Rio Arriba sheriff resigns as 3-year sentence is imposed - Albuquerque Journal

Rio Arriba sheriff resigns as 3-year sentence is imposed

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A judge sentenced former Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan to three years in prison Thursday, a day after a jury convicted him of two felonies for helping a friend avoid arrest in 2017.

Lujan, 60, resigned as sheriff late Wednesday afternoon, Rio Arriba County’s top official said Thursday.

First Judicial District Judge Kathleen Ellenwood said she sentenced Lujan to prison because elected officials “must be held to a higher standard.”

“When the people of Rio Arriba County elected you as sheriff, they put their trust in you to uphold the law, and you let them down,” Ellenwood said. “You are not above the law. Nor can you ignore the law when it serves your purpose.”

Lujan, who wore a mask, showed little emotion as he stood listening to the sentence.

He was remanded to state custody immediately after sentencing. Two officers escorted Lujan out of the courtroom through a side door, but he was not handcuffed.

Lujan is the second Rio Arriba County sheriff convicted of felony charges and sentenced to a term in prison in recent years.

In 2015, former Sheriff Tommy Rodella was sentenced to 10 years and one month for conviction on two federal counts related to a road rage incident in which he brandished a gun while roughing up a driver in March 2014, according to an indictment filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque.

Rodella remains in custody in a federal prison in Seagoville, Texas, according to federal prison records.

Lujan made a brief statement on his own behalf shortly before he was sentenced.

“I try to do the best I can to help everybody I can, and in no way do I want to harm anyone or hurt anyone,” he said.

The sentencing came just a day after a 1st Judicial District jury found Lujan guilty of harboring a felon for helping conceal a friend, Phillip Chacon, as police sought the former Española city councilor on a warrant for aggravated fleeing from law enforcement officers.

Jurors also found Lujan guilty of intimidating a witness for ordering one of his deputies, Cody Lattin, to withhold information about Chacon’s whereabouts from other officers.

Lujan was ordered to serve two years in prison for witness intimidation, and an additional year for harboring a felon, with the sentences to run consecutively.

The judge also sentenced Lujan to 1½ years of probation after he completes his prison term.

Lujan had faced a maximum sentence of 4½ years in prison for the two convictions.

Lujan’s attorney, Jason Bowles, told the judge he intends to appeal the verdict and asked the judge to allow Lujan to remain free pending appeal.

Ellenwood rejected the request, she said, “based on Mr. Lujan’s conduct during the course of the last trial and afterwards.”

Lujan’s trial this week was his second on the same charges. His first trial in Tierra Amarilla ended in a mistrial in June after a jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict.

During that trial, Lujan’s supporters held a cookout in the courthouse parking lot that prompted a judge to approve a change of venue to Santa Fe for the second trial.

Special prosecutor Andrea Rowley Reeb said after the hearing Thursday that she was “thrilled and pleased” that Lujan will serve time in prison.

The sentence will send a “clear message” to elected officials that they will be held accountable for violations of law, she said.

Reeb had asked for the judge to sentence Lujan to the maximum 4½-year prison sentence because he violated the public’s trust in his role as a law enforcement officer.

“He should be held to a higher standard than a regular person in this situation,” Reeb said.

Española Police Department Chief Roger Jimenez, testifying at Lujan’s sentencing hearing, said the public expects that law enforcement officers should be held to a higher standard.

“Whether or not I agree with that statement, it is an expectation,” Jimenez said.

Speaking on Lujan’s behalf, Lauren Reichelt, director of Health and Human Services for Rio Arriba County, said Lujan helped establish several beneficial programs during his tenure as sheriff.

Lujan supported naloxone training for first responders and helped establish diversion programs for narcotics offenders, Reichelt said. He also supported training for officers responding to people with mental illness, she said.

“The person I hear described is not the person I know,” she said of Lujan.

Rio Arriba County Manager Lucia Sanchez said she accepted Lujan’s resignation shortly before 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Sanchez said she named Maj. Billy Merrifield of the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office to serve as acting sheriff until the Rio Arriba County Board of Commissioners appoints a new sheriff to fill out the remainder of Lujan’s term, which expires Jan. 1, 2023.

Commissioners will hold a special meeting at 4 p.m. Monday to consider the appointment, Sanchez said.

Rio Arriba County voters will have an opportunity to elect a new sheriff in the 2022 general election.

Lujan faces another trial Jan. 10 in Santa Fe also involving Chacon. He faces a misdemeanor charge of obstructing an officer for allegedly interfering with Española police at they attempted to execute a search warrant at Chacon’s home in March 2020, according to the indictment.

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