AS TOMMY TURNS: The controversy over embattled county sheriff Tommy Rodella has taken multiple turns in the space of less than two weeks.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
Things are getting down and dirty in Rio Arriba County. They’re also getting murkier.
It’s been less than two weeks since Sheriff Tommy Rodella was arrested and charged in a five-count indictment by federal prosecutors in Albuquerque.
But nearly every day since then, new developments arise:
1. Tommy Jr. off the hook
On Wednesday morning, prosecutors announced they’re dismissing charges against Rodella’s son, Tommy Jr., saying the younger Rodella “has a medical condition that puts into doubt whether he has the cognitive ability to form the specific intent necessary to prove the charges against him beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office wouldn’t go into detail, but attorneys for the Rodellas told reporters at a news conference Wednesday the younger Rodella suffered a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Kosovo in the military.
Then they blasted prosecutors.
“There was no case. There was no case from the beginning. There is no case. And it took them arresting a man, putting him jail, putting him through what he’s been through, then later looking through critical records that the grand jury saw to dismiss the case,” Rodella Jr.’s attorney, Jason Bowles, said.
2. Hell no, I won’t go
On Aug. 21, the Rio Arriba County Commission, in a 3-0 vote, called on Sheriff Rodella to resign, saying the federal charges and a decision by the head of the state’s law enforcement academy to suspend Rodella’s law enforcement certification undercut his ability to lead the sheriff’s office. They called on Rodella to quit by the close of the business day Tuesday.
But the deadline came and went, and Rodella did not resign.
New Mexico Watchdog contacted the head of the New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association asking whether the organization was joining the chorus calling for Rodella to step down.
But executive director Jack LeVick said the sheriffs association is not getting involved.
“He could be totally innocent,” LeVick said. “We’ll let the courts and the judicial system handle it.”
When the county commissioners called on Rodella to resign, their letter was forwarded to the Governor’s Office, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office and the state district attorney responsible for Rio Arriba County.
“If (Rodella) feels it’s not the right thing to resign, then we have to ask higher authorities than us, is it the right thing, what does he do to us and how does he jeopardize the county,” commissioner Barney Trujillo told New Mexico Watchdog.
But on Wednesday, the Attorney General’s Office said it won’t weigh in.
“The AG’s policy has always been not to discuss matters that are being handled by other jurisdictions,” spokesman Phil Sisneros said in an email. “That is primarily to avoid any conflicts should the case eventually come before the (attorney general’s office). As of today, there are no plans to become involved.”
Messages left with the office of Gov. Susana Martinez and District Attorney Spence Pacheco went unreturned.
3. Take that!
Rodella’s office is apparently trying to turn the tables on the Rio Arriba County officials who want him out.
After the commissioners signed the letter calling for Rodella to quit, New Mexico Watchdog went to the sheriff’s office to get a comment from Rodella.
Rio Arriba Undersheriff Vince Crespin said Rodella was not in. Crespin read a copy of the letter, made his own copy and referred New Mexico Watchdog to the county’s public information officer. The letter listed 11 examples of what the commissioners said was Rodella’s “substandard performance.” Click here to read the three-page letter.
Shortly after New Mexico Watchdog left the sheriff’s office, the Albuquerque Journal reported Crespin approached the county’s assistant manager, saying the sheriff’s office was conducting an investigation and three county officials needed “to make themselves available” for it.
The officials accused Rodella of trying to intimidate them.
But on Tuesday, the chief of the New Mexico State Police told the Santa Fe New Mexican he has ordered an investigation into Rio Arriba County officials for alleged fraud and embezzlement.
Commissioner Trujillo did not return a phone call by New Mexico Watchdog on Tuesday. But, moments after the commission called for Rodella’s resignation, when asked if he feared any retribution, Trujillo said, “As long as I’m staying on the right track I think I’ll be OK … I know Rio Arriba County gets a black eye in some people’s minds, but this is a great place.”
4. CSI, Española
In yet another development, documents show prosecutors are looking into DNA evidence that may be tied to Rodella’s badge.
The entire case against Rodella centers on a vehicle chase involving the Rodella, his son and a 26-year-old Española motorist in March.
Rodella — not in uniform and riding in his personal, unmarked vehicle — was traveling with Tommy Jr. The Rodellas say they pulled over the motorist and arrested him for driving dangerously.
The motorist contends the Rodellas chased him down and the sheriff lunged at him with a gun. The 26-year-old said he feared for his life and, when he asked the elder Rodella to see his badge, Rodella said, “Here’s my badge, mother(bleep)” and allegedly shoved the badge into the driver’s cheek.
The Albuquerque Journal reports the just-released documents reveal the FBI was searching for Rodella’s badge to test it for DNA. According to an affidavit, a booking photo of the motorist showed “a reddish, swollen area under his right eye.”
But at Wednesday’s news conference, the elder Rodella’s lawyer scoffed at the story.
“Did (prosecutors) present the information where (the motorist) said he never was injured? Did they present the FBI DNA analysis, which completely refutes his assertion that a badge was used as a weapon to scar his face? No, none of that happened,” said attorney Robert Gorence.
5. Trial coming soon
Rodella’s trial has been set for Sept. 22 in federal court in Albuquerque.
Rodella insists he’s innocent. “I’m not going anywhere,” Rodella said four days after a judge released him on his own recognizance.
Gorence has accused U.S. Attorney for New Mexico Damon P. Martinez of having a vendetta against Rodella.
Rodella’s lawyers claim Martinez withheld information from the grand jury that would have cleared Rodella and say they can produce witnesses who can testify Martinez threatened Rodella “if he were to interfere with the activities of U.S. Fish and Wildlife personnel.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office wouldn’t comment on the accusation.
After Rodella and his son were released by a federal judge Aug. 15, some members of the Rodella family wore T-shirts that said, “When Injustice Becomes Law Rebellion Becomes Duty.”
But even if acquitted, Rodella’s term as sheriff will end Dec. 31 because he lost his bid for re-election in June. In the Democratic primary, James Lujan defeated Rodella by 200 votes. Lujan is a former deputy fired by Rodella. There is no Republican running in the general election.
Rio Arriba County has a long history of political hardball, but this latest chapter is shaping up to be one of epic proportions.
“I hope it never gets to a level of vindictiveness,” Trujillo told New Mexico Watchdog last week.
It looks like he spoke too soon.