The U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction of a former sheriff this week convicted of beating a victim during a road rage incident. Driving an unmarked SUV and not wearing his uniform, the sheriff neglected to identify himself before pulling out his gun and repeatedly striking the victim. Although the sheriff’s son participated in the assault, the charges against him were later dropped due to a medical condition.
On March 11, 2014, Rio Arriba County Sheriff Thomas Rodella and his son, Thomas Rodella Jr., were driving in Rodella’s personal vehicle when 26-year-old Michael Tafoya cut them off in traffic. After a high-speed pursuit, Rodella managed to block Tafoya’s vehicle in a dead end with his unmarked SUV. Armed with a silver revolver, Rodella exited his SUV with his gun drawn and approached Tafoya’s car.
“Please don’t kill me,” Tafoya begged.
“It’s too late,” Rodella responded. “It’s too late.”
Instead of identifying himself as a law enforcement officer, Rodella proceeded to enter Tafoya’s car and assault the terrified man with his pistol. After sustaining injuries to his hand, Tafoya was dragged out of the car by Rodella Jr. and thrown facedown into the dirt. Standing over Tafoya, Rodella Jr. shouted, “Don’t you know this is the sheriff?”
When Tafoya asked to see Rodella’s badge, the sheriff pulled Tafoya’s head from the dirt by his hair then slammed his badge into his right cheek and eye. Tafoya was initially arrested on charges of aggravated assault of a peace officer and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, but prosecutors dismissed the case two weeks later. According to court documents, the injuries to Tafoya’s hand required surgical repair.
On August 12, 2014, both Rodella and his son were charged with conspiracy to violate Tafoya’s civil rights, unreasonable seizure, bodily harm, and making false statements in reports of the incident. Two weeks later, the charges against Rodella Jr. were dropped after prosecutors discovered the sheriff’s son has “a medical condition that puts into doubt whether he has the cognitive ability to form the specific intent necessary” for the alleged crimes. While serving in the Army in 2010, Rodella Jr. sustained a traumatic brain injury during a training exercise.
Convicted of violating Tafoya’s civil rights and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence, Rodella was sentenced to 10 years in prison on January 21. In announcing Rodella’s sentence, U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez stated, “When he attacked a defenseless innocent civilian, Sheriff Rodella chose to abuse his power rather than uphold his oath to protect the public. The Justice Department will continue to vigorously investigate and prosecute officers who cross that line because they discredit the noble service of every other law enforcement officer and weaken the public’s trust in those who are sworn to protect them.”
On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed Rodella’s conviction. Married to a member of the New Mexico House of Representatives, Rodella joined the state police in 1982 and retired on a disability pension in 1995. As a state police officer, Rodella had been disciplined for marijuana use, improper use of a weapon, physical abuse, falsifying official reports, abusing sick leave, and using his position for personal gain.
In 2005, then-Governor Bill Richardson appointed Rodella as a state magistrate judge but asked him to resign a few months later after Rodella released a friend who had been arrested for drunk driving.
The next year, Rodella won election to Rio Arriba County Magistrate Court. He was later accused of misconduct in several cases by the state Judicial Standards Commission, and in May 2008 the state Supreme Court removed him from the bench prohibiting Rodella from ever running for judicial office again.
In 2010, Rodella was elected sheriff of Rio Arriba County. Three years later, the FBI searched Rodella’s office while investigating allegations that Rodella had set up a fake scholarship fund accepting donations from motorists instead of issuing them traffic tickets. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque earlier this year, no scholarships had been awarded since the fund started.
Three days after a federal grand jury convicted him of deprivation of civil rights and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence, Rodella resigned from his position as sheriff on September 29, 2014.