Colorado ACLU settles bad policing lawsuit with city of Trinidad, 2 detectives

Danika Gonzales, left, and Felicia Valdez.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado said Thursday it has reached a settlement in a lawsuit against two Trinidad detectives accused of bad policing.

The City of Trinidad agreed to pay $375,000 to two women who were wrongly arrested and prosecuted during a 2013 drug sting, the ACLU announced.

The lawsuit, filed in January 2015 in federal district court in Denver, accused Trinidad detectives Sgt. Phil Martin and Sgt. Arsenio Vigil of using an unreliable confidential informant to levy drug charges against Danika Gonzales and Felicia Valdez. But none of the information provided by Crystal Bachicha was corroborated, nor were Bachicha's "personal vendettas" against the accused revealed, the lawsuit says.

Gonzales was Bachicha's former probation officer. Valdez worked in the Trinidad school system.

Charges against the women were eventually dismissed, but not before both lost their jobs and Valdez's family was evicted from their home, the lawsuit said.

"Trinidad detectives allowed a devious snitch to frame our innocent clients for crimes they did not commit," said ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein. "With this settlement, our clients have been vindicated, and Trinidad detectives have received a clear message that the uncorroborated say-so of a shady snitch cannot justify destroying the careers and reputations of innocent members of the community."

None of the 40 arrests police made as a part of the drug sting resulted in a drug-related conviction. The department has since ceased the annual sting, the ACLU said.

The lawsuit focused solely on the use of Bachicha as an informant, though.

The polices and practices of the detectives allowed informants "an open opportunity ... to lie with impunity, to divert the (police department's) buy money for themselves, to skim drugs for their own use, and to act on the basis of personal motives to frame innocent persons," the lawsuit said.

Bachicha was a three-time convicted felon, "a liar, a drug user, and had no history of providing reliable information" when police used her testimony to go after others. The detectives never revealed that information, which would bring her credibility into question, to the judge when seeking an arrest warrant, the lawsuit said.

Several of the people Bachicha accused of selling her drugs were "enemies," the ACLU release said.

Bachicha and her brother were accused of attempting to murder three of the individuals she pointed fingers at. Her brother was convicted and is serving a lengthy jail sentence, the lawsuit said.

Two others Bachicha accused of selling her drugs were in jail when the alleged buy took place, the complaint said. Bachicha said her former probation officer, Gonzales, sold her drugs at the courthouse under the watch of security cameras.

The fact that the detectives took their informant's word at face value has caused "irreversible damage to my career, my family, and my trust in law enforcement," Gonzales said through the ACLU.

"However, I am relieved to have finally gotten to this point of closure," Gonzales said.

Martin and Vigil have since retired from the Trinidad Police Department.

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Contact Kaitlin Durbin: 636-0362

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Kaitlin is a public safety reporter with a focus on investigations. She is a proud Ohioan, champion for local libraries, volunteer reading tutor and an expert ice cream connoisseur (mint chocolate chip!). She joined the Gazette in 2016.

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