ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - A northern New Mexico sheriff who has fought off accusations of misconduct throughout his career was convicted Friday of abusing a driver during a bizarre traffic stop that prosecutors called a fit of road rage.
Rio Arriba County Sheriff Thomas Rodella, sitting in the defendant's chair rather than on the side of the law, and his family were visibly upset when jurors convicted him of pulling his gun on a driver and violating the 26-year-old's civil rights. His wife, state Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Espanola, sobbed after the verdict was read.
Rodella, one of the most powerful political figures in the state, now faces up to 17 years in prison. His sentencing date hasn't yet been determined.
"We take little pleasure in today's guilty verdict," said U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez, explaining that his office believes the vast majority of law enforcement officers are good public servants.
"It's a sad day when an officer is found guilty of something like this, as serious as this," Martinez said.
Driving his personal SUV and wearing street clothes, Rodella followed Michael Tafoya, pulled a gun on him and struck him in the face with his badge, authorities said.
Tafoya said the March encounter began when he turned onto a street in front of Rodella, and the two men gave each other the middle finger. Rodella, whose son was in the passenger seat, began to follow closely, Tafoya said.
When they reached a dead end, the sheriff jumped out holding his gun, dragged Tafoya into the street and struck him in the face with his badge, prosecutors said.
"I said, 'Please, don't kill me,' " Tafoya testified.
"It's too late. It's too late," Rodella replied, according to Tafoya.
Throughout the case, defense lawyers tried to portray Tafoya as a reckless driver whom Rodella was merely trying to stop in the interest of public safety. They also argued the case was largely based on a dispute with the U.S. attorney's office over U.S. Forest Service patrols in northern New Mexico.
Martinez denied that accusation.
Defense lawyers declined to comment as they left the courthouse.
It wasn't the first time Rodella has been accused of misconduct. Two other drivers testified that they had similar encounters with Rodella, although no federal charges were filed in either case. Prosecutors said the cases were presented to show a pattern of abuse.
Last year, the FBI searched the sheriff's office to investigate whether his staff accepted donations to a scholarship fund and then looked the other way on donors' traffic offenses. Rodella said the program helped students and denied any wrongdoing. No charges were ever filed.
Two years before being elected sheriff in 2010, Rodella was ousted as a magistrate judge by the state Supreme Court for several alleged infractions, including promising to rule in favor of campaign supporters during a rent dispute. The court barred him from running again for judicial office.
He had been appointed as a magistrate in 2005 by Gov. Bill Richardson, but resigned a few months later amid criticism - and pressure from Richardson - after news of his disciplinary problems with the state police became public. Rodella fired back at his critics, saying the governor was aware of his record.
Rodella retired from the state police department on a disability pension in 1995 after 13 years. During his time on the force, Rodella was disciplined for marijuana use, improper use of a weapon, falsifying official reports, abusing sick leave and using his position for personal gain, according to state reports.
State documents also show he was suspended for 30 days for firing at a deer decoy that game officers had set up to catch poachers. Rodella has declined comment on those reports.
As an incumbent in a June primary election, he lost the Democratic nomination for Rio Arriba County sheriff James Lujan by 200 votes. Lujan was a deputy whom Rodella had fired.
Since Rodella's indictment last month, some elected officials in the rural county have called for his resignation.
Rodella has refused and denied any wrongdoing and said he had no plans to step down. He has asked state police to investigate various allegations of corruption by county officials.