Friday, Aug. 15, 2014 | 4:56 p.m.
ALBUQUERQUE — A northern New Mexico sheriff was arrested Friday on charges he cornered a driver at a dead end, threatened him with a silver revolver as the driver begged not to be shot and had him falsely charged with assault.
U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez announced Rio Arriba County Sheriff Thomas Rodella, who has had brushes with scandal throughout his career, and his son, Thomas Jr., were arrested by FBI agents at their Espanola homes in the March confrontation that left the driver injured. Authorities didn't detail the injuries.
An indictment says the men engaged "in a high-speed pursuit and unreasonable seizure" of the driver, identified in the court papers only as M.T. The sheriff was not in uniform when he jumped out of his Jeep SUV armed with a silver revolver, court papers said.
The driver was dragged from his car and thrown into the dirt, according to the papers. Thomas Rodella Jr., then identified his father as sheriff.
When the motorist asked to see Rodella's badge, the sheriff pulled the man's head from the dirt by his hair and then slammed the badge into his right cheek and eye, the indictment said.
The driver was arrested on charges of aggravated assault of a peace officer and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon on March 11, but prosecutors dismissed the case two weeks later.
The Rodellas pleaded not guilty at an arraignment in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque on charges of conspiring to violate the driver's civil rights, falsifying arrest documents and other charges.
Sheriff Rodella's attorney, Bob Gorence, told KRQE-TV at the arraignment that he was pleased a federal judge agreed to arraign both men because they wanted a speedy trial.
"We can't wait to try this, and I expect an inevitable acquittal and vindication," Gorence said.
A federal judge on Friday released both men on their own recognizance and ordered the sheriff not to carry a firearm.
Martinez, U.S. attorney for the District of New Mexico, said the Rodellas "acted under the color of law" when they cornered the driver at a dead end. He said it wasn't known if the sheriff's son was an off-duty deputy at the time.
"We take little pleasure in charges against any law enforcement official," Martinez said at a news conference.
The sheriff, whose wife, Debbie, is a longtime Democratic state legislator, has a faced a parade of misconduct allegations in his time in law enforcement and politics.
Last year, the FBI searched the sheriff's office in Espanola after media reports that Rodella's staff was accepting donations for a scholarship fund managed by Rodella, in lieu of prosecuting some traffic offenses.
Rodella was elected sheriff in 2010, despite having been ousted as a magistrate judge by the state Supreme Court two years earlier for misconduct. The court barred him from running again for judicial office.
He had been appointed as a magistrate in 2005 by then Gov. Bill Richardson, but resigned a few months later amid criticism — and pressure from Richardson — for helping secure the release of a family friend who had been jailed for drunken driving.
As a state police officer, Rodella was disciplined for marijuana use, improper use of a weapon, falsifying official reports, abusing sick leave and using his position for personal gain. He also was suspended for 30 days for firing at a deer decoy that game officers had set up to catch poachers.
Rodella served in the state police from 1982 until retiring in 1995 on a disability pension.
In the latest case, FBI agents raided Rodella's home in June just hours after he lost the Democratic nomination for Rio Arriba County sheriff to challenger James Lujan by 200 votes. Lujan was a deputy Rodella had fired.
Associated Press writer Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report.