GALLUP, N.M. – Mayor Harry Mendoza pleaded no contest Tuesday to public affray for his role in a fistfight with the publisher of the city's newspaper.
Mendoza had faced misdemeanor assault and battery charges stemming from the fight with Gallup Independent publisher Bob Zollinger. But before his trial was to start, the mayor agreed to enter a plea to the single charge of voluntarily engaging in a fight in a public place.
Colfax County Magistrate Warren Walton listened to arguments via a video monitor before giving Mendoza 182 days of probation and ordering him to make a $100 donation to Gallup's crime stopper program. The mayor also must write a letter of apology to the community, which can be published in any newspaper other than the Gallup Independent.
The charges against the mayor stemmed from a fistfight with Zollinger on Jan. 6 outside a Gallup bank. The men were at odds over newspaper articles linking Mendoza to the gang rape of a teenage girl in 1948, when Mendoza was 16 years old.
The mayor has denied the allegations and filed a defamation lawsuit against Zollinger, who stands by the articles.
"I was provoked and I'm sorry that it happened," the 78-year-old mayor told the judge, as Zollinger and a handful of reporters watched the proceeding while crammed into a small room at the Gallup detention center. Zollinger and Mendoza exchanged only quick glances.
Walton took Mendoza's record of public service into consideration and noted that as the mayor, the community holds him to a higher standard and he should not have let Zollinger get to him.
Zollinger said he was fine with the punishment handed down Tuesday.
"All this shows is that Harry is a thug," he said.
Albuquerque attorney Sam Bregman, who represented the mayor, told the judge the articles and editorials accusing the mayor of being a rapist were "outlandish and outrageous." He argued that Mendoza has no criminal history, only a history of military service and service to his community as a public official.
"Mr. Mendoza did something he shouldn't have. He hit back," Bregman said. "This was uncharacteristic of Mr. Mendoza."
Bregman showed the judge several police reports that involved altercations Zollinger had with others in the Gallup community between 1998 and 2002.
"Mr. Zollinger has perfected the art of provoking people. He is a bully," Bregman said.
Prosecutor Kirk Chavez acknowledged Zollinger is known for his "firm way" but had no criminal intent.
"They were in a loud discussion outside of a bank, two of the most important people in Gallup acting like fools. It turned bad," Chavez said.
Chavez said it might have been different had Mendoza reacted with one or two blows, but he told the judge the mayor continued for 15 to 20 seconds.
The bank's surveillance video shows the men chasing each other around a vehicle. It was about five minutes before witnesses broke up the fight.
Mendoza and Zollinger each claim the other started the fight. The judge said that after watching the video he couldn't tell who was the aggressor.
Mendoza told investigators Zollinger started poking him in the chest, hitting his pacemaker. At the time, police said the mayor feared for his safety and punched Zollinger in the face, and by the end, both men ended up with their share of cuts and bruises.
Outside the jail, Bregman vowed to hold Zollinger accountable for remarks he has made about the mayor.
"Enough with his bullying. We're not going to take it anymore. We're going to hold him responsible in a civil court," Bregman said.
Zollinger said the defamation case would be "a waste of time and money."
The judge warned Mendoza that Zollinger wasn't going away and the newspaper articles might continue.
"It doesn't matter how it makes you feel. You just need to walk away," he told the mayor.
Mendoza acknowledged the situation has been frustrating.
"I'm just glad it's over," he said.