A rural New Mexico sheriff’s fate hangs in the balance as the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office waits to see if a journalist criminally charged for impersonating a law enforcement officer in Chaves County is found guilty, despite the fact that the sheriff destroyed records related to the case in which the reporter is charged.
According to an investigation by New Mexico State Police (NMSP), Chaves County Sheriff Mike Herrington allegedly destroyed or otherwise tampered with public records related to charges for a former KRQE reporter, Corey King. King, 29, touts himself as a southeastern New Mexico reporter who “specializes in breaking news and severe weather,” despite not being a certified meteorologist. He says he is the owner of the Chaves County News Network, an online blog.
In January 2021, King was charged with multiple counts of impersonating a law enforcement officer and reckless driving, months after Chaves County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) Deputy Scott Hendrix first issued him a citation for the offenses.
The charges stem from when an NMSP officer received a call that an unmarked State Police car was blocking traffic. When the officer investigated, he found that it was not an unmarked police car at all, but Corey King in his personal vehicle with police lights flashing as a line of traffic followed him.
NMSP Agent Kai Perez wrote in his report that initially he was assigned to investigate Corey King for multiple instances of impersonating a police officer but during his investigation, he learned this wasn’t the first time King impersonated an officer–and that the Chaves County sheriff knew about it.
“I learned Chaves County Sheriff Mike Herrington possibly destroyed, concealed, or tampered with the issued non-traffic citation pertaining to the impersonating a peace officer incident,” Perez wrote. “I also learned former Lieutenant Daniel Ornelas with the Chaves County Sheriff’s Office witnessed Sheriff Herrington collect the non-traffic citation from the courts before it was filed.”
“Pretty Much” Deputized
According to the report, King, who told NMSP agents he wanted to work for CCSO, said he was driving in Roswell when he saw another driver he believed was intoxicated. So, he called CCSO Deputy Olivia Padilla and told her about the vehicle and its location. That’s where the narrative diverges.
Herrington said that Padilla told King to follow the driver and then keep him from leaving the residence where the vehicle was parked. According to Herrington, King was “pretty much deputized” at that point by Padilla.
But Padilla’s statements to NMSP don’t match what Herrington said. According to her, King did call her to report the driver, but subsequently he wasn’t very forthcoming.
“Padilla said she was telling Mr. King to provide her the vehicle description for the drunk driver and their location,” Perez wrote. “She said Mr. King was not providing any information and began to stay silent.”
When King eventually told her where he was, she radioed dispatch and went to the location. Padilla said she told King to put his hazard lights on.
“Padilla said she never told Mr. King to get out of his vehicle, to approach the individual, and not to let the individual leave,” Perez wrote. “She said she never ordered Mr. King to even stop at the location.”
Deputies told NMSP officers that they decided to stop investigating the driver King reported and instead charge King with impersonating a law enforcement officer.
“Maybe the Sheriff Took It”
Hendrix wrote the ticket and King, as well as the other driver, were “released from the scene.”
Two days later, Hendrix received an email from CCSO Records Clerk Cindy Haberling.
“We need a copy of the arrest citation that you issued Corey King for Impersonating a Public Officer,” Haberling wrote to Hendrix. “Also, the arrest report that you submitted needs to be changed to a case report and you need to delete the arrest report.”
Hendrix responded to Haberling telling her that a copy of the arrest report had been placed in the records inbox the morning of the incident and he didn’t know who had removed it from there.
“I was told this case was not going to proceed according to the Sheriff after I sent you this email,” Haberling wrote in response a couple of days later. “I guess I don’t need it now. Maybe the Sheriff took it.”
Hendrix received another email from Sandra Lara, another CCSO Records Clerk the same day.
“Per the sheriff [King’s charge] is not going to proceed. So you can delete the case report,” Lara wrote.
Public records, especially police reports, are supposed to be maintained for years as part of state records retention rules.
Discrepancies in Witness Statements
“There were a few discrepancies between Sherriff’s Herrington’s interview and other witness interviews,” Perez wrote in his report.
First, Perez notes that Herrington said the citation never left the sheriff’s office, but that doesn’t match the statements provided by another deputy stationed at the courthouse.
Lieutenant Daniel Ornelas, who was on duty at the courthouse, told Perez that not only did Herrington pick up the citation from the court but that he, Ornelas, handed the citation to Herrington personally at the court.
“Another discrepancy was the Deputy issuing the citation,” Perez wrote. “Herrington is under the impression Sergeant Mike Shannon issued the citation, was first on scene, and issued the citation only because he has a personal issue with Mr. King. But…Hendrix is the one who issued the citation and was first on scene.”
Herrington claimed in his NMSP interview that Shannon had a personal “vendetta” against King, which is what prompted the charge of impersonating a public officer.
Finally, Herrington claimed that Chaves County Attorney Stanton Riggs advised him to dismiss the citation, something that Riggs told NMSP never happened.
Herrington told Perez that he believed he turned the report over to the records department, but when he went to look for it, it couldn’t be located, Perez wrote.
Delayed and Conflicted
“The investigation regarding the destruction of records was conflicted to the Attorney General’s office,” Fifth Judicial District Attorney Diana Luce said via email.
The NMSP report was submitted to the Attorney General’s Office for further investigation and prosecution in April 2021, NMSP Lieutenant Mark Soriano said. NMSP has not received any letter from the Attorney General’s Office declining to prosecute the case.
“The status of the case is pending the final outcome of the criminal case against Corey King,” AG’s Office Director of Communications Jerri Mares said via email last week. Mares didn’t respond to additional questions about how the outcome of King’s separate criminal case was relevant to the allegations involving Herrington.
King’s case still hasn’t been decided and it’s not likely to conclude any time soon. The prosecution has twice requested hearings be delayed, requests the court granted.
Then, on May 31, 2022, both King & his defense attorney E. Gomez, failed to appear for a docket call. The prosecution requested the court issue a bench warrant for King, but the judge refused and reset the hearing. The next appearance for King will be at the end of June.
Records, Evidence and Accountability
Regardless of the outcome of the King case, the NMSP report alleges that Herrington attempted to, or did, destroy public records, and that raises a lot of questions.
The New Mexico Administrative Code, the rules that govern the reporting of police misconduct, states that the agency that employs an officer accused of misconduct violating any board rules is required to report that misconduct.
If Herrington is eventually charged and convicted, destruction or tampering with public records is a felony, which would require the Law Enforcement Academy Board (LEAB) to permanently revoke his law enforcement license. Regardless, the “discrepancies” NMSP Agent Perez noted in the report seem to indicate that the sheriff’s statements to investigators didn’t match what happened. That could be considered dishonesty, an infraction that the LEAB has ruled harshly on in the past.
However, since Herrington is the sheriff, the decision to file any misconduct report with the LEA regarding his actions rests with him. The Paper. requested and received no misconduct reports naming Herrington filed with the LEA.
This isn’t the first time a law enforcement leader has been accused of misconduct and failed to report it. The same situation occurred with former Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan, when he was charged with criminal infractions by the Española Police Department. Lujan didn’t self-report his alleged misconduct to the LEA. The head of the Espaola Police Department at the time, Roger Jimenez, did file a misconduct report with the LEA, but it wasn’t his responsibility to do so.
In the past, when officers have been arrested or accused of committing a crime, it’s fallen upon the LEA director to file the misconduct report. But those reports are only filed if the director happens to read about the case in the media or is notified by some other party.
To summarize, if a police chief or a sheriff is accused of misconduct, it’s up to them to decide to report it to the LEA. If they don’t, there’s a possibility another agency will step up and file the report, but if they don’t do that, there’s no fail-safe.
Civil Rights Attorney Laura Ives, of Ives & Flores, P.C. , who represents the family of Oscar Najeera III, the unarmed man killed by CCSO Deputies in July 2021, reviewed the NMSP report regarding Herrington.
“The allegations against Sheriff Herrington seriously call into question his fitness to hold office and evince a significant breach of public trust,” Ives said in a statement. “He admits to destroying a public record, but justifies his destruction by claiming the citation was not, in fact, a public record.”
Ives says the Inspection of Public Records Act makes plain that even draft documents are public records, and that Herrington’s statements raise questions regarding what other public records he may have possibly destroyed.
“Further, that Sheriff Herrington took these actions because he apparently believes a reporter without any training could possibly be ‘deputized’ under these circumstances should also raise very serious concerns for Chaves County residents and duly appointed law enforcement officer the sheriff purports to care about,” Ives said. “As we have set forth in our case against the Chaves County Sheriff’s Office, a mere willingness to throw on a badge and grab a gun does not transform anyone into a professional law enforcement officer, and untrained law enforcement subject both the public and other officers to grave risk.”
Moreover, Ives said given the power of Herrington’s position as sheriff, and the statements he made to Perez, it’s “beyond disappointing” that the Attorney General’s Office hasn’t moved on the case.
“No one should be above the law,” Ives said.