ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A northern New Mexico sheriff abused his power when he unnecessarily chased a motorist and pointed his revolver to the driver’s head in “a fit of road rage,” a federal prosecutor said Monday.
During opening statements in the civil rights trial of Rio Arriba County Thomas Rodella, federal prosecutor Tara Neda told jurors that Rodella couldn’t control his temper during the encounter and roughed up Michael Tafoya, 26, following a bizarre March late afternoon tailgating chase.
Neda said Rodella, along with his son, in an unmarked vehicle cornered Tafoya. Rodella reached into Tafoya’s car “gun first” and pointed it at his head, leaving Tafoya begging for his life, Neda said.
“This is a case about a sheriff abusing his power,” Neda said. “It’s about his inability to control his temper.”
But defense attorney Louren Oliveros said Rodella simply pulled over a motorist who was driving recklessly, identified himself as the sheriff and tried to stop Tafoya from hurting others. She said the traffic stop, which resulted in Tafoya’s arrest for aggravated battery on an officer, did not result in any injuries and Tafoya was fleeing for unknown reasons.
“Michael Tafoya was not injured,” Oliveros said. “Sheriff Rodella (did) what you expect him to do as a sheriff.”
Charges against Tafoya were later dropped. Charges were also dismissed against Rodella’s son.
Authorities said Rodella was in plainclothes when he pulled over Tafoya, jumped out of his personal SUV with a gun, and shoved his badge in Tafoya’s face.
Rodella has pleaded not guilty to charges of deprivation of rights and brandishing a firearm. If convicted on both counts, he faces a maximum of 17 years in prison.
Robert Gorence, a Rodella attorney, denied the allegations against his client and said the case is largely based on a dispute with U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez over U.S. Forest Service patrols in northern New Mexico.
Tafoya testified Monday that he felt his life was in danger when Rodella chased him and pulled out his gun. “I said, ‘please don’t kill me’,” Tafoya said.
Tafoya said Rodella replied: “It’s too late. It’s too late.”
Defense lawyers are scheduled to cross-examine Tafoya on Tuesday.
Since Rodella’s indictment last month, some elected officials in the rural, northern New Mexico county have called for his resignation.
Rodella has responded by asking state police to investigate various allegations of corruption by county officials. He said he had no plans to step down.
FBI agents raided Rodella’s home in June just hours after he lost the Democratic nomination for sheriff to challenger James Lujan by 200 votes. Lujan was a deputy Rodella had fired.