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Home / Articles / News / Local News /  Jobs, Drugs and Money
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Jobs, Drugs and Money

Why are Santa Fe County jail staffers being fired?

June 13, 2012, 12:00 am

On May 2, Santa Fe County officials issued a press release announcing the termination of two corrections officers: Warden David Trujillo and Deputy Warden Ted Pepperas. In the same release, the county announced the discovery of “drugs and contraband” in unsecure locations in administrative offices at the Santa Fe Adult Detention Facility, giving the impression that the firings were linked to the narcotics.


But a recent investigation by the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s office found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing—and now, county officials are backtracking from the May 2 press release, saying they never meant to imply a connection between the firings and the narcotics. For one newly unemployed corrections worker, however, this offers little comfort. 


On May 1, the county fired Trujillo and Pepperas and placed Major Dean Lopez, the jail’s chief of security, on administrative leave. The May 2 statement announced the two firings and an “ongoing internal investigation at the Adult Detention Facility concerning drugs and contraband being stored, sometimes for years, in unsecure locations in jail administrative offices.” 


The drugs and contraband had been confiscated from inmates booked at the jail. Santa Fe County Public Safety Director Pablo Sedillo says, in an email prepared by Santa Fe County spokeswoman Kristine Mihelcic, that the May 2 statement was released in “response to media inquiries on both topics.” 


“The statement inadvertently may have implied that the two topics were related,” the email reads. “But this was not intentional.”


Indeed, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, which was asked to investigate the incident, has found no criminal wrongdoing. Sheriff Robert Garcia says his department is passing on the findings of the investigation to 1st Judicial District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco, who will decide whether to press charges.  


“To be honest with you, I don’t feel there was any criminal intent with regards to what items were found,” Garcia says. “I don’t think the DA will see anything different. But as a precaution, we forward the report over.”


The sheriff’s office investigated reports of narcotics such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana and prescription drugs in the safe of Annabelle Romero, a jail administrator terminated in February, Garcia says. In the office of the jail’s disciplinary officer, Tracy Hightower, investigators found prescription drugs and narcotics that were suspected of being heroin and cocaine, along with jewelry, he adds. (Hightower is still employed at the county.)


Garcia says his investigators didn’t specifically target SFCADF administrators in the investigation.  


“I don’t think that there was any form of criminal activity with regards to trying to intentionally keep these items for personal use or whatever other activity,” Garcia says. On May 2, Garcia told SFR that it’s the first time a problem like this has been brought to his attention. 


Lopez, who is at least the fourth jail staffer fired since Sedillo took the helm in his newly created position late last year, says Sedillo and his new staff “called the sheriff in to justify what they did—and he couldn’t find nothing wrong.” In Lopez’ view, the narcotics provided a convenient excuse for Sedillo to clean out the jail’s administration.


“When you go to the media and say that you have all these narcotics…and criminal doings,” he says, “and the sheriff clears the place of wrongdoing, I mean, that tells you pretty much everything was on the up and up and they were just looking for reasons to enact their changes in administration.”


Typically, deputies from the sheriff’s office pick up narcotics or contraband that might be used as evidence, according to Lopez and Garcia. But not all of the contraband that jail officials catch—such as empty syringes or unidentifiable prescription pills—can be traced to a specific inmate or is even prosecutable. 


According to Lopez, it was the duty of the jail’s chief investigator to handle the dispensation of narcotics and contraband not used as evidence in a criminal case. But SFCADF hadn’t had a chief investigator since 2008, so Lopez says narcotics and contraband accumulated in the offices of jail administrators. The sheriff’s office wouldn’t pick it up because it wasn’t prosecutable, he adds.


Yet by Santa Fe County’s account, it was Major Lopez’ job to deal with the contraband. A document outlining SFCADF procedures for dealing with contraband, which Mihelcic forwarded to SFR, states that contraband “will be lawfully and safely disposed of in accord with procedures developed by the Major.” 


Lopez, however, says that he handled documentation of contraband—not the contraband itself. 


When Sedillo hired Mark Gallegos as the jail’s new chief investigator for the jail, Lopez says staffers informed Gallegos of the contraband and narcotics. 


“As soon as [Sedillo’s] investigator came in, we told him, ‘Hey man, we have this stuff in these offices,’” Lopez says. The county, in an email to SFR, doesn’t specifically deny that account. But the email says that the narcotics and contraband were discovered “as a part of an overall procedural review conducted by the Chief Investigator.” 


Regardless of Lopez’ role in the narcotics issue, though, he says it didn’t come up in his firing. On May 1, Lopez was escorted to the jail’s parking lot and asked to relinquish his duty belt while jail staffers and visitors watched. Ironically, it was the same day that jail staffers were celebrating Correctional Officers’ Week, in which jail administrators all pitched in to buy officers hot dogs and hamburgers for a barbecue. It was supposed to be a time for celebration. 


Lopez says he was told to leave and “not come back.” 


He says the only reason he was given for his termination was that he forwarded chain emails that included phrases like “Luck of the Irish: good luck will pass on to you if you forward this to 10 people,” and “If you believe in Jesus, then pass this on.” He claims that none of the emails were offensive in nature, and that he forwarded about three or four a day on some days.


Mihelcic says the county would like to answer SFR’s questions about Lopez’s account more directly, but cannot because of “pending things.” She adds that Sedillo would only respond to SFR’s questions via email to protect the county against liability. In his email, Sedillo doesn’t say why Lopez or the other employees were terminated. 


“These are at-will positions serving at the pleasure of the County,” the email reads. “They may be terminated at any time at the discretion of County management. Additional details will not be released due to the County’s personnel policy.” Mihelcic add that such terminations “can be appealed.”


Miguel Chavez, who recently won the Democratic primary election for Dist. 2 Santa Fe County commissioner, says the public has been “in the dark a little bit” regarding the recent shifts in SFCADF personnel.


“To be more clear, to be more consistent about the management, the oversight, about the sharing of information, the status of the jail, and how it’s operating—I think that needs to be out there,” he says.  “[The county should be] trying to share as much information as possible with the public on a consistent basis.”

 

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