VAUGHN, NEW MEXICO – Freight trains still rumble through Vaughn, NM just like they have since the 1800s.
There are two schools, and a couple of bars and restaurants. Hoteliers still rent rooms to travelers even though few tourists stay overnight.
There’s little traffic and not much crime in this sleepy little town that 500 people call home.
Ranchers, farmers and business owners all support the second amendment.
Many own guns.
But not everyone in town has the right to carry a firearm – including the city’s only two police officers.
After run-ins with the law, both lawmen’s holsters are empty.
New Mexico State Police arrested Vaughn Police Chief Ernest “Chris” Armijo last summer after a grand jury in Texas indicted him for criminal nonsupport of his ex-wife and two young sons.
Armijo owed his first family more than $52,000. That amount was adjusted to $40,000 after he reached a plea deal with Randall County prosecutors.
“I was unable to make the amount that was being required and I got behind. Its hard, because if you’re not making enough to do it then what do you do?” Armijo told KOB. “It’s something I didn’t take care of and I know that I should have.”
Armijo, who’s annual salary is less than $30,000, got five years probation and was ordered to start making monthly payments to help support his 10 and 12 year old sons.
Texas officials also waived a standard condition of probation and decided to allow Armijo to carry a firearm.
Armijo requested his probation be supervised under a compact between New Mexico and Texas. It was approved, but New Mexico probation officials did not recognize the gun waiver Texas offered Armijo.
Unable to own a gun or any ammunition, Armijo sold an assault rifle to Guadalupe Sheriff’s Deputy Juan Sanchez in January.
Sanchez told a state police officer he purchased the AR-15 from Armijo for $250.
Nothing in the Armijo’s probation conditions prohibit Armijo from owning a dog.
But, State Police are investigating if Armijo used his K-9 during traffic stops.
They are also investigating an allegation Armijo may have used drugs from an evidence vault as a tool to train his K-9 dog — A dog the state says Armijo is not certified to handle.
In May, Director of the State Law Enforcement Academy Louis Medina received a letter from an Animal Protection of New Mexico case manager.
Alan Edmonds wrote to Medina after he received a call from someone who claim they witnessed Armijo beat the dog with a chain leash. In an informational report filed in May, State police officer Michael Wheeler claimed he saw the dog had an open wound.
“I clearly observed an open wound that was healing on top of the dog’s head,” Wheeler reported.
But Armijo denied hurting the dog.
“I know what you are looking at,” Armijo told Wheeler. “The dog hit her head on top of her cage. The drug dealers in town are making allegations that I have been hitting and abusing my dog. They are afraid I’m going to bust them.”
Armijo hires an un-certified officer
Brian Bernal is Vaughn’s second police officer.
He was hired this spring but still has not attended the state’s law enforcement academy and is not a certified cop.
Bernal has had his own legal problems, and up until a few weeks ago was carrying a weapon even though federal law prohibits anyone convicted on domestic violence charge from owning a firearm or ammunition.
In January 2011, Bernal pled Guilty in Santa Rose to assault and battery against a household member.
The misdemeanor was dismissed after Bernal completed an anger management course.
Reporter Gadi Schwartz and Producer Peter St. Cyr traveled to Vaughn to investigate the police force.
They confronted Mayor Paul Madrid, but he did not want to talk and slammed a garage door at his business off the main drag.
No one answered at the police station either.
Town residents did speak out and they have mixed feelings about the officer’s problems.
Many don’t think that Armijo should still have his job as chief.
“It’s ridiculous,” one man said.
Others don’t think the town should even have its own police force.
After a week of chasing Armijo down, the chief finally agreed to take St. Cyr on a ride around town in his police truck.
He claims he doesn’t need a gun to do his job.
“We have tasers, batons, mace … stuff like that,” Armijo said. “This isn’t a TV show. This is life. We don’t run in everyday with a gun drawn. Life isn’t in a pistol grip. It’s how you talk to people. I wasn’t the type of person to go, ‘I’m a cop now give me my badge and my chip on my shoulder.’ That’s not me.”
Guadalupe County Sheriff’s deputies and state police officers are called when Vaughn’s officers need backup.
Sheriff Michael Lucero told Schwartz his department already covers Vaughn.
“As a law enforcement officer I’m responsible for 3,000 square miles which consists of parts of Vaughn,” Lucero said. “We do handle it.”
Medina won’t comment on Armijo’s issue specifically, but said officers need to follow the law or find another job.
“You’re supposed to pay child support if that’s required of you. You’re supposed to follow all traffic laws,” Medina said. “If you get arrested for any reason then you’re in violation and that would be an allegation of misconduct that would come before our office for contemplation of revocation or suspension of their certification.”
Medina acknowledged he sent the chief a Notice of Contemplated Action after receiving a complaint against Armijo.
Medina said he will continue to review the matter and plans to make recommendation to the Law Enforcement Review Board soon.
Board members have the final say to suspend or revoke Armijo’s state certification.