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Northern New Mexico deputy arrested; accused of taking cash to escort drug carriers

SANTA FE – A federal and state sting operation has led to the arrest of a veteran Colfax County sheriff’s deputy after he allegedly offered to safely escort undercover agents carrying cocaine and money through the county in exchange for part of the drug profits.

Deputy Vidal Sandoval, 45, of Cimmaron is reported to have asked for “5 percent of the bulk cash going south to Mexico” in return for getting drug loads to the Colorado border.

The sting took place after two men carrying money and marijuana reported to State Police last summer that an officer, later identified as Sandoval, took $10,000 from them, then gave back $600 for travel expenses to Arizona.

Interstate 25 through New Mexico and to the north has long been considered a major drug route. In fact, prior news reports identify Sandoval as being in on major busts on the interstate – he seized $48,000 in suspected drug money in 2007 and $310,000 in 2008 after speeding stops, the news accounts say.

Multiple FBI agents and officers from the State Police arrested Sandoval at the sheriff’s office in Raton on Friday morning on a federal grand jury indictment charging him for aiding and abetting a drug trafficking crime, said a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“It’s an ongoing investigation,” said Colfax County Sheriff Rick Sinclair, who said Sandoval was arrested without incident. Sinclair said he had no prior warning of the arrest. “It’s a little disturbing, but it is what it is,” said Sinclair. Sandoval, who has been with the sheriff’s office for 11 years, has been placed on administrative leave, the sheriff said.

Search warrant affidavits executed following Sandoval’s arrest show the investigation began last summer after two men reported to the State Police “that a law enforcement officer allegedly seized marijuana and cash from them during a traffic stop without giving them a receipt,” says the news release.

Investigation by the State Police identified Sandoval as the officer who made the traffic stop, then confiscated $10,000, but then gave $600 back to the two men, according to one of the search warrant affidavits.

From December through February, the FBI and the State Police sent undercover agents through portions of Colfax County that “Sandoval was known to patrol” and he stopped their vehicles three times, the release says.

He is said to have “offered to escort the undercover agents through Colfax County with drugs and currency in exchange for a portion of their drug profits.”

The search affidavit says that, on Jan. 25, Sandoval found $7,000 after stopping undercover agents and told them the federal Drug Enforcement Administration wanted their vehicle “because it had an aftermarket compartment of the type commonly used to conceal illegal drugs.” But he agreed to let them keep the vehicle in return for his taking $2,000 of the $7,000. He also gave the agents a bracelet of Jesus Malverde, a figure considered “a patron saint of drug trafficking.”

On Feb. 28, Sandoval again allegedly accepted cash for escorting an undercover agent who was driving a vehicle containing cocaine to the Colorado border.

According to an indictment filed Tuesday and released Friday, Sandoval is charged with possessing with the intent to distribute over 500 grams “of a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine.”

Colfax County Sheriff Sinclair was elected sheriff in November and Sandoval was one of his five opponents.

He served in the U.S. Air Force from 1988 until 1992, and was an officer in the Raton and Clayton Police Departments, and also worked at the Colfax County jail in 2003, according to published reports.

Sandoval made his initial appearance in federal court in Albuquerque late Friday and remains in federal custody awaiting an arraignment and detention hearing scheduled Monday afternoon.

If convicted, Sandoval faces a mandatory minimum five years and a maximum of 40 years in federal prison.

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