The director of Doña Ana County’s jail now faces only a misdemeanor charge and will return to work Monday after a grand jury declined to indict him Thursday on the last felony charge he faced.
Chris Barela initially faced two second-degree felony charges — fraud over $20,000 or, in the alternative, embezzlement over $20,000 — in addition to a fourth-degree felony charge of bringing contraband into the jail and willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor. He faced up to 11.5 years behind bars if convicted on all charges.
Now Barela faces only the misdemeanor charge — and at most a year in jail — stemming from the hullabaloo Sheriff Enrique “Kiki” Vigil caused in December when he filed the charges against Barela, had him arrested, and briefly took control of the jail in a dramatic and controversial incident caught on security camera video. And even the misdemeanor charge may not stand much longer.
Doña Ana County spokesman Jess Williams confirmed that Barela, who has been on paid leave since his December arrest, will return to work Monday.
“Mr. Barela is understandably buoyed by this good news,” Barela’s attorney, Michael Stout, was quoted by the Las Cruces Sun-News as saying. “He hopes to get back to the job of managing the Detention Center. Chris’ life has been put on hold for many months waiting for this unnecessary saga to finish, and this should signal the end.”
A week ago, District Attorney Mark D’Antonio decided not to pursue the second-degree felony charges against Barela. His spokesman said there was “not sufficient evidence to take to the grand jury or present at a preliminary hearing.” Thursday’s decision by a grand jury to also not pursue the contraband charge raises serious questions about Vigil’s actions.
And the future of the misdemeanor charge is in question. It was based on the allegations of financial mismanagement and contraband that also led to the now-dropped felony charges. “We will review the charge and decide how to proceed,” said Patrick Hayes, a spokesman for the DA.
Will Vigil pursue the investigation further? Does he stand by the decision to charge Barela last year and take control of the jail? Vigil didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment. NMPolitics.net will update this article if he responds.
People were already raising questions after D’Antonio decided not to pursue the fraud and embezzlement charges a week ago.
“This looks more and more like a witch hunt and I seriously doubt the charges raised rise to anything close to criminal activity,” Mark Benson of Las Cruces wrote during a Facebook discussion last week.
As NMPolitics.net reported in December, the fraud and embezzlement charges 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.
The contraband charge related to Barela carrying a semi-automatic rifle into a room where an inmate who had taken another inmate hostage was being held.
“I felt the facts of the case supported the contraband charge,” D’Antonio said Thursday in a prepared statement. “However, the grand jury decided there wasn’t enough evidence to take to trial and I respect their decision.”
Vigil’s takeover and lockdown of the jail sparked a battle between county officials in December that ended the day of Barela’s arrest with County Manager Julia Brown interrupting a news conference to hand Vigil a restraining order requiring the sheriff to give up control of the jail.
Vigil did just that later that day, and county administration has controlled the jail ever since.
Some have speculated that Vigil wants long-term control of the jail and its funding — which Vigil denied at the time.
“As sheriff I have an obligation to secure the detention facility,” he said. “This is only temporary.”
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.”