A New Mexico sheriff and his son are facing charges after they allegedly chased down a man who cut them off while they were off-duty and on the highway, wrestled him to the ground and pointed a gun at him.
The incident happened in March of this year. The sheriff, Tommy Rodella, and his son, Tommy Rodella Jr., a volunteer reserve deputy in the Sheriff’s Office, were “in the sheriff’s personal vehicle” when Michael Tafoya turned onto the road, possibly cutting them off, according to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Albuquerque.
They pursued Tafoya, both at high- and low-speeds as he tried to let them pass, through the town of Española.
Eventually, the indictment says, they cut off Tafoya’s car on a private road, and the father, “who was not in his uniform,” jumped out of his vehicle and climbed in through the passenger side of Tafoya’s car brandishing a silver revolver.
The two face five counts of conspiracy against the free exercise of civil rights, deprivation of rights, brandishing a firearm and two counts of falsification of documents.
Tafoya has asserted in an interview with the local television station KOB that the sheriff never identified himself as a law enforcement official.
"We were wrestling with the gun, and I was begging him not to kill me," Tafoya said.
According to the indictment, Rodella Jr. then opened the driver’s side door and threw Tafoya to the ground, yelling, “Don’t you know that this is the sheriff?”
If convicted, the two men face sentences of up to 37 years in prison.
“The Department of Justice is committed to holding law enforcement officers accountable when they violate their sworn duty to uphold the Constitution,” said U.S. Attorney Damon P. Martinez in announcing the indictment.
Carol K.O. Lee, a FBI Special Agent whose Albuquerque office was in charge of the investigation, added, “As the lead agency for enforcing federal civil rights laws, the FBI wants to make it clear no one is above the law, regardless of what uniform you wear or rank you hold. Those charged with upholding the law must and will be held accountable.”
Despite the strong words, a judge on Friday released the sheriff and his son on their own recognizance after they pleaded not guilty to the charges.
In fact, the sheriff is back at his job. U.S. Attorney Martinez said the charges against Rodella do not necessitate his removal from office. The sheriff lost a re-election in June.
This isn’t the first time ethical concerns have come up against Rodella. According to KOB, in 2013 he was alleged to have agreed to let drivers who were ticketed with traffic violations off in exchange for $500 contributions to an inactive scholarship fund.