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Rio Arriba sheriff facing FBI investigation

Michael Tafoya describes his confrontation with Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella on March 11. His complaints apparently have led to an investigation by the FBI.  (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Michael Tafoya describes his confrontation with Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella on March 11. His complaints apparently have led to an investigation by the FBI. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – It was a tough several hours for Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella.

Late returns Tuesday night showed Rodella had lost his Democratic primary race for a second term as sheriff to a former deputy whom he had fired in 2012. Around 6 a.m. Wednesday, FBI agents showed up to search his Española area home.

This search, the second since last summer by federal agents targeting Rodella or his sheriff’s office, apparently was sparked by Rodella’s arrest of a motorist in March.

By Rodella’s account in court documents, the sheriff spotted a reckless driver while driving with his adult son, ended up in a vehicle pursuit and was almost run over by the driver before Rodella was able to make the arrest only after getting in a struggle with the driver over the sheriff’s gun.

But the driver, Michael Tafoya, 26, in a Wednesday interview described a road rage incident where he was begging for his life after a man he didn’t know was the sheriff jumped into his car with a gun, and then a younger man, Rodella’s son, pulled him out and threw him to the ground.

“I thought he (the sheriff) was going to kill me,” said Tafoya, who said he works with disabled adults for the Easter Seals El Mirador nonprofit. “I thought they were going to execute me right there.”

Tafoya said the son finally told him, “Don’t you realize he’s the sheriff?” When he asked to see a badge, Rodella shoved his badge in Tafoya’s face and said, “Here’s my badge, (expletive),” according to Tafoya. Tafoya was arrested on felony charges.

Tafoya said he went to the FBI about the incident after first trying to get a news organization interested in the story. The FBI suggested he file an internal affairs complaint with Rio Arriba County. After he “got the runaround” while trying to do that, he called the FBI back “and they heard me out,” Tafoya said.

The FBI on Wednesday confirmed the search of Rodella’s home but would only say that it was “in connection with an ongoing federal investigation.” Jake Arnold, Rodella’s spokesman, said the FBI raid was in connection with Tafoya’s arrest.

Arnold wouldn’t say more about the search or Rodella’s upset election loss to ex-deputy James D. Lujan, who filed a wrongful termination suit after his firing by the sheriff. The suit was settled for $102,500.

In August, the FBI searched the sheriff’s office in Española after news reports that Rodella’s staff was accepting donations for charities, including a scholarship fund managed by Rodella, in lieu of prosecuting some traffic offenses.

A Rio Arriba County spokeswoman said at the time it was the county government’s understanding that the FBI was investigating allegations that citations may have been unlawfully dismissed. The sheriff’s office produced a form that allowed voluntary donations in a “pre-prosecution diversion” program and said the idea had the approval of state court officials.

No charges or other details have ever emerged from that case.

Different accounts

According to Rodella’s account of Tafoya’s March 11 arrest, contained in a case file document, Rodella was a passenger in a Jeep Wrangler driven by his son on State Road 399 about 5:15 p.m. when a green Mazda

RODELLA: Lost primary election to former deputy

RODELLA: Lost primary election to former deputy

pulled onto the road and almost caused a collision.

The sheriff said he then saw the Mazda almost hit another vehicle. Rodella said that when he and his son “came upon” the Mazda, which apparently had stopped, he got out and showed his badge and the Mazda driver, whom he identified as Tafoya, “waved me towards him” but then accelerated at Rodella and drove off.

He said he told his son to follow at a safe distance. The car sped over speed bumps on side roads, then came to a dead end and Rodella had his son block off the car. Rodella said he approached showing his badge and asked Tafoya to get out, but the driver accelerated and the car slid. Rodella said he approached again, continuing to identify himself, but Tafoya managed to again come at him at high speed. Rodella said he was nearly hit before the car came to a stop against a “metal casing.”

He got to the passenger side of the Mazda and, concerned for his life and others as the cars’ wheels spun, drew his gun and ordered the driver to get out. Rodella said he jumped through an open passenger-side window and the driver grabbed the gun with both hands. He head-butted the driver and had his son help get him out of the car.

Tafoya’s account is dramatically different. He said he pulled out onto the highway from his grandmother’s house and a Jeep started tailgating him. After a distance, Tafoya said, he pulled to the side of the road, got out of the car and raised his hands as if to say, “What’s going on?” He said the unmarked Jeep backed up and two men, one younger and one older, got out and said “come on” and made motions urging him to fight.

That’s when he sped away, Tafoya said. The chase ended when he pulled into a yard, hoping his pursuers would think it was his home, he said. After he struck a pole, the armed man, who turned out to be Rodella, jumped into his car and that’s when, Tafoya said, he began begging for his life. “He kept telling me it was too late,” Tafoya said. He claimed Rodella’s son Thomas Jr. pulled him out of the car and threw him to ground.

An investigating deputy spoke to a jogger who said he also had to jump out of the way of the Mazda as it sped down a dirt road pursued by a Jeep and that he also saw Rodella almost get run over by the Mazda, according to a deputy’s report.

Tafoya was charged with resisting, evading or obstructing an officer; aggravated assault on a peace officer and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, his car. The charges were “dismissed by prosecutor” on March 26 but without prejudice, meaning they could be refiled. Felonies often are dismissed in magistrate court and refiled in District Court.

Tafoya said he received a black eye and an injured thumb from the tussle, but didn’t see a doctor because he has no health insurance. Tafoya said he’s never been in serious trouble, wants his name cleared and wants the charges removed. “I want my life back,” he said. “I want people to see that what he did to me was extremely wrong.”

Election results

According to unofficial totals from Tuesday’s voting, Rodella – husband of state Rep. Debbie Rodella – lost to his former deputy Lujan by 200 votes, 2,932 to 2,732. Former sheriff Joe Mascarenas came in third.

Barring a challenge, the election results end Rodella’s latest stint in public life. In his prior roles, he often faced controversy. As a State Police officer, he was disciplined for marijuana use and was found to have used his position for personal gain.

In 2005, he was appointed magistrate judge by then-Gov. Bill Richardson, only to resign amid controversy about the release of a DWI suspect. Rodella returned to the bench when he was elected magistrate in 2006, but the state Supreme Court later removed him as judge for several alleged infractions. He won a seven-candidate race for sheriff in 2010.