Tabitha Clay is an investigative journalist with a focus on criminal justice and policing. She previously reported for the Rio Grande Sun.

Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan. Photo courtesy Tabitha Clay

James Lujan, the elected sheriff of Rio Arriba County in Northern New Mexico, will appear in court Monday, November 29 to defend himself against charges including harboring or aiding a felon and bribery or intimidation of a witness. Jury selection was completed before the Thanksgiving holiday, with a total of nine women and seven men set to determine his guilt or innocence.

The Espanola-based sheriff has ruled county law enforcement since he was appointed to the position by the Rio Arriba County Board of Commissioners in 2014 after the previous sheriff, Thomas Rodella, was sentenced to federal prison during his tenure. Lujan was elected to the position again in 2018.

This will be the second time that Lujan’s former and current employees take the stand against him. Last June a trial for the same charges was heard in the First Judicial District Court in Tierra Amarilla, a courthouse where Lujan, as sheriff, controlled security and many of the jurors had a personal connection to him. That trial ended in a mistrial after the jury was unable to reach a verdict.

Special Prosecutor Andrea Reeb filed for a change of venue following the trial, citing Sheriff Lujan’s influence over the lives of potential jurors in his county as a bar to a fair trial. Inequities in courthouse security, a barbeque held by Lujan’s family members in support of him in the court parking lot mid-trial and other concerns all formed the basis for First Judicial District Court Judge Kathleen McGarry Ellenwood’s order to move the trial out of Rio Arriba County to neighboring Santa Fe County.

Lujan, who has repeatedly professed his innocence to members of the community, still controls the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office. Following the trial, Deputy Robert Vigil, an employee of Lujan’s, approached the New Mexico State Police, asking that they investigate and prosecute the witnesses in the first trial for perjury. Sources say that investigation is ongoing.

Reeb said she doesn’t know if Lujan ordered the deputy to seek the perjury prosecution, which would be tantamount to tampering with witnesses (another felony). The special prosecutor says she has been unsuccessful in her attempts to interview Vigil either alone or through his retained counsel. She issued a subpoena for Vigil to testify at the upcoming trial, where those questions may be addressed.

Both of Lujan’s pending criminal cases involve former Espanola City Councilor Phillip Chacon, including allegations that he attempted to interfere with the Espanola Police Department’s attempt to arrest Chacon in March 2020. He was charged with obstructing police, a misdemeanor following the incident.

In the months that followed the Chacon arrest, law enforcement witnesses came forward to tell of another time in 2017 when Lujan had allegedly helped Chacon avoid police.

An arrest affidavit claims Lujan aided a felon that night by helping Chacon avoid arrest following a pursuit that reached speeds of over 100 miles per hour. The affidavit claims Lujan told then-deputy Cody Lattin that Chacon called him during a pursuit involving local police. Lujan allegedly complained to Lattin about the police department, saying they needed to “stop harassing Phillip Chacon.”

Later that night Lujan and Lattin went to Chacon’s house, where Lujan knocked on the door and another deputy served Chacon with a temporary restraining order related to domestic violence. Then, according to Lattin, Lujan told Chacon to gather some of his belongings and he exited the residence with a duffle bag. Chacon then got into the passenger seat of Lujan’s black Dodge law enforcement vehicle. Lattin said Lujan left with Chacon driving south through the city of Espanola.

Afterward a dispatcher said Lujan requested records of the calls to dispatch from the pursuit and ordered him not to tell anyone of the request. He told investigators Lujan approached him in the parking lot at the dispatch center the next day and accused him of “leaking” information about the Chacon incident. He said Lujan demanded the dispatcher leave the dispatch center, and would not allow him to go into the building.

Following the confrontation at the dispatch center, Lujan sent a letter to Espanola City Councilor Peggy Sue Martinez, who chaired the dispatch center board, confirming the confrontation in the parking lot and his order to the dispatcher not to say anything to anyone.

The Santa Fe jurors will have to review all of the evidence in this case, and if they find Lujan did aid Chacon and help him avoid arrest as a fleeing felon, he could be sentenced to up to 18 months in a state prison. He will also be removed from the office of sheriff and will no longer be able to work as a law enforcement officer. Additionally, with a felony conviction the Second Amendment Sheriff would no longer be able to legally possess firearms.

Written by

Tabitha Clay is an investigative journalist with a focus on criminal justice and policing. She previously reported for the Rio Grande Sun.