SANTA FE – The former police chief of the northern New Mexico town of Springer has pleaded guilty to helping a then-deputy steal $7,500 from men the deputy believed were drug couriers – but who turned out to be undercover state and federal agents investigating the Colfax County deputy’s cooperation with drug transports in return for cash.
Ex-Springer chief Leon Herrera, in his plea agreement Thursday, acknowledged that he pretended to be a federal Drug Enforcement Administration officer to help deputy Vidal Sandoval persuade the faux drug couriers to hand over money from their car.
“At that time, I knew that my false statements and misrepresentations… served the purpose of assisting Sandoval in stealing the money in the vehicle,” Herrera states in his plea document filed in Albuquerque federal court. Herrera pleaded guilty to impersonating a federal officer and was released. He faces up to three years in prison.
Sandoval, who ran for Colfax County sheriff last year, was arrested in March and charged with attempt to possess cocaine with intent to distribute and theft of government money. He has entered a not guilty plea.
Federal agents and the New Mexico State Police began investigating Sandoval after a bizarre sequence of events. On June 25, 2014, a New Mexico State Police officer made a routine traffic stop on Interstate 40 near Grants. Two men in the car told police they had been carrying marijuana they claimed had been purchased legally in Colorado when they’d been pulled over by another officer about 4½ hours earlier, on Interstate 25 near Raton.
That first officer, the men 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 the drug carriers “$600 back in order to pay for their travel expenses on their way back to Arizona,” says an FBI statement filed in court.
The Grants traffic stop started an eight-month investigation that culminated in the arrest of Sandoval, about 46 years old, a veteran deputy who ran for Colfax 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.
During the investigation, undercover agents pretending to be drug couriers were pulled over by Sandoval three times, federal documents say, and he offered to provided safe passage through Colfax County in return for money.
In the first of these encounters, in which Herrera played a role, two undercover agent drove around Cimarron where Sandoval was known to patrol. The agents’ vehicle, court documents say, contained a hidden rear compartment “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 when Sandoval stopped the agents for speeding. 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 asked whomever he was talking to 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 person on the call as Herrera, the former Springer police chief. The undercover officer was told by the “DEA agent” that cash found by Sandoval would be seized.
Sandoval told the agents pretending to be drug couriers that “he wanted to be part of the criminal narcotics activity” and that he would let them “pass through the area undisturbed with money and/or drugs in the future if they provided him with a portion of the profits,” an affidavit by the investigators says. Sandoval returned $500 to the undercover officers and kept $7,500, and the agents left.
Herrera now admits that he was the “DEA agent” called by Sandoval. Herrera also says that Sandoval told Herrera that he intended to keep the money for personal use and offered Herrera $1,000. “I know now that the motorists were actually undercover law enforcement investigators and that Sandoval stole approximately $7,500 cash from them that actually belonged to the federal government,” Herrera states.
As of May, Herrera also faces an embezzlement charge in state court. He’s accused of taking three Glock pistols and leather jackets from the Springer Police Department and has pleaded not guilty.
Springer Mayor Fernando Garcia said the embezzlement case was investigated by the State Police at his request. He said Herrera left the Springer police in the summer of 2014, after several years with the department. Garcia also said that while Herrera was called chief, he was officially an interim chief before Garcia “bumped him back to sergeant.”
“I just hope justice is served and people here can rest with peace that we’ve done the honorable things by this community,” said the mayor.