Former Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s deputy Joseph Aquino plans to file an charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after he said he was inequitably treated by the Office.
Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan fired Aquino months after he was accused of excessive force and after Lujan had said Aquino did nothing wrong.
The review into the incident began after another deputy, Jeremy Barnes, was accused of using excessive force in a separate incident at the Española Valley High School, and after Attorney General Hector Balderas announced he was investigating that incident.
Aquino had been accused of assaulting George Vigil March 2, when he was working as a Chimayó Family Dollar Store employee. Vigil was not arrested or charged with any offense.
In the days after the incident, Lujan said Vigil was a “punk,” and that Aquino’s use of force was justified.
A video of the incident taken from the store’s security cameras showed Aquino and Vigil in a physical altercation but did not include any audio recording.
After seeing the lapel video, Lujan said Aquino acted appropriately.
“Disorderly conduct profain (sic) and abusive resisting arrest,” Lujan said via text message March 11 about the incident. “The lapel tells a different story.”
Lujan said he planned to send Aquino to anger management, and did sometime during late March or early April.
“Within a day or two (Aquino) sat down with Lujan and showed him the (lapel) footage,” Albuquerque-based Attorney Betsy Salcedo, who represents Aquino, said in an Aug. 8 phone interview. “(Lujan) told him to go see a counselor, and my client did.”
After that, Salcedo said there was no more discussion of the incident at the Office.
“All of March passed without any type of action, all of April, all of May,” Salcedo said.
It was not until June 17 that Aquino was served with a notice that there was an internal affairs investigation into the March 2 incident.
Aquino was terminated from the Office July 16, in a letter signed by Lujan.
“I also would like to thank you for the service to the residence (sic) of the County of Rio Arriba for the past 5 plus years,” Lujan wrote. “Your dedication to duty does not go un-noticed and appreciated by all of us.”
Aquino had been with the Office since 2013, when he was hired under former sheriff Tommy Rodella.
Salcedo said there are a lot of questions that remain concerning why an investigation into the incident was started months later, and if the treatment among employees at the Office is equitable.
Salcedo said Lujan also had multiple conversations with Aquino after the incident but that there was never any comment from Lujan that led Aquino to believe he had done anything wrong.
“This did take (Aquino) by surprise,” Salcedo said. “It came by surprise, he’s been in this with the Sheriff’s Office for over six years.”
Aquino previously received a letter of commendation from Lujan and the medal of valor in 2017, Salcedo said.
Salcedo said concerns over equity within the office stem from Barnes’ continued employment with the Office, as well as continued employment of other officers accused of or involved in excessive force incidents.
“That’s a big concern, and that’s one of the reasons we’re filing the EEOC because my client is Native American, and what we show is we have Barnes and we have Leon Gallegos who are not Native American and they’re still employed,” Salcedo said. “We’re going to ask EEOC to look into why and obviously (the Office is) going to have to come up with an explanation that is reasonable.”
This is not the first time Lujan has been accused of racial discrimination or comments. A private investigator found he made at least one racist comment in a 2015 investigation, a previous Rio Grande SUN article states.
Lujan allegedly told former deputy Marvin Armijo that Martin Luther King Jr. day was “dia de los negros.”