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Rio Arriba sheriff accused of civil rights violations

Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella, at right front, leaves the U.S. Federal Courthouse in downtown Albuquerque Tuesday after being released from federal custody while awaiting trial. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella, at right front, leaves the U.S. Federal Courthouse in downtown Albuquerque Tuesday after being released from federal custody while awaiting trial. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Some members of the Rodella family were decked out in black shirts that gave their view of the proceedings Friday as Rio Arriba County Sheriff “Tommy” Rodella and his son appeared in handcuffs in federal court to answer to criminal civil rights charges.

“When Injustice Becomes Law Rebellion Becomes Duty” was the message printed across the back as the controversial sheriff and his son pleaded not guilty to charges that they violated the civil rights of a 26-year-old Española man during a high-speed chase, confrontation and arrest last March.

Rodella, 56, and son Thomas Rodella Jr., 26, are charged with two counts of conspiracy and civil rights charges, and two counts of falsifying records. Sheriff Rodella also faces a charge of using a handgun in a crime of violence.

Thomas Rodella Jr. and his father pleaded not guilty earlier Friday to federal civil rights charges and conspiracy. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Thomas Rodella Jr. and his father pleaded not guilty earlier Friday to federal civil rights charges and conspiracy. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

FBI agents arrested the sheriff at his office early today and the son at the family home. They were arraigned and entered not guilty pleas Friday morning.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lorenzo Garcia oversaw a contentious detention hearing Friday afternoon before releasing both men on standard conditions of release – they can’t possess firearms, consume alcohol or drugs, contact witnesses or the victim and are prohibited from leaving the county without permission unless to see their attorneys. No bond was required, as is typical in federal court.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Neda sought to have Sheriff Rodella detained at a halfway house in Albuquerque because Rodella “has displayed a pattern of unchecked aggression and abuse of power.”

Neda said she was “very concerned about the safety of the victim” in the case and that Sheriff Rodella would intimidate deputies who cooperated with federal investigators.

Magistrate Garcia ordered Sheriff Rodella not to discuss the case with any of his deputies.

Neda also made reference to internal affairs investigations of Rodella when he was a State Police officer and his removal – twice – from the position of magistrate judge in Rio Arriba County.

Special Agent in Charge of the Albuquerque FBI office Carol K.O. Lee said the arrests should serve notice to “those few out there that would tarnish their badge” that the FBI will investigate each and every allegation it receives.

U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez said, “Because those in uniform deserve our respect and support, it is vitally important to prosecute officers who violate their oaths of office and the public trust placed in them.”

Sheriff Rodella’s attorney, Robert Gorence, announced his intention to try to disqualify the local U.S. Attorney’s office from prosecuting the case.

Rodella’s family, including his wife, Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, was present for the hearing.

Gorence said he was looking forward to trial and expects “Sheriff Rodella will be serving as sheriff after he is acquitted.”

Gorence said he expects to meet with Rio Arriba County officials and try to arrange an administrative leave with pay from his sheriff’s job for Rodella while the criminal case is pending. He said he hopes to get to trial in 70 days.

Attorney Jason Bowles, who represents the younger Rodella, said his client is looking forward to the trial.

High-speed chase

According to the indictment, on March 11, 2014, Sheriff Rodella and Rodella Jr. were in the elder Rodella’s personal vehicle when they engaged in a high-speed pursuit of the victim, identified as “M.T.” in the indictment, but publicly identified as Michael Tafoya of Española.

When Tafoya pulled over to allow the Rodellas to pass, they blocked Tafoya’s car in and challenged him to a fight.

Tafoya drove away, according to the indictment, but was then blocked again on a dead-end lane.

The indictment charges that Sheriff Rodella, in street clothes and pistol in hand, forced his way into Tafoya’s car and beat Tafoya with the gun.

The indictment charges that Rodella Jr. then dragged Tafoya from the car and Tafoya was again assaulted by Sheriff Rodella, who pulled the victim’s head up by his hair and slammed his badge into Tafoya’s face.

The indictment alleges that Sheriff Rodella instructed his deputies to arrest Tafoya and take him to the Rio Arriba County Detention Center, and that the Rodellas told deputies that Tafoya had assaulted the sheriff.

The next day, March 12, the indictment alleges the Rodellas wrote false reports that Tafoya had tried to run the sheriff over.

The victim in the indictment is identified as M.T., but Michael Tafoya was interviewed by the Journal earlier this year about his run in with both Rodellas. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The victim in the indictment is identified as M.T., but Michael Tafoya was interviewed by the Journal earlier this year about his run in with both Rodellas. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

In a June interview with the Journal, Tafoya said he didn’t know the man who jumped into his car with a gun after a vehicle pursuit was the sheriff until a younger man – the sheriff’s son – pulled him out and threw him to the ground.

“I thought he (the sheriff) was going to kill me,” Tafoya said. “I thought they were going to execute me right there.” He said he begged for his life.

Tafoya couldn’t be reached for comment Friday. But his mother, Belinda Montoya, said that the family had been advised not to comment for now and wouldn’t say whether the family has an attorney.

After the hearing, Gorence said Sheriff Rodella believed the victim in the case was driving drunk and that Rodella was simply investigating.

Gorence asked that the detention hearing, normally held a few days after arraignment, be moved up to Friday afternoon so that the Rodellas did not have to spend the weekend in jail.

Rodella lost the recent primary election and his term ends in January 2015.

Mark Oswald of Journal North contributed to this report

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