Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan’s retrial started Monday in the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe. Lujan faces felony charges of harboring or aiding a felon and bribery of a witness from an incident in March 2017.
The trial comes after a mistrial in Tierra Amarilla in June that resulted from a hung jury. During the June trial, Sheriff’s deputies gathered outside the courthouse for a cookout, had a dominating presence in the courthouse and allegedly behaved poorly. Judge Kathleen McGarry Ellenwood granted a change of venue for a retrial, calling the barbecue incident “inappropriate.”
The trial Monday began with both sides presenting their opening statements. On the night of March 14, 2017, Lujan was alleged to have helped his friend, former Española city councilor Phillip Chacon, evade arrest by other Española police officers as they searched for him. They were searching because there was a warrant out for Chacon’s arrest for aggravated fleeing of law enforcement officers: Chacon had fled from Española police at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour.
Lujan told a deputy to meet him at Chacon’s house that night to serve a restraining order and take him away.
“He is an elected official who used his power and ability to determine whether his friend Phillip Chacon would be arrested that night,” special prosecutor Andrea Reeb said.
Monday afternoon, during cross-examination, Deputy Cody Lattin recounted his experience from the night of the incident, explaining that he was never told to keep silent about what happened, but that he was worried he would lose his job if he did say anything.
“The reason I didn’t say anything was because I was intimidated by my supervisor,” he said. “He could terminate me.”
Lujan’s attorney, Jason Bowles, said Lujan never knew that officers were looking for Chacon that night, and that he never threatened Lattin.
In response, Lattin said he was never directly threatened by Lujan, but that he was worried about losing his job.
Bowles then brought up an incident from Lattin’s previous law enforcement job, where he was accused of lying about serving four years of active military duty. Lattin said he never lied, but he did ask his supervisor why those who served active duty were paid more than him. When pressed for more details by Bowles, he insisted that he couldn’t remember much about it, as it was years ago, but that he remembered it was looked into and then eventually dropped.
Bowles also said that Lujan had written a letter praising Lattin’s work several years ago, but Lattin couldn’t remember details about the letter, and why it was written.
On Tuesday, special prosecutor Andrea Reeb called several witnesses and presented evidence for her arguments that Lujan knew Chacon had committed aggravated fleeing and that Lujan threatened Lattin.
On the witness stand, Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office Major Billy Merrifield described Lujan as his friend and boss. He said that when he saw the restraining order, there were boxes checked, then crossed out and initialed. He said it was unusual. Merrifield asked Lujan about it, and he asked Lattin if there was quid pro quo.
“We don’t do this for anyone else,” Merrifield said. “But he’s an elected official, and sometimes they do their own thing. Sometimes they want to help a family member out. He’s done it before.”
Security consultant Dennis Maez was hired by the state to investigate the case, and he said he was not sure who initialed the changes to the order.
Reeb played some of the 911 calls and dispatch calls that were made that night, and Josh Archuleta, Department Director of the Española and Rio Arriba 911 Center, verified that they came from his office and interpreted some codes used in the audio clips.
Around midnight on March 15, 2017, Lujan called in to the 911 dispatch requesting information about Chacon’s incident as well as the call recordings. Over the next hour, Lujan requested the dispatcher to call him on his cell phone, something the dispatcher was not comfortable with, and to keep Lujan’s requests between them.
Bowles requested Ellenwood declare a directed verdict, or dismissal, based on lack of evidence, for the count of harboring a felon.
“In this trial there has been a complete lack of evidence,” Bowles said, “First of all that Chacon committed aggravated fleeing, and second, there’s no testimony by any witness that (Lujan) had any knowledge of Chacon’s crime.”
Bowles said the state had the burden of proving that. He also argued there was no evidence that Lujan had threatened Lattin.
“A person’s subjective feeling is not the whole part of a crime,” he said. “The mere fact that Cody Lattin feels like something is not evidence of a crime.”
“What would be the point of telling (Lattin) not to tell anyone if he wasn’t intimidating him?” Reeb countered. “Why would he threaten Cody Lattin if he did not believe he was doing something wrong?”
Reeb said that Chacon acknowledged he was doing speeds of 110 miles per hour, and that a high speed pursuit is aggravated fleeing.
Ellenwood overruled the defense’s motion, saying there had been sufficient evidence presented to give this case.
Lujan denied his right to testify in the trial.
After a recess, the defense rested.
On Wednesday, each side was scheduled to give closing arguments and the jury will begin deliberation.