Rio Arriba County Sheriff Thomas Rodella and his son are accused of assaulting a New Mexico motorist in March and then falsely claiming the driver had tried to run them down. Rodella lost re-election in June. / Rio Arriba County Sheriffâ??s Office
The FBI on Friday arrested a New Mexico sheriff and his son for allegedly threatening a motorist with a gun, assaulting him and then falsely charging him with trying to run them down.
Rio Arriba County Sheriff Thomas Rodella, 52, and his 26-year-old son, Thomas Jr., were indicted Tuesday on civil rights, firearms, unreasonable seizure and falsifying documents charges relating to the March 11 confrontation in northern New Mexico. They pleaded not guilty in federal court and were released without bond. The judge barred the sheriff from carrying a gun.
Rodella, whose wife, Debbie, is a longtime Democratic state representative, has been mired in misconduct scandals for years, beginning with his years in the state police from 1982 to 1995, the Associated Press notes.
"We take little pleasure in charges against any law enforcement official," U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez said Friday at a news conference.
After the arraignment, Rodella's lawyer, Robert Gorence, told KRQE-TV, "We can't wait to try this, and I expect an inevitable acquittal and vindication."
He said the indictment only includes allegations made by the motorist, identified only as M.T. In March, the sheriff's office identified him as 26-year-old Michael Tafoya.
He was charged with aggravated assault of a peace officer and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, but prosecutors dismissed the case after two weeks.
The indictment says the Rodellas were driving fast on State Route 399 in the sheriff's personal Jeep SUV and initially tailgated the victim, who was driving the posted 35 mph speed limit. When the man pulled his white sedan off the road to let them pass, the Rodellas parked in front and "motioned to M.T. to exit his car and fight." The man then speed off, and the Rodellas gave chase, with the son at the wheel.
They eventually cornered him in a dead-end lane. The sheriff, who was not in uniform, jumped out with a silver revolver in his hand and hit the motorist with the gun, according to the indictment. The driver begged not to be shot.
The junior Rodella then dragged the man from his car, threw him face down in the dirt and said, "Don't you know that is the sheriff?"
When the victim asked to see his badge, the sheriff pulled his head up by the hair, and "slammed" his badge into the victim's right cheek and eye and yelled, "You want to see my badge? Here's my badge, motherf-----!"
The sheriff then called his deputies to the scene and then falsely claimed the man had tried to run them down, according to the indictment, which accuses the sheriff and his son of acting "under color of law."
In a report filed the day after, Rodella claimed that the motorist, had entered the highway at high speed and that he had to swerve to avoid hitting him. He also alleged that the driver had "made more than one attempt to run me over" on the shoulder.
The junior Rodella made similar sworn statements.
If convicted of falsifying documents, the sheriff and his son could each face maximum prison sentences of 20 years, while the conspiracy and civil rights charges carry maximum terms of 10 years.
The sheriff could also face a mandatory seven years if convicted of the weapons charge, which would be served consecutive with any other sentence.
"Let today's arrests serve notice to those few out there who would tarnish their badge by violating the public trust: the FBI will thoroughly investigate each and every allegation, and the U.S. Attorney's Office will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law," FBI Special Agent in Charge Carol K.O. Lee said in a news release.
Rodella's troubles began early in his law enforcement career.
As a New Mexico trooper he was disciplined for smoking marijuana, improperly using a weapon, falsifying official reports, abusing sick leave and using his position for personal gain.
Last year, the FBi investigated allegations that in lieu of traffic fines, his staff accepted donations to a scholarship fund he controlled.
In June, just hours after Rodella lost the Democratic primary in his bid to be re-elected to another four years, FBI agents raided his Espanola home over the alleged assault of Tafoya.
A former magistrate judge, Rodella was elected sheriff in 2010 even though the state Supreme Court had ousted him for misconduct and permanently barred him from judicial office.
The U.S. attorney said the federal charges don't mandate Rodella's removal; that decision rests with state and local officials.
Read the original story: N.M. sheriff accused of assaulting motorist