Former Rocky Ford officer receives 5 years probation for perjury, other charges dropped

Christian Burney
LA Junta Tribune
A Rocky Ford Police Department cruiser pictured driving down Main Street in Rocky Ford during the Annual Arkansas Valley Fair parade.

Rocky Ford Officer James Lopez received five years probation Feb. 2 in relation to one count of first degree perjury; other charges in two more pending cases were dropped after the court accepted Lopez's proposed plea deal.

Former Rocky Ford police officer James Lopez Jr. was sentenced to five years probation and 60 days in Otero County Jail on Feb. 2 after Lopez pled guilty to one count of perjury in the first degree, a Class 4 felony.

Lopez faced four other criminal charges across two more cases that the court dropped upon recommendation at the Feb. 2 sentencing hearing.

In one case, Lopez faced one count of possession with intent to manufacture or distribute marijuana or marijuana concentrate, a Level 3 drug felony, and one count of first degree official misconduct, a Class 2 misdemeanor.

In the other case that was also dropped, Lopez was facing charges of stalking, a Class 5 felony, and criminal mischief, a Class 2 misdemeanor.

An affidavit filed July 9, 2020, by then District Attorney James Bullock and Assistant District Attorney William Culver (who was elected to the district attorney role in November), alleged that Lopez lied while under oath in St. Louis on Feb. 9, 2020, that he personally served a case management order and petition for dissolution of marriage to Chris Penrose in Otero County District Court.

The sentencing hearing was overseen by 16th Judicial Judge Mark MacDonnell.

"What you did was wrong," MacDonnell told Lopez. "The fact is the only reason you weren't a police officer at the time is because you committed other violations of a criminal (nature) in the State of Colorado. The fact of the matter is you took an oath and that was to support and defend the constitution of the State of Colorado and the United States. To uphold the law of both of those. And you violated that oath. What you did was serious."

The affidavit states Lopez did not believe his claim, that he'd served a case management order and petition for dissolution of marriage, to be true when he made it under oath.

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The affidavit contained a list of endorsed witnesses that included 13 individuals, some of them residents of La Junta, others serving for various investigative agencies such as Rocky Ford Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Kansas and Colorado bureaus of investigation.

MacDonnell explained that the judicial process must rely on affidavits that are true and, when they aren't, "substantial rights" are endangered.

The dropped charges against Lopez involved allegations of marijuana possession and stalking of a local woman.

MacDonnell acknowledged that the court has heard or is in the process of hearing other cases regarding either law enforcement officials or public officials with similar responsibilities.

One such case involves Brian Valencia, who also served at Rocky Ford Police Department. Valencia had a plea hearing Thursday afternoon.

Another two cases MacDonnell referenced were that of former La Junta Fire Chief Aaron Eveatt, who was caught embezzling public funds and was ordered to pay about $57,000 in restitution in addition to serving five years probation, jail time and community service; and a case in Colorado's 15th Judicial District involving a probation officer.

The judge said both cases were examples similar to Lopez's, in that they featured public servants whom MacDonnell said should have known better than to commit the crimes for which they were sentenced.

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"Society puts its resources, particularly its community resources, based primarily on a risk score and not a punitive score," said MacDonnell. "The court does not believe that community corrections is going to serve the needs of this community as much as a probationary sentence would.

"The court understands there is going to be criticism related to a probationary sentence, but this court is always mindful of evidence-based risk-validated instruments that suggest a certain profile. The court has reviewed the PSI (pre-sentence investigative report) in significant detail and believes it to accurately reflect the risk of Mr. Lopez to the community."

MacDonnell said that although Lopez knew better, there are mitigating circumstances that guided the court's sentencing decision.

The judge said Lopez is "an individual who directly interacts, supervises, provides care for and love and supervision for a disabled adult child," and that based on typology scoring in the pre-sentence investigative report, the court believes probation intervention holds the most opportunity for success.

The La Junta Tribune-Democrat made an official documents request with the Otero County Court Clerk's Office for the pre-investigative report concerning Lopez, in addition to affidavits regarding his three pending cases, but only received the affidavits.

According to the official website for United States Courts, pre-sentencing investigative reports are not open to public scrutiny and cannot be reproduced or redistributed without approval granted by the courts or a probations officer.

Lopez's sentence also includes a minimum fine of $2,000, 200 hours of community service and reconation therapy, a form of treatment that aims to reduce recidivism in criminals by developing their moral reasoning skills.