Former Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales and former Pueblo of Laguna Police Chief Rudy Mora are being accused by federal authorities of participating in an illegal weapons scheme, according to a recently unsealed federal indictment from Maryland. The two have not been charged with crimes, but prosecutors say they signed false documents to help gun dealers illegally obtain machine guns.
According to the indictment, Gonzales and Mora, who was Gonzales’ undersheriff before becoming chief of Laguna police, signed documents indicating the machine guns would be used for law enforcement demonstrations but they “had no expectation or understanding that such weapons would ever be demonstrated to their respective law enforcement agencies.”
The New Mexico law enforcement officials are referred to only by their initials in charging documents for five others, but details and dates of Gonzales and Mora’s positions indicate who they are.
An Albuquerque gun store owner, James Tafoya, is charged in connection with the scheme, along with a North Carolina police chief, a North Dakota police chief, a Florida gun dealer and a North Carolina YouTuber. The YouTuber, Larry Allen Vickers, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and violating sanctions on Russia. He faces up to 25 years in prison and a fine of up to $1,250,000.
Fake ‘law letters’
The charges revolve around so-called “law letters,” or documents submitted by government officials to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives requesting a firearms dealer be given special permission to purchase restricted weapons including machine guns and short-barrelled rifles.
Federal prosecutors say Vickers, Tafoya and Florida gun dealer and Department of Homeland Security Intelligence Analyst Sean Sullivan solicited and obtained fraudulent law letters claiming they were buying guns to demonstrate to police departments for possible purchase, when in fact the guns were destined for resale and personal use.
Vickers was also charged with, and pleaded guilty to, violating sanctions against Russian arms manufacturer JSC Kalashnikov Concern.
According to federal prosecutors, Gonzales signed a law letter requesting authorization for Tafoya’s gun store in southwest Albuquerque, Woody’s Weapons, to purchase a French-manufactured FAMAS machine gun to demonstrate its use to the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office. Mora allegedly signed law letters requesting the demonstration of multiple Glock 18 machine guns to Laguna police.
The indictment says BCSO began phasing out the use of fully automatic weapons in 2013, years before the letters were written.
The indictment estimates Gonzales submitted around 127 law letters to Tafoya and Woody’s Weapons, requesting the demonstration of 598 firearms, seven of which were imported by Sullivan. It also estimates Mora submitted 17 law letters to Tafoya and Woody’s Weapons for 414 guns, and 13 were imported by Sullivan. It is unclear how many of the guns referred to in the letters were related to the indictment.
The two police chiefs charged in the indictment — Police Chief Matthew Hall in Coats, North Carolina and Police Chief James Sawyer in Ray, North Dakota — each requested far fewer firearms in their law letters, though Sullivan imported a higher number of weapons for each of them than for Gonzales or Mora.
Gonzales, a Democrat, served as Bernalillo County Sheriff from 2014 to 2022. In 2021, he ran a controversial tough-on-crime campaign for Albuquerque mayor, attacking sitting Mayor Tim Keller from the right and accusing him of insufficiently supporting police. During the height of the protests in 2020 after the police murder of George Floyd, he met with then-president Donald Trump to announce the deployment of federal officers to Albuquerque.
All three Albuquerque mayoral candidates promise more police
Gonzales’ mayoral campaign often drew protesters, including one who flew a drone with a sex toy attached over a stage where Gonzales was speaking, sparking the then-sheriff to falsely accuse Keller of coordinating the stunt.
Mora was the police chief for the Pueblo of Laguna, a federally recognized pueblo with a population of about 3,600 west of Albuquerque, from 2019 to 2021.
Gonzales and Mora did not respond to requests for comment. Source NM contacted Tafoya’s lawyers and the Pueblo of Laguna police department, none of whom offered comment for this article. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland said the office cannot confirm or deny whether there are any active investigations related to the case.
In a statement provided by BCSO spokesperson Jayme Fuller-Gonzales, the department said Sheriff John Allen is cooperating with federal authorities and the New Mexico Attorney General’s office on an investigation into the case.
More than a dozen machine guns
Sullivan, Vickers and Tafoya were charged with illegally importing more than a dozen restricted machine guns and short-barrelled rifles, and making false statements in federal records.
The trio along with Hall and Sawyer are charged with conspiracy, and Sullivan is additionally charged with unlawful possession of four machine guns and conducting transactions with criminal proceeds, for allegedly transferring more than $128,000 between accounts in relation to the illegal firearm sales.
Prosecutors included text messages between the five defendants and other unnamed participants, including gun dealer “J.B.” in Houston, Texas, and firearms collector “C.F.” in Phoenix, Arizona. In the text messages, Sullivan, Vickers and “J.B.” discuss obtaining law letters with Hall, Sawyer and Tafoya, who promise to get them the letters.
The indictment also contains screenshots from online gun dealerships, where prosecutors say some of the firearms ended up. According to the indictment, the five defendants used “fraud and materially false statements and representations” to acquire the firearms and intended to resell the guns for profit or “to keep them for their own use and enjoyment.”
A controversial public-health order signed by New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham last month directed the state Regulation and Licensing Department to inspect gun stores to ensure they’re complying with state laws, though less than 10% of registered firearms dealers have been inspected so far.
Austin Fisher contributed reporting to this story.
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