Colfax County Sheriff’s Deputy Vidal Sandoval seemed to hit his version of a jackpot when he pulled over a driver on a highway outside Cimarron during a brisk afternoon in December 2014.
Taking the motorist and his passenger for smugglers, the small-town lawman searched their vehicle. He found a hidden compartment and $8,000 in cash. Sandoval fleeced the men, pocketing $7,500. Then he made them an offer he thought they couldn’t refuse.
In Spanish, he told the smugglers they could traffic drugs and money through Colfax County if they agreed to give him a piece of the profits.
The deputy then sent the men on their way, unaware that they were undercover agents sent to catch him for shaking down motorists, according to an affidavit filed in federal court by an FBI investigator.
Sandoval, 46, later was arrested and indicted, his law enforcement career crumbling in the scandal. Perhaps the final chapter of his case occurred Wednesday in Albuquerque when he pleaded guilty to three charges carrying heavy time.
Sandoval, appearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven C. Yarbrough, pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and two counts of theft of government property. He entered the pleas without any deal for leniency from federal prosecutors.
A judge will sentence Sandoval later, and he remains free. The former deputy faces between five and 40 years in prison for the drug trafficking charge and up to 20 years behind bars for the remaining two counts.
Other officers said Sandoval’s crimes were the exception to how police conduct themselves.
“The vast majority of law enforcement officers perform their jobs with integrity and sometimes even heroically, as recent headlines have shown. But when one of them turns bad and endangers the public safety he swore to protect, the FBI and our partners will make sure he is brought to justice,” said Terry Wade, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Albuquerque Division.
New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said in a statement that Sandoval had hurt the profession.
“When an officer is the one committing crimes, it reflects negatively on all law enforcement officers and it is unacceptable,” Kassetas said.
Efforts to reach Sandoval on Wednesday were unsuccessful, and a lawyer listed as representing him did not respond to a telephone message left at his office.
The investigation of Sandoval began in July 2014 after a state police officer stopped two men driving on Interstate 40 in Cibola County. The affidavit filed by FBI Agent Karen Greene said the men told the officer they already had been stopped by law enforcement during their trip from Colorado to Arizona.
Greene said the men told of a police officer elsewhere in New Mexico searching their vehicle, taking marijuana and more than $10,000 cash, saying the seizure was part of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation. But the men said the officer did not provide them with a receipt for what he had confiscated. Stranger still, the officer let them go.
The patrol officers passed on the information to others with the state police department, which launched an investigation in concert with the FBI.
In late 2014 and early 2015, undercover agents drove to Colfax County in “bait” vehicles, so named because they were packed with drugs and money.
During that first stop in December 2014, Sandoval called an acquaintance and asked him to pose over the telephone as a Drug Enforcement Administration agent.
Federal prosecutors charged the acquaintance, Leon Herrera, 37, with impersonating a federal agent. Herrera, formerly the police chief of Springer, pleaded guilty in October 2015. A judge sentenced him to one year of probation and 250 hours of community service.
Agents involved in the sting said Sandoval stopped them on several other occasions, taking cash from investigators posing as drug runners.
During one traffic stop, according to federal agents, Sandoval offered a deal to undercover agents. The deputy would escort drug loads along Interstate 25 through Colfax County to Colorado and do the same for large sums of cash headed the other direction for Mexico. In exchange, Greene wrote, Sandoval wanted 5 percent of the traffickers’ cash going south. According to the warrant, once the terms were agreed upon, Sandoval gave the agents a bracelet depicting Jesús Malverde, a legendary figure who supposedly was a Robin Hood of drug trafficking.
Sandoval was a veteran law enforcement officer in Northern New Mexico. Both he and Herrera ran unsuccessfully for Colfax County sheriff in the 2014 Democratic Party primary election, taking 60 and 75 votes respectively — far fewer than the other two candidates.
The investigation reached a head in February 2015 when Sandoval — wearing his uniform — took $10,000 for escorting what agents told him was a shipment of cocaine from Wagon Mound across the Colorado state line.
Federal investigators arrested Sandoval at the sheriff’s office on March 13, 2015, and he subsequently resigned. After that day, he went from deputy sheriff to criminal defendant.
Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.