ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella and his son, Tommy Rodella Jr., pleaded not guilty Friday morning in federal court to charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights, deprivation of rights, brandishing a firearm and falsifying police documents.
The charges stem from a March 11 incident in which Sheriff Rodella and his son, a reserve deputy, were driving in Española and encountered Michael Tafoya. The five-count indictment, returned Tuesday, alleges that the Rodellas dragged Tafoya from his vehicle, beat him and then lied to about what happened when they gave statements to the deputies who Sheriff Rodella called to the scene.
“We take little pleasure in charges against any law enforcement official,” said Damon Martinez, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico. “But it is vitally important that we pursue these cases… where they violate their sworn duty to uphold the Constitution.”
Martinez noted the first two charges allege Rodella’s standing as sheriff — and the fact that he flashed his badge at Tafoya during the incident — meant he was acting “under color of law”. Martinez refused to say what motivated the alleged crimes.
Both Rodellas were released on their own recognizance Friday afternoon. Sheriff Rodella will not be allowed to carry a gun. The younger Rodella will not be able to have any contact with law enforcement other than his father. The pair may not leave Rio Arriba County except for meetings with attorneys. The U.S. Attorney’s office objected to the terms of release.
Friday morning, the two appeared in shackles in U.S. Magistrate Judge Lorenzo Garcia’s courtroom for what was scheduled as a routine first appearance. The two men were arrested by by FBI agents Friday morning at separate locations in Española.
The scene in the courtroom Friday morning marked another strange turn for Tommy Rodella, who has now seen pretty much every side of the criminal justice system. He’s been a state police officer, a magistrate judge and the top law enforcement officer for a Northern New Mexico county with a history of alleged corruption among public officials.
Now, Rodella is a defendant in federal court.
Sheriff Rodella’s attorney, Bob Gorence, asked that the pair be arraigned so as to trigger the federal speedy trial rule immediately.
Jason Bowles will represent Rodella Jr., but he was not in court Friday morning, so Gorence stood in for him.
Garcia granted the request for arraignment.
“Both plead not guilty to every county applicable,” Gorence told the judge.
Also present in court were Sheriff Rodella’s wife, state Rep. Debbie Rodella, D – Española, and other members of the Rodella family.
Debbie Rodella declined to comment outside the courtroom.
Gorence spoke with KRQE News 13 at the entrance to the courthouse after the hearing.
“I’m glad that Judge Garcia conducted an arraignment and allowed not guilty pleas,” Gorence said. “We can’t wait to try this, and I expect an inevitable acquittal and vindication.”
Gorence noted that the indictment doesn’t include anything from the lone eye witness to the March incident.
“I want to see the grand jury transcript to see if the U.S. Attorney’s Office even put in the testimony of the neutral eye witness,” he said.
U.S. Attorney Martinez declined to say whether the witness testified in front of the grand jury.
Gorence described the March incident as “a lawful arrest of Mr. Tafoya.”
Sheriff Rodella claims Tafoya was driving recklessly when he pulled his Mazda out onto NM 399 in front of a Jeep, which Rodella’s son was driving. The Jeep was a private vehicle and Tafoya says he had no idea who was behind him. The Rodellas gave chase and eventually the sheriff got out of the Jeep and walked toward Tafoya’s car. Tafoya claims he stopped to let the Jeep pass. Instead, he says, the Rodellas got out and threatened him. Fearing a fight, the 26-year-old Tafoya took off in his car.
Tafoya drove down a nearby dirt road to escape, passing the eye witness and reaching a dead end where he tried unsuccessfully to turn around. That’s where the stories diverge again.
The sheriff says he showed Tafoya his badge throughout the encounter and only pulled out his gun because Tafoya almost ran him over as he again got out of the Jeep.
Tafoya’s version, which appears in the federal indictment, says Rodella jumped out of the jeep with a gun in his hand and dove head first into the passenger seat of Tafoya’s car. That’s when the sheriff allegedly assaulted Tafoya with a silver revolver.
Then, according to the indictment, the younger Rodella dragged Tafoya out of the car and threw him into the dirt face first. Tafoya says he only saw the badge as the sheriff hit him in the eye with it and cursed at him.
Sheriff Rodella called deputies to the scene. They arrested Tafoya and booked him on charges of resisting arrest, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated assault on a police officer. The district attorney’s office quickly dismissed those charges.
Gorence said federal agents have been trying to find something to charge Rodella with for more than a year and a half — an apparent reference to an earlier investigation involving allegations of ticket-fixing.
“This U.S. Attorney’s Office has been pursuing groundless allegations of an infinite variety for a year and a half, and they came up with nothing because there is nothing,” he said.
In another unusual move, Garcia agreed to conduct a detention hearing on the same day the Rodellas were arrested and arraigned. That hearing will be at 2 p.m. Friday.
Carol Lee, FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Albuquerque office, said Friday’s arrests should serve as a notice to those in power that they, too, will be held accountable.
“No one is above the law, regardless of the uniform or badge you wear,” Lee said.
Rodella has worn many and found trouble with most.
In 2008, the New Mexico Supreme Court removed him as a Rio Arriba County Magistrate Judge and permanently barred him from the bench after what it called “willful misconduct in office.” In 2006, Rodella was elected to a position he’d stepped down barely a year earlier amid pressure from then-Gov. Bill Richardson. Richardson initially appointed Rodella to the post in 2005, but within months, Rodella resigned after claims he helped the father of a friend get out of jail following a drunk driving arrest.
During his career as a state police officer, Rodella was disciplined repeatedly for offenses such as using marijuana and shooting at a deer decoy that had been set up by another agency to catch poachers.
Rodella and his son both face up to 10 years on each of the first two counts of the indictment. The third count, involving Rodella’s gun, carries a mandatory seven years for the sheriff. The final two counts carry a possible sentence of up to 20 years for Rodella and his son.
In interview with KRQE News 13, Rio Arriba County Manager Tomas Campos said he has already explored options for life without Tommy Rodella. He doesn’t believe they can remove the sheriff unless he is convicted. Campos called on Rodella to step down, though said he hasn’t been able to do so in person.
“Ever since this investigation started,” Campos said, “I haven’t been able to really talk to the sheriff. He’s here and he’s not here. And he doesn’t answer phone calls.”
The county planned to have Undersheriff Vince Crespin take over Rodella’s duties while the sheriff’s case wends its way through the federal court system, but attorney Bob Gorence said Friday afternoon that his client has no plans to step down.
Campos said he’s concerned that the county will be on the hook for the Rodellas’ legal defense.
During Rodella’s arraignment the judge allowed him to be released without bond. As part of his conditions of release, Rodella is not allowed to leave Rio Arriba County and he is not allowed to carry a gun.