Then-Colfax County sheriff’s deputy Vidal Sandoval shook down drug traffickers he stopped on the highway by asking them, “You wanna go to jail? Or you wanna make a deal?”
In his transformation from cop to criminal, which began in 2014, Sandoval wore a bracelet bearing the image of the so-called patron saint of drug traffickers and hid $4,200 in cash in the tailpipe of his truck. He escorted a load of drugs through his northeastern New Mexico county for a $10,000 fee.
After nearly 20 years in law enforcement, Sandoval, 50, will now spend the next seven years in federal prison for his drug trafficking and theft – crimes that he committed while he was in uniform, wearing a badge and driving a sheriff’s patrol car.
He told Senior U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera at his sentencing hearing Thursday in Albuquerque that his conduct “made no sense.” He conceded that he had been “tempted by the money” and said he had disgraced his law enforcement agency, the public and his family.
But the judge had little sympathy for Sandoval, a single father with a daughter in high school.
“The idea that someone entrusted with a public duty to protect, serve and thwart violators of the law, that someone who is a police officer could commit these crimes was just shameful. It was also shocking,” Herrera said. “The breach of public trust you committed is bad enough, but to take cuts from some of these drug traffickers, it just takes it to a whole new level.”
Sandoval pleaded guilty in 2016 to one count of attempted possession with intent to distribute cocaine and two counts of theft of government property, which was related to FBI funds used in the undercover investigation.
“Defendant’s obvious motive was greed. His respectable salary as a deputy sheriff did not satisfy his astonishing avarice. So he preyed upon people who he thought were unlikely to report his criminal conduct to the police out of fear of exposing their own wrongdoing,” a U.S. attorney’s sentencing memorandum said.
“From these facts, it is difficult to tell whether Defendant regarded himself as more of a public servant or a perpetrator. But only a criminal would hide $4,200 in cash in the tailpipe of his truck,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Sullivan wrote in the memorandum.
Sandoval was accused of demanding a cut of the drug trade that uses Interstate 25 north from Mexico to move the product in exchange for safe passage or a police escort to Colorado.
An incident on June 25, 2014, led to the undercover investigation by the New Mexico State Police and FBI. Sandoval stopped a car on I-25, stole $13,400 and confiscated the occupants’ marijuana. He let them go without a citation, but later that same day New Mexico State Police pulled over the same car on a routine stop along Interstate 40. The two men inside reported the earlier stop by Sandoval.
By December 2014, Sandoval had stolen another $7,500 from undercover agents posing as narcotics traffickers. He stole an additional $2,000 from the same undercover agents a month later.
“Indeed, Defendant escalated the level of criminal activity at every turn,” the memorandum said. Sandoval also recruited a friend to play the role of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent to convince “his victims that he had a lawful purpose for taking their money.”
The most “flagrant offense of all” occurred Feb. 28, 2015, when Sandoval accepted $10,000 to escort a load of cocaine through Colfax County without interference, the U.S. Attorney’s Office memorandum said.
A videotape of that encounter with an undercover law enforcement agent was played in federal court Thursday.
“I didn’t know what I was trying to do. I didn’t know who I was trying to be, but it was wrong,” an emotional Sandoval said after watching the video.
Sandoval, a Democrat, was a candidate for sheriff in 2014, served in the Air Force from 1988 to 1992, was an officer in the Raton and Clayton police departments and worked at the Colfax County jail in 2003, according to published reports.
“We all know police work is pretty noble work and can be pretty dangerous,” Herrera told Sandoval. “People who become law enforcement officers choose to protect the public. You became one of the people law enforcement needed to protect the public against.”