New Mexico Sheriff and Son Indicted for Pistol-Whipping Incident

The history of law enforcement in New Mexico—dating back to the days of the Wild West, if not earlier—is littered with the names of men who, in a just society, would have been run out of the state on a rail instead of given a badge and a gun.

For instance, lawman Pat Garrett gained international fame in 1881 as the man who killed Billy the Kid (under still murky circumstances).

But Garrett was also a notoriously unlikable bully who bragged, drank, gambled or shot his way out of essentially every job he ever held, until he was finally shot and killed in 1908 during an argument with a southern New Mexico rancher over goats.

There were also disreputable lawmen like Sheriff William Brady and Billy the Kid himself (who was briefly deputized as a "Regulator" during the 1878 Lincoln County range wars) but, hell, just go watch Young Guns again to get the gist of those stories.

Rio Arriba County Sheriff Thomas Rodella and his son, Sheriff's Deputy Thomas Rodella, Jr., could soon find themselves added to that pantheon of Land of Enchantment law enforcement mediocrity.

Thanks to federal prosecutors, Rodella, 52, and Rodella Jr., 26, are potentially facing several decades in prison after allegedly violating the civil rights of a motorist they apprehended and allegedly pistol-whipped following a chase in March.

The two were indicted in an Albuquerque federal court last Friday. Trial is set to start in September.

According to U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez, the younger Rodella was with his father and driving his dad's unmarked personal Jeep on March 11 when they chased down a 26-year-old driver—identified by the Rio Grande Sun as Michael Tafoya—who prosecutors say was driving the posted speed limit of 35 mph.

The two Rodellas (neither of whom were in uniform) allegedly tailgated and eventually stopped Tafoya and challenged him to a fight.

Prosecutors say that Tafoya then drove away again. When the Rodellas managed to pull Tafoya over again, Sheriff Rodella got out of his Jeep, jumped into Tafoya's vehicle and beat the man with his revolver.

Tafoya, who federal prosecutors say was begging the Rodellas not to shoot him, was then allegedly dragged out of his vehicle and thrown to the ground by Rodella Jr.

The senior Rodella then allegedly pulled Tafoya's head up out of the dirt by his hair, shoved his badge in Tafoya's face and yelled, "You want to see my badge? Here's my badge, motherfucker!"

Sheriff Rodella then called in other deputies to arrest Tafoya, before he and his son allegedly falsified police reports to show that Tafoya had tried to assault the Sheriff with his vehicle.

Sheriff Rodella and his son each face five counts in federal court—one count of conspiracy against the free exercise of civil rights, deprivation of rights, brandishing a firearm and two counts of falsifying documents.

But according to the Albuquerque Journal, attorneys for Sheriff Rodella—who actually lost his reelection bid in June and whose term expires at the end of the year—claim that the charges are part of a vendetta against the Rodellas, saying that Martinez was hostile to Rodella after a heated argument between the two regarding a dispute with the U.S. Forest Service over what Rodella claimed was federal overreach over land use in the county.

Rodella's attorneys say that during the meeting last May, Martinez threatened the sheriff with arrest if he interfered the Forest Service patrols. The attorneys say they sent Martinez a letter on Tuesday claiming that the charges were malicious and "vexatious."

"Multiple officials witnessed and will testify to your arrogant and vitriolic behavior during the meeting and what appeared to be your extreme hostility to Sheriff Rodella because he refused to your unreasonable demands," the letter said.

Prosecutors and FBI agents who investigated the case disagree.

"A vast majority of law enforcement officers work courageously every day to make our communities safe," said Martinez in a statement. "Because those in uniform deserve our respect and support, it is vitally important to prosecute officers who violate their oaths of office and the public trust placed in them. The Department of Justice is committed to holding law enforcement officers accountable when they violate their sworn duty to uphold the Constitution."

In the same statement, FBI Special Agent in Charge Carol K.O. Lee says that nobody is above the law, regardless of rank or uniform.

"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."

This is far from the first time Thomas Rodella, Sr. has found himself in trouble for shady law enforcement work—in fact, the soon-to-be-ex-sheriff of Rio Arriba County has found himself in and out of legal and ethical trouble of one kind of another for at least the past 22 years.

It's nothing short of amazing that Sheriff Rodella's law enforcement career has survived long enough for him to get federally indicted in the first place.

It's a story that really could only happen in northern New Mexico, where a few prominent families have risen to the top of the state's social hierarchy to become political fixtures every bit as ubiquitous in New Mexico as, say, the Kennedys of Massachusetts or the Daleys of Chicago.

In Rio Arriba County, around the town of Española—located about 30 minutes north of the state capitol in Santa Fe—the Rodellas have become one of those fixtures.

Thomas Rodella Sr.'s wife, Debbie Rodella, is a longtime Democratic state representative and chairwoman of the House Business and Industry Committee and whose popularity in the area is such that she hasn't even had to face an opponent in eight years.

But Thomas Rodella's somewhat-checkered law enforcement career could send it all crashing down around them.

According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Rodella Sr. spent 13 years as an investigator with the New Mexico State Police but was the target of an internal affairs investigation that concluded that he used his position to fix traffic tickets in 1992 to help his wife's reelection campaign.

He was also disciplined at one time or another for using marijuana and abusing sick leave. In addition, he was also once arrested and suspended from the force for 30 days for shooting from his vehicle at a deer decoy used by Jicarilla Apache Nation game and wildlife officials to catch poachers.

He retired from the force in 1995 on a disability pension.

And yet somehow that wasn't the end of his law-enforcement career.

In 2006, Rodella lost his job as a magistrate judge for helping a friend out of a drunk driving charge, much to the chagrin of then-New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who had appointed Rodella to the job a year earlier to fill out an unexpired term and who had made improving the state's horrifying drunk driving statistics a priority as governor.

(It's commonly said that in New Mexico one out of every four drivers you see on the road at any given time is fucked-up on one thing or another. The actual statistics aren't quite that dire, but while it's getting better it's still pretty bad.)

But, in an astonishingly fast political comeback, Rodella was actually re-elected to the magistrate position he was forced to vacate in 2006—only to be forced out yet again and barred from ever running for reelection in 2010 by the state Supreme Court after he improperly told an alleged victim of domestic abuse that she didn't have to show up in court to testify against her husband.

Permanently booted off the bench—but not actually barred from running for another political office—Rodella made another unlikely political comeback by winning the race for Rio Arriba County Sheriff in 2010, winning with just 25 percent of the vote in a field of seven other candidates.

But even that victory celebration didn't last long before Rodella managed to step in shit yet again. In 2012, Rodella fired one of the candidates for sheriff he defeated in 2010, Deputy James Luján, from the force.

Luján (another prominent surname in northern New Mexico politics, although the two are not directly related) then sued the department for unlawful termination and won a $102,000 settlement.

In a turnabout highlighting Rodella's latest fall, Luján then actually defeated Rodella in the Democratic primary for sheriff in June. His term in office will begin on January 1.

(In Rio Arriba County, like in many places across the heavily-blue northern New Mexico, winning the Democratic primary is essentially the same as winning the overall general election, which is typically only a formality. In fact, in the last round of county elections the Republican Party didn't even bother to try.)

Prosecutors in court said that Rodella's son, Thomas Rodella Jr., has a documented history of steroid abuse, and is forbidden from using any drugs not prescribed by his doctor as a condition of his release pending trial.

So now, in a time where across the nation the excesses and abuses of law enforcement are the focus of worldwide attention and disdain, the two Rodellas, if convicted, could be facing the next 37 years behind bars.

As part of the terms of their release pending their federal trial, neither is allowed to carry a firearm, contact any witnesses in the trial, discuss the trial with any other members of the Rio Arriba Sheriff's Department or leave the county without permission.

The federal court ruled that Rodella is allowed to stay on as Rio Arriba County sheriff, provided that the county commission wants to keep him. That body has scheduled a meeting for August 21 to discuss the matter.

Around Española, some say that this might have finally been the final straw for the Rodella family—the key word there being might.

"I think voters in Northern New Mexico are very forgiving," former Espanola Mayor Joe Maestas told the New Mexican. "They're steady and consistent. But this development could change that. There are folks who think a line has been crossed."

UPDATE (7:30 PM): Rio Arriba County Sheriff Thomas Rodella has been stripped of his New Mexico law enforcement certification, KOB-TV in Albuquerque reports. According to a letter sent to Rodella from the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy, Rodella was stripped because he was indicted on felony charges.

The move would not necessarily force Rodella to step down from the Rio Arriba Sheriff's Department however, as the office of sheriff is an elected position and certification isn't technically required.

It's unclear if Rodella's son, who also has also been indicted on felony charges with his father, has received a similar letter–which could potentially lead to termination from his position as a deputy. (h/t to BaconBurrito)

Image via Rio Arriba Sheriff's Department