A jury deliberated felony charges against former Rio Arriba County sheriff James Lujan for harboring a felon and intimidating a witness. This was the second time a jury considered the charges but this time, jurors returned with a verdict.
Lujan was sentenced to three years in prison, followed by 18 months of probation, after a Santa Fe jury found him guilty of both felony counts.
Lujan resigned last Wednesday after the verdict, and officers took him into custody the next day after District Court Judge Kathleen McGarry Ellenwood delivered his sentence.
On the night of March 14, 2017, Lujan delivered a restraining order to former Española City Councilor Phillip Chacon and removed him from his home hours after Chacon had evaded Española police on a pursuit at speeds of more than 110 miles per hour. Lujan claimed he was acting on an unrelated domestic disturbance call, and that he was unaware that Chacon had committed a felony. Former deputy Cody Lattin was with Lujan, and he testified against his old boss, saying the sheriff had intimidated him to keep quiet about helping Chacon avoid arrest by city police.
The trial that took place at the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2 was a retrial of the proceeding in June at Tierra Amarilla. In both trials, Ninth District Attorney Andrea Reeb, appointed special prosecutor in the case, argued that Lujan had used the restraining order along with a supposed domestic incident as an excuse to help his friend evade jail that night, then intimidated his deputy to keep it under wraps.
The June trial resulted in a hung jury, with eight jurors voting to acquit and four voting for a guilty verdict.
Following that first trial, Reeb told the SUN that deputies held a barbecue during the proceedings and Lujan’s son sat two feet away from the jury foreman.
“I talked to too many people who told me, ‘Anywhere but Rio Arriba County, that would have been a conviction,’” Reeb said.
Ellenwood granted a change of venue in July.
In last week’s trial, Reeb presented the state’s case, including Lattin’s testimony and E-911 calls from the night of the incident showing that Lujan requested information about Chacon’s incident as well as the call recordings. Lujan asked the dispatcher to call him on his cell phone — which the dispatcher denied — and he requested secrecy regarding his requests.
“What motive does Cody Lattin have to lie?” Reeb said during closing arguments last Wednesday. “What does he have to gain by lying? Are all of the witnesses lying? Are the dispatch logs inaccurate? Let’s talk about who has the motive to lie: Billy Merrifield.”
Attorney Jason Bowles, representing Lujan, argued that Española police had violated the Safe Pursuit Act in pursuing Chacon, that Lattin was an unreliable witness and that Lujan hadn’t known that Chacon had committed aggravated fleeing of officers before delivering the restraining order that night.
The jury deliberated for about two hours before delivering both guilty verdicts.
During the Dec. 2 sentencing hearing witnesses testified for and against Lujan.
Former police officer and secret service agent Dennis Maez investigated the case for the state. He testified that, after talking to dozens of citizens and deputies in Rio Arriba County, many declined to be involved for fear of retribution from the sheriff.
“When I talked to people, I was stunned,” Maez said. “I was stunned that another law enforcement official would run his agency like a mafia crime family. If there is anyone who deserves a substantial term of incarceration, it’s James Lujan.”
Española Police Chief Roger Jimenez also testified Dec. 2, referencing public scrutiny of police:
“The public cries are ‘they should be held to a higher standard.’ As a chief law enforcement officer of his county and an elected official voted in for the people and by the people, what level of standard should he be held to?”
Lujan’s sons and Rio Arriba County Health and Human Services Director Lauren Reichelt, among others, testified to Lujan’s character as well as progress he made leading the Sheriff’s Office, requesting a lenient sentence.
Reichelt said she didn’t recognize the James Lujan or Rio Arriba County being characterized by other witnesses.
“I’ve worked there for a long time,” she said. “I have not experienced it as an extremely corrupt place. I have heard it often described that way, and it angers me. I usually hear it from people who don’t live there.”
Lujan offered a short statement on his own behalf:
“Your honor, I try to do the best I can to help everybody I can, and I in no way would want to harm anyone or hurt anyone.”
Before delivering his sentence, Ellenwood told Lujan he had let down the people of Rio Arriba County and broken the trust they placed in him by electing him sheriff.
“You are not above the law,” she said. “Nor can you ignore the law when it serves your purpose.”
Reeb said she was frustrated after the June trial, but that the court delivered a strong message this time around to the County and state that such conduct would not be tolerated, especially by an elected official who is supposed to be upholding the law.
Jimenez said he wished they could have worked together.
“I didn’t want to be there,” he said, “and I never thought I would be, testifying against a cop, let alone a sheriff. But I still have a great working relationship with Major Merrifield, and I hope we can have more collaboration and teamwork moving forward.”
Española City Councilor Peggy Sue Martinez also testified in the trial about a letter Lujan wrote to her as E-911 Board Chair in which he asserted that he was the “highest law enforcement officer in the county.” Martinez declined to comment on the outcome of the trial.
Lujan faces another trial in January for three misdemeanor charges of resisting, evading or obstructing EPD officers in March 2020.
County Manager Lucia Sánchez said Dec. 3 Merrifield, and not Undersheriff Martin Trujillo, was the highest-ranking deputy qualified to fulfill the vacancy following Lujan’s resignation.
“I believe that unfortunately Undersheriff Trujillo’s pending felony charges and the fact that he is bound over for trial prevent him from exercising the powers of sheriff,” Sánchez wrote in an email, “and that Major Merrifield is therefore the next in line to do so.”
The Rio Arriba County Commission met on Dec. 6, to officially appoint Merrifield as sheriff.
Rio Arriba County will hold a sheriff election in November 2022.