Former Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan clasps his arms across his chest and pointed at his sons before being led away Thursday in in District Court in Santa Fe. State District Judge Kathleen McGarry Ellenwood sentenced Lujan to three years in prison.

State District Judge Kathleen McGarry Ellenwood sentenced former Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan to three years in prison followed by a year and a half of probation Thursday, a day after a Santa Fe jury convicted him of two felony charges after he helped a man avoid arrest and then directed a deputy not to tell anyone.

“While all elected officials have a duty to fulfill the responsibility of their elected office, there are some elected officials such as a judge, a district attorney and a sheriff that are held to a higher standard,” the judge told Lujan as she sentenced him.

She said he had let down the people of Rio Arriba County who had elected him and the sheriff’s office he led.

“Rio Arriba does not have its own laws, nor is the law applied any differently there than anywhere else in the state,” the judge said. “The law is the law. You are not above the law, nor can you ignore the law when it serves your purpose.”

Lujan, 60, resigned as sheriff about an hour after he was convicted Wednesday, Rio Arriba County Manager Lucía Sánchez confirmed. She said he sent a single-sentence letter in which he wrote that he was stepping down with a heavy heart.

Sánchez wrote in an email the Rio Arriba County Commission will meet in an executive session at 4 p.m. Monday to discuss the process of replacing Lujan and might take action after the closed-door meeting.

Wednesday’s guilty verdict on charges of aiding a felon and intimidating a witness came after Lujan’s second trial on the counts, in which he was accused of helping former Española City Councilor Phillip Chacon evade Española police after leading officers on a high-speed chase in 2017.

A Rio Arriba County jury was unable to reach a verdict following an initial trial in June.

Lujan also is awaiting trial on three misdemeanor counts of resisting, evading or obstructing an officer in another case involving Chacon.

His defense attorney, Jason Bowles, said he intends to appeal the verdict and asked McGarry Ellenwood to allow Lujan to remain free pending the appeal. The attorney said the appeal will be based on restrictions regarding his cross-examination of Cody Lattin, the former sheriff’s deputy who testified Lujan had intimidated him by directing him not to tell anyone about Lujan’s efforts to aid Chacon.

The judge denied Bowles’ request and had Lujan taken into custody by Santa Fe County sheriff’s deputies.

Ninth Judicial District Attorney Andrea Reeb, a special prosecutor in the case, said appeals are to be expected, but she is not concerned about any aspect of the trial warranting a reversal of Lujan’s convictions.

Reeb told the court she first found out about Lujan’s felony case after she was appointed to prosecute the misdemeanor case, in which Lujan is accused of showing up at Chacon’s house drunk in 2020 while police were executing a search warrant and trying to take over the operation.

“I started noticing a pattern with this individual,” Reeb said.

“Every encounter with law enforcement was combative. It was always a power thing with him,” she said. “It was always this arrogance. It was always, ‘I’m the top law enforcement official in the land, or in Rio Arriba County.’ ”

She said she received calls from numerous people accusing Lujan of wrongdoing, but most were afraid to get involved, and she was unable to pursue prosecution.

“That led us to start the investigation in this case,” Reeb said.

Lujan’s convictions exposed him to a potential penalty of 4½ years in prison.

Reeb asked the court to impose the maximum, saying as a law enforcement official elected to uphold the law, he should be held to a higher standard than the average person.

Dennis Maez — a private investigator hired by the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office to work on the case — reminded the court of other instances in which Lujan has been accused of illegal and unethical behavior:

u A pending civil case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union alleging he harassed a journalist.

u A suit filed by a former deputy in Lujan’s office alleging he violated the state Whistleblower Act.

u A $55,000 settlement Rio Arriba County paid in 2020 to a Chama man who said Lujan had pulled him over and shouted obscenities at him for flying a Mexican flag on his truck on the Fourth of July.

“During my time as a Secret Service agent, I was all over the world working with different law enforcement agencies — big ones, small ones, rich ones, poor ones,” Maez said, “and I have never, ever had the experience of dealing with a law enforcement agency like that of Sheriff Lujan’s.

“I would say that if there is anyone who deserves a substantial term of incarceration, it’s James Lujan,” he added.

Maez also noted Lujan’s predecessor, Tommy Rodella, is serving time in federal prison for actions while in office.

“Hopefully,” he said, “… the next sheriff of Rio Arriba County … will learn from Lujan and Rodella. It’s not your fiefdom. It’s not your kingdom. You are elected by the people, and it’s your responsibility to protect and serve them.”

Two of Lujan’s four sons addressed the court on his behalf, saying the image prosecutors painted of him bore no resemblance to their father, a former Marine and public servant who worked tirelessly to help his community.

“My dad is my hero,” Lujan’s son Brandon Lujan said. “The first 18 years of my life, I was attached to his hip. If anyone knows him, it’s me. … Your honor, they try to make him look like an animal and monster, and he’s not. He’s the most honest kindhearted man I’ve ever met, and he doesn’t deserve this.”

Rio Arriba Health and Human Services Director Lauren Reichelt said she spoke as a private resident when she addressed the court on James Lujan’s behalf, but acknowledged her opinions of his character were formed during the years they worked together to combat drug abuse in the community.

“Back then,” Reichelt said, “none of the police were using Narcan [an anti-opioid overdose drug], and they all looked at it as a way of enabling people to use drugs.”

She spoke with Lujan about treating substance abuse as a chronic disease instead of a crime, she said, and he “not only changed his mind but took the lead” in helping her train all of the deputies how to use the medication. “We saw our overdose death rate drop by 36 percent, and that would not have happened without the sheriff’s help and without his leadership.

“He’s still sheriff to me, regardless of whether he resigned,” Reichelt added, “and I just hope the court will show him the same compassion I’ve seen him show the people of our community.”

McGarry Ellenwood said she felt as if she were hearing descriptions of two different people while she listened to witnesses testify about Lujan.

“You did serve your community, and at times you served it well,” she told him. “… At other times, you did not.”

A subdued Lujan sat quietly at the defense table during the hearing. When witnesses spoke about his prior good work in the community, he removed his glasses and mopped tears from his face.

When given an opportunity to address the court, Lujan kept it short.

“Your honor, I try to do the best that I can to help everybody I can, and I in no way would want to harm anyone or hurt anyone,” he said.

He clasped his arms across his chest and pointed at his sons before being led away.

Unlike most convicted felons, Lujan was not handcuffed before being escorted out of the courtroom.

(2) comments

Ernesto Torres

The under sheriff Trujillo should be handcuffed to him ,he also thought he was above the law, sometimes they get a badge and a gun and authority and it goes to their head, good thing now they wear body cams, they don’t lie.

mark michaels

This individual will be lucky if all he gets is state time - I can think of several violations of Federal law that are applicable.

And he should absolutely be in handcuffs.

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