The most serious criminal charges against Chris Barela, the director of the Doña Ana County Detention Center, have been dropped, at least for now.
The office of District Attorney Mark D’Antonio filed a notice in court Friday that it’s dismissing a second-degree felony charge of fraud over $20,000 or, in the alternative, embezzlement over $20,000.
D’Antonio’s office left open the possibility of refiling the fraud and/or embezzlement charges “pending further investigation,” the notice states.
But for now, “as it relates to those charges, there is not sufficient evidence to take to the grand jury or present at a preliminary hearing,” said Patrick Hayes, a spokesman for the DA’s office. “They’re being dropped now because going to a grand jury or preliminary hearing is imminent.”
Hayes said he couldn’t comment on the likelihood of refiling the fraud or embezzlement charges but said “the option is there. It depends on the investigating agency and if it wants to continue its investigation.”
In December, Sheriff Enrique “Kiki” Vigil filed a criminal complaint against Barela, had him arrested, and briefly took control of the jail. The other charges Vigil alleged in the complaint — bringing contraband into the jail and willful neglect of duty — remain.
The contraband charge is a fourth-degree felony that carries a maximum prison sentence of 18 months. The charge relates to Barela carrying a semi-automatic rifle into a room where an inmate who had taken another inmate hostage was being held. Willful neglect of duty is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of one year.
The charges D’Antonio dismissed carried a maximum prison sentence of nine years.
As NMPolitics.net reported in December, the fraud or embezzlement charge centered on allegations that Barela spent money earmarked for the “health and morale” of inmates on other jail-related expenses — such as clothing, bedding, toiletries, paying inmates to work, and meals for jail employees. In addition, Barela donated inmates’ gym equipment to the Police Athletic League, where he was a boxing coach.
Barela was accused of misusing funds, not pocketing them, and some questioned why the sheriff believed the situation amounted to more than an audit finding.
Barela’s attorney filed notice in March of the jail director’s intent to sue the county. In a tort claim he alleged “false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, libel, slander and defamation of character perpetuated by Sheriff Vigil and others acting under his supervision.”
Barela has been on paid leave since his arrest.
This article has been updated with comments from Hayes.