to Vigil, who she said has worked for the county for many years.

“Our county is well covered with deputies and dispatchers, and we’ve always had great backup support from New Mexico State Police,” she said.

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