Velarde Fire Chief Takes Aim At Sheriff and EMA Director

The strange case of the New Mexico fire chief who was arrested at an incident scene as a way to relieve him of command, is in the news again – this time with an entirely new twist.

Fire Chief Eddie Velarde, of the Velarde Fire Department, was arrested by Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Adam Archuleta on March 29, 2011 and charged with disorderly conduct. At the time Chief Velarde was the incident commander at a 3.2 acre interface fire that damaged 3 structures and 3 vehicles.

According to the headlines at the time of the arrest, Archuleta claimed Chief Velarde was out of control and his arrest was done in the interests of public safety. Archuleta later charged Chief Velarde with concealing his identity and obstructing a sheriff’s officer. The allegations made national news and caused considerable embarrassment, humiliation, and stress for Chief Velarde personally and the Velarde Fire Department.

Chief Velarde and his attorney, Diego Zamora, vehemently contested the criminal charges. At his trial last July, Chief Velarde was acquitted of all three charges. According to Zamora, under cross examination Archuleta was at a loss to explain how someone he had known for over a decade could attempt to “conceal his identity” – the basis for 2 of the 3 charges.

Also at issue in the case is the role played by county EMA director Mateo DeVargas, with whom Chief Velarde has had past run-ins. DeVargas was assigned to coordinate evacuation of the fire area, establish perimeter control, and track arriving resources. Chief Velarde claims that following his arrest, he heard Archuleta state “Mateo, you got what you wanted, you are now incident commander.”

The case entered an entirely new phase this week when Zamora and co-counsel Patrick Brito filed a civil suit against Archuleta, DeVargus and Rio Arriba County alleging false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious abuse of process, defamation, and conspiracy. The allegations, if proven, are a serious indictment of law enforcement in Rio Arriba County.

The suit was filed on Wednesday. Here is a copy of the complaint: Complaint-VELARDE

It is a good read. The case raises a number of important concerns – not the least of which are the ICS implications of subordinate law enforcement authorities arresting an IC because they question his actions. For news on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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