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Civil rights case against Sheriff Tommy Rodella widens

Updated: 09/01/2014 10:07 PM | Created: 09/01/2014 9:35 PM
By: Ryan Luby, KOB Eyewitness News 4

ALBUQUERQUE -- Federal prosecutors said Rio Arriba County's embattled sheriff made another questionable traffic stop months before he was charged in the arrest and beating of an Espanola man.

In newly-filed court paperwork, assistant attorneys in the U.S. Attorney's office in Albuquerque said 52-year-old Yvette Maes will testify against Sheriff Tommy Rodella at his upcoming trial.

Read: "Notice of intention to introduce evidence"

The attorneys said Rodella tailgated Maes as she was headed home one night in January.

"A vehicle rapidly approached her own from behind," the filing reads.

After the vehicle eventually passed her, Maes said she flashed her high beam headlights at it.  She said its driver then activated emergency lights and pulled over a short distance in front of her.

According to the filing, Rodella exited his vehicle, "appearing visibly upset," and told Maes that flashing high beams was a form of road rage.

Maes said she told Rodella that "his tailgating her was also a form of road rage."

She said she explained to Rodella that it was dark and she could not tell who was driving behind her.  When he explained that he was responding to an emergency, he "should have turned on his emergency lights and passed her."

According to the court filing, Rodella asked Maes "if she should go to jail."  She said that if Rodella thought it was appropriate, then he should take her there.

Maes said Rodella walked back to his car and drove away.

The attorneys said Rodella "engaged in highly similar conduct" in Maes's case as he did in the case involving Michael Tafoya.

Tafoya said Rodella and Rodella's son chased after him in their personal Jeep in March.  He said they tailgated him and cornered him at the end of a Rio Arriba County road.

Tafoya said Rodella never identified himself as sheriff until Rodella had him pinned to the ground, after they scuffled over Rodella's gun in Tafoya's Mazda.

"And he goes up to me while I'm on the ground, he grabs me by my hair, and he says, 'Here's my badge, (expletive)!'  And he slapped me across the face with the badge.  And he stuffed it right in my eye," Tafoya said.

EXPERT TESTIMONY

The U.S. Attorney's office also identified two expert witnesses who will testify at Sheriff Rodella's up-coming trial, which is set to begin toward the end of September.

Read: "United States' notice of intention to offer expert testimony"

Manuel Overby, an advanced instructor at the New Mexico Department of Public Safety's Law Enforcement Academy, reviewed the case files.  He said Rodella violated nationally-accepted police practices.

Overby said that based on statements Sheriff Rodella and Tafoya made about the chase, assuming they're accurate and true, he found the following unacceptable about Rodella's actions:

1.) Off-duty officers need not act on petty misdemeanor or misdemeanor traffic violations

2.) Rodella should have contacted emergency dispatchers, not his undersheriff, to assist with the call against Tafoya

3.) Rodella should not have engaged in a high-speed pursuit in a private vehicle with his son as a passenger

4.) Rodella should have waited in his vehicle for uniformed officers to arrive before approaching Tafoya's vehicle

5.) Rodella should not have jumped into Tafoya's moving vehicle, through a window, with his gun drawn

6.) Rodella failed to search Tafoya

7.) Rodella never should have tailgated Tafoya in his personal vehicle, even if he made a second attempt to identify himself, "because it would be difficult for a panicked driver to recognize he was a law enforcement officer."

8.) Rodella should not have shoved a gun in a suspect's face and said, "It's too late," when a the suspect begged for his life

9.) Rodella should not have pulled Tafoya's head by his hair and hit him in the face with a badge

Overby explained in his synopsis to the court that "national practices do not authorize an off-duty officer to violate the law himself in order to address an observed traffic violation."

A FBI investigator who specializes in forensic DNA testing, based in Quantico, Va., will also testify in Rodella's trial.  She'll detail her analysis of the four badges seized from Rodella's home in June.

FBI agents believed Tafoya's DNA may still be present on one of the badges after Rodella allegedly hit him.

According to a telephone interview the investigator had with the U.S. Attorney's office in Albuquerque, she said she did not expect to find any visible fluid or skin cells on the badges since so much time had passed.

Indeed, she did not draw any definitive conclusions since the DNA she uncovered was largely incomplete or mixed.

Still, she explained, "One allele analyzed contained a genetic sequence similar to that of Michael Tafoya.  However, the sample was too small to include him as a possible source of the DNA.  The sample also showed sufficient similarities with that of Mr. Tafoya's sample such that he cannot be excluded as the source of the sample."

The investigator tested the DNA found on the badges against a swab of Tafoya's saliva.

RODELLA'S RESPONSE

KOB contacted Rodella's attorney, Bob Gorence, on Monday.  He said he's been out of town since last week and had not reviewed the latest filings from the U.S. Attorney.

Gorence said he would not comment on the claims and allegations until he had a chance to file a response through the court.

Two weeks ago, Gorence wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez claiming the case against Rodella stemmed from a personal vendetta.

Read: Gorence letter to Attorney Martinez

Gorence wrote that he and his co-counsel "will be able to demonstrate that the government acted in bad faith, maliciously, and was vexatious."

According to Gorence, Martinez had a meeting with Rodella and numerous officials from Rio Arriba County in May.  Gorence claims Martinez ordered that the meeting not be recorded.  He also claims Martinez threatened Rodella with arrest and prosecution if he were to interfere with U.S. Fish and Wildlife personnel.


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