SANTA FE, N.M. — What are the chances of two men who say they were carrying a large amount of cash and transporting marijuana being pulled over twice by police on the same day on interstate highways in New Mexico?
Despite the odds, that’s what the drug carriers and federal investigators say happened – with widely varying results.
The second traffic stop, for following too closely on Interstate 40 about 9:30 p.m. June 25 in Cibola County, eventually led investigators to the recent bust of a northern New Mexico deputy accused of making deals with drug carriers.
At the I-40 stop by a State Police officer, the men in the green 1995 Nissan sedan with Arizona plates claimed have to been hauling marijuana purchased legally in Colorado. They said they’d already been stopped a few hours earlier by another officer, hundreds of miles northeast, on Interstate 25 near the New Mexico/Colorado border.
That officer, they said, confiscated their marijuana and seized more than $10,000 from them without giving them a receipt or issuing a citation. But he did give them “$600 back in order to pay for their travel expenses on their way back to Arizona,” says an FBI statement filed in federal court.
The two men described the officer who took their pot and money as driving a “new, white Ford Explorer with blue writing on the side” and that the officer “had mentioned something about a DEA (federal Drug Enforcement Administration) investigation.”
According to the court documents, eight months later, that stop culminated in the arrest in March of veteran Colfax County sheriff’s deputy Vidal Sandoval, 45, who also ran for county sheriff last year.
He’s accused of demanding a cut of the drug trade that uses I-25 north from Mexico to move the product in exchange for safe passage or a police escort to Colorado.
The freeway systems in the United States are key to moving drugs.
“It provides a good opportunity,” said Sean Waite, federal Drug Enforcement Administration assistant special agent in charge in Albuquerque.
‘The freeways within the continental United States are most frequently what’s going to be used in drug trafficking.”
DEA agent Waite said it is hard to quantify the amount of drugs passing through New Mexico. But “if you consider I-25 and I-40 go from a source to a destination,” he said, “the ability of a trafficking organization to hide in normal traffic is an amazing opportunity.”
It was State Police officer Joseph Garcia who made the I-40 traffic stop near Grants and then checked things out. He learned that Sandoval, in Colfax County, had made a traffic stop of a vehicle with Arizona plates on I-25 at about 5 p.m.
The patrolman asked Sandoval to call him and during that conversation Sandoval is said to have denied taking any cash from the men in the green Nissan.
After that, the FBI and State Police started an undercover investigation. And, judging from the FBI’s reports, Garcia’s call did not serve as much of a warning to Sandoval that he might become the subject of an investigation.
Sandoval, of Cimarron, was arrested without incident on March 13 at the Colfax County Sheriff’s Office in Raton by FBI agents and State Police officers. His charge, previously reported as aiding and abetting a drug trafficking crime, is actually attempt to possess cocaine with intent to distribute, online court records show. He has entered a not guilty plea and has been released pending resolution of his case.
Documents cite ex-police chief
According to search warrant affidavits, agents watched Sandoval’s home and saw a white Ford Explorer in the driveway that matched the previous description by the men Garcia had pulled over.
Then, on Dec. 15, two undercover agents from the FBI and State Police, respectively, drove around Cimarron where Sandoval was known to patrol. Their undercover vehicle contained “a hidden compartment in the rear of the vehicle under carpeting and outfitted with several air fresheners, which are commonly used to mask the smell of narcotics, and a digital scale of the type often used to weigh narcotics.”
The agents had $8,000 cash with them and, at about 4:40 p.m., Sandoval pulled the agents over for speeding on N.M. 64. The threesome conversed mainly in Spanish, and Sandoval searched the car and found the hidden compartment. One of the agents was placed in the back seat of Sandoval’s patrol car while Sandoval made a phone call.
During the call, Sandoval told the other party that county dispatch did not know that he was out on a traffic stop, according to the FBI’s affidavit, and then asked the other party to pretend that he was a DEA agent.
Sandoval handed the phone to the undercover agent who, via the phone’s caller ID function, identified the caller as a former police chief in northeast New Mexico, named in the court documents but whom the Journal is not identifying in this article because the ex-chief has not been charged (the ex-chief did not return a phone call from the Journal). That person told the undercover officer on the cell phone he was with the DEA.
Sandoval made another call to the same person and again handed the phone to the undercover agent, who was told by the “DEA agent” that cash found by Sandoval would be seized.
Sandoval then turned off his in-car and lapel recorders, and said “he wanted to be part of the criminal narcotics activity (the agent) was involved in and would let him pass through the area undisturbed with money and/or drugs in the future if they provided him with a portion of the profits,” the investigators’ affidavit says. Sandoval returned $500 to the agent and kept $7,500, and the agents left.
Other undercover encounters
On Jan. 25, the same two agents were dispatched to I-25 carrying $7,000 in cash. At about 10:30 a.m., they were pulled over by Sandoval for speeding. This time, Sandoval handcuffed the undercover agents and placed them in the back of his patrol car, and searched the undercover car without consent.
Sandoval then allegedly “offered to help them by providing information on where other marked patrol officers were located to avoid detection” and “offered to escort drug loads to the Colorado/New Mexico border and to escort vehicles with large sums of United States currency traveling south on Interstate 25”; in return, he “wanted 5 percent of the bulk cash.”
The agents agreed and Sandoval said to text him when they were “ready to use Sandoval’s services.” Sandoval said the DEA wanted to keep the agents’ vehicle because of the hidden compartment, but he agreed to let them keep it in exchange for $2,000, the court documents state. Sandoval presented the agents with a bracelet with an image of “Jesus Malverde,” a figure considered the patron saint of Mexican drug traffickers.
In a third encounter the next day, Jan. 26, another agent carrying $5,000 was pulled over for speeding on I-25. Again, Sandoval offered escort assistance, talked about “working together” in the future and provided his cell number for texting.
He initially skimmed $1,000 from the undercover agent’s money, but then gave back the full amount. Sandoval allegedly told the undercover agent that he had “friends” who “run drugs north and big money south,” and the agent asked how that was possible being a cop. “Sandoval replied by laughing,” the documents say.
Real and fake cocaine
On Feb. 9, an agent texted Sandoval and told him he would be in Colfax County with drugs. On Feb. 28, agents met Sandoval at the I-25 Wagon Mound exit, where they showed Sandoval two kilos of actual cocaine and three kilos of “sham” cocaine.
Sandoval told them to drive 75 to 77 mph and he would follow two car lengths behind. They agreed to meet at a rest stop in Colorado and Sandoval was paid $5,000.
Sandoval was an unsuccessful candidate for sheriff last year. In a campaign statement to a weekly newspaper, he said, “I want to modernize the report taking and record keeping as well as the chain of custody and security of evidence.”
Sandoval pleaded not guilty soon after his arrest and was released under orders not to discuss his case with anyone other than the federal public defender representing him. He also may not leave New Mexico.