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Charges against Rio Arriba sheriff’s son dismissed; commissioner denies allegations in separate case

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The U.S. Attorney’s Office on Wednesday dismissed federal civil rights charges against the son of Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella, citing a medical condition that his lawyer said stems from a military injury.

The charges against Sheriff Rodella for allegedly roughing up an Española man in March after a high-speed chase still stand.

Thomas Rodella Jr.

Thomas Rodella Jr.

At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, attorneys for the sheriff and Thomas Rodella Jr. said the federal charges never should have been filed against the son in the first place.

The two Rodellas were named in an Aug. 12 federal indictment that charges conspiracy to violate the civil rights of Michael Tafoya, 26, of Española. Tafoya was arrested in March following a high-speed pursuit by the Rodellas in the sheriff’s private vehicle. The indictment also alleges unreasonable seizure and bodily harm and that the Rodellas made false statements in reports of the incident.

Attorneys Jason Bowles, who represents the younger Rodella, and Robert Gorence, who is defending the sheriff, said the charges were hastily and improperly brought and that exculpatory evidence was not presented to the grand jury or to federal magistrates who signed off on search warrants. The charges were filed in bad faith, they said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday that charges were being dropped against Rodella Jr. because prosecutors learned after the indictment of “a medical condition that puts into doubt whether he has the cognitive ability to form the specific intent necessary” for the alleged crimes.

Bowles said his client, age 26, sustained a traumatic brain injury during a training exercise while serving in the Army in Kosovo in 2010. Bowles said he would “gladly” have supplied that information to the prosecution beforehand to avoid the spectacle of Rodella Jr. being charged and publicly humiliated in a “perp walk.”

Gorence said he expected that a conspiracy charge – one of five counts against the sheriff – would be dismissed against Rodella Sr., because absent at least one other person there can be no conspiracy. “This was half baked and half cocked, and now it’s half dismissed,” Gorence said of the charges.

The attorneys handed out a copy of a booking photo of the alleged victim Tafoya, noting the apparent absence of any apparent bruising or cuts on his face, though he has a reddish area on one cheek.

The incident that gave rise to the charges was a stop of Tafoya as the Rodellas were returning from filing candidacy papers for Rodella Sr.’s unsuccessful re-election bid. Rodella was in his personal truck, driven by his son, and not in uniform when he stopped Tafoya for allegedly driving erratically. Tafoya claimed Rodella Jr. pulled him out of the car and threw him on the ground.

Gorence predicted that the sheriff would be exonerated at the scheduled Sept. 22 trial in federal court in Albuquerque.

FBI agents took Rodella’s badges to test it for DNA when they searched his home in May, according to court documents. Gorence handed out copies of lab tests showing Tafoya is excluded as a contributor from four of the five items seized and says no comparison information is available for a fifth item.

The attorneys have suggested in court filings that federal agents threatened Rodella Sr. in May after a meeting over U.S. Forest Service law enforcement actions in Rio Arriba County. Rodella has refused to deputize Forest Service agents to provide state arrest powers.

County probe

Also Wednesday, Rio Arriba County Commissioner Barney Trujillo strongly denied accusations that he may have collected money from the rental of a county-run Chimayó community center as suggested in sheriff’s office reports obtained by the Journal this week. “I never collected money ever … that right there is insulting. I don’t even have a key to the center,” Trujillo said.

County officials have contended Sheriff Rodella is trying to intimidate them with the threat of a criminal investigation since the commission voted last week to call for the sheriff to resign because of the federal charges.

Just after the commission’s vote, Undersheriff Vince Crespin approached the assistant county manager and said three county officials, including Commissioner Trujillo, needed to make themselves available for questioning in a criminal investigation. This week, the sheriff’s office turned the case over to the State Police.

According to county sheriff reports, a dispute arose Aug. 3 when the Chimayó community center had been booked for two baby showers on the same day. In a resulting investigation after deputies were called to the scene, a county employee in charge of booking county facilities said Commissioner Trujillo had been known to call about using the Chimayó center but promised contracts or payment for rental of the facility ever came through.

Trujillo noted today that the report on the baby showers was taken in early August. “And now it comes up right after the (commission) meeting as part of his (Rodella’s) bullying,” Trujillo said. “I’m not scared of his gun and his badge which he doesn’t have anymore.” When Rodella was arraigned and released Aug. 15 on the federal charges, the judge ordered that he could not possess firearms.

“This is just Tommy Rodella with his bag of tricks … because I spoke out publicly and asked for his resignation,” Trujillo said.

In an e-mail Wednesday, County Manager Tomas Campos wrote about the fraud allegation, “We are investigating also. If true these are the actions of one employee. No employees have commented as of yet to Rio Arriba Officials or State police. The statements or quotes in the report released to the press appear to be untrue.”

Deputy County Manager David Trujillo also said via e-mail, “given the new information about an investigation being conducted by the New Mexico State Police on use of the Arbolera Community Center in Chimayo, we have launched an internal investigation looking into said accusations. We take any accusations seriously and we will do everything to ensure the public resources are utilized in an appropriate manner. As a public institution we have a system in place for booking and payment, we have confidence in this process, and I have full confidence in our operation, none-the-less, we will review the information ensuring the public’s trust.”