The police chief of a Northern New Mexico village is suing his former employer, the Taos County Sheriff's Office, claiming he was wrongly fired after repeatedly testing positive for steroids.
Nicolas Lamendola, who was hired as the top police officer in Questa just a few weeks after he was fired from the sheriff's office in 2015, maintains the drugs had been prescribed to him for a medical condition.
The case is an unusually public episode of a law enforcement agency cracking down on steroid use in its ranks. Anabolic steroids are controlled substances under federal law, and are known for side effects that include sudden rages and violence. The use of such drugs among law enforcement officers has raised concerns for years amid mounting scrutiny of police brutality. But critics say steroid use is also a well-guarded secret among police, and that chiefs have been slow or hesitant to move against users in their ranks.
Lamendola claims that his termination amounted to discrimination because he had an unspecified medical condition. He said in his lawsuit that the findings of steroid use were effectively an excuse to run him out of the sheriff's office.
The case centers on the first few months of 2015. A new sheriff, Jerry Hogrefe, assumed office at the start of the year, pledging to restore Taos County's trust in a law enforcement agency with lengthy response times and which often ended up at odds with other police agencies.
Lamendola had worked as a deputy at the sheriff's office since August 2008.
On Feb. 1, 2015, the department put Lamendola on administrative leave when he tested positive for drugs "prescribed in part or in full" due to a medical condition, according to a complaint he filed last summer in state District Court in Taos.
The complaint says Lamendola was diagnosed with a medical condition just a few days earlier.
A total of three tests turned up masteron and trenbolone, high-powered anabolic steroids. Sheriff Hogrefe fired Lamendola in mid-July.
But in the complaint, Lamendola maintains a fourth test by a separate company did not find those two steroids but only drugs for which he had been prescribed as part of hormone replacement therapy.
Those drugs are not identified in the complaint. But his lawyers say Lamendola's firing violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because his condition can be considered a disability.
His complaint charges that the drug tests were merely a pretext to get rid of Lamendola for pursuing a sex crimes case involving a co-workers's relative. Lamendola's lawsuit does not identify the people he says were involved in the matter.
Federal officials appear unconvinced by the complaints. Lamendola appealed his termination, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dismissed his case earlier this year, finding no evidence that the sheriff's office violated the law.
Lamendola landed a job as the police chief in Questa just a few weeks after he was fired, taking charge of the tiny department that patrols a village of about 1,700 people on the north end of Taos County near the Colorado state line.
At the time, it was not publicly known why the sheriff's office in Taos had fired Lamendola, though he was also known for crashing his official vehicle into a local restaurant on Christmas Eve in 2011. State police cited him for careless driving. But the village administrator in Questa told The Taos News a background check revealed nothing that would preclude him from serving as police chief.
"We did our due diligence," she said.
The lawsuit, which asks for damages and attorney's fees, seems to be the first public admission that the former deputy had tested positive for steroids.
Lamendola did not respond to messages left at the Questa Police Department and on his mobile phone. Likewise, the law office representing him did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Hogrefe declined to comment on the pending litigation.
Steroids have raised questions in law enforcement agencies around the state.
In 2007, then-Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz expressed concerns about steroid use in his ranks, telling the Albuquerque Journal: "We are finding more and more that the use of anabolic steroids can result in rage or unpredictable behavior."
And several years later, the U.S. Department of Justice called on the agency to randomly test its officers for steroids following an investigation into a pattern of excessive force.
Meanwhile, recruits cannot have used such drugs for at least 18 months before joining the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy, according to its policies.
Still, some unions representing law enforcement officers have defended steroid use, arguing drugs can bolster the strength of police who have demanding and dangerous jobs.
John Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, spent 10 years researching steroid use in law enforcement for a forthcoming book, Dopers in Uniform: The Hidden World of Police on Steroids.
Hoberman argues there is a culture of steroid use in law enforcement that has received too little scrutiny for the last several decades but deserves the public's concern. He pointed to the potential side effects of steroid use on armed men with positions of power, particularly at a time of national debate over policing.
"There are only a few medically legitimate reasons to prescribe anabolic steroids to adult males, and relatively young and physically fit policemen are less likely to need these therapies than the general population," Hoberman writes.
Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.