Former Lake County Undersheriff Fernando Mendoza was sentenced to fifteen months in county jail on April 26, for his attempt to commit first-degree aggravated incest and invasion of privacy of his former stepdaughter. Mendoza also faces an indeterminate sex offender probation of ten years to life.
Mendoza was first terminated from the Leadville-based Lake County Sheriff’s Office in November 2017, after three LCSO dispatchers accused him of sexual harassment. The dispatchers’ allegations against Mendoza included a litany of inappropriate comments and actions, most of them of a sexual nature.
“I thought I got the job because I earned it,” dispatcher Chelsa Parsons told investigators. “I question that now. I think he saw me as a victim. He saw all of us as easy prey.”
Autumn Roybal, Mendoza’s former stepdaughter, soon caught wind of the dispatchers’ claims on Facebook. And years after Mendoza had victimized Roybal in the home they once shared, she felt compelled to find justice.
Roybal told her story to the Fifth Judicial District Attorney’s Office. The office launched an investigation into Mendoza’s reported sexual misconduct and arrested him in December 2017 on seven charges. A year later, in Lake County District Court, a jury convicted Mendoza of aggravated incest and attempted invasion of privacy for sexual gratification.
On April 26, Mendoza returned to Lake County District Court for sentencing. His family and friends sat to the left; Roybal, her mother and the dispatchers to the right.
John Scott, Mendoza’s attorney, declared that the former undersheriff would appeal his conviction. The attorney also asked for probation with no jail time, asserting that the stigma surrounding convicted sex offenders and restrictive probation conditions would be punishment enough.
“His life as he knows it is over,” Scott told Judge Karen Romero.
Mendoza said that he wanted to start working again. “I want to contribute without being a burden on taxpayers,” he told the judge.
The prosecution asked for an indeterminate jail sentence of four years to life.
“The breadth and ripple of this defendant's crimes sent waves through Lake County,” Deputy District Attorney Johnny Lombardi told Romero. Mendoza, Lombardi said, broke not only the trust of his stepdaughter, but the trust of the community he policed.
“He was supposed to uphold the law, and rather he flaunted it,” Assistant District Attorney Heidi McCollum reminded the courtroom.
“For years I thought I was the problem; I thought it was my fault he did this to me,” Roybal told the judge. “I was a shadow of myself. He took everything from me but I’m learning slowly, piece by piece, to put myself back together again.”
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“This is not your fault,” Romeo told the victim before delivering the court’s sentence. “This is Mr. Mendoza’s fault, and you are not to blame in any way. I commend you for the courage you have shown through the proceedings at this trial. I can see the pain and suffering, but I also see a very strong woman. I hope the healing continues.”
The dispatchers, the women who'd made the first call for help, filed suit against the Lake County Sheriff's Office, the Lake County Board of County Commissioners, Mendoza, former Sheriff Rod Fenske and former Dispatch Supervisor Mary Ann Hammer in U.S. District Court in December. Represented by the firm of Rathod Mohamedbhai, the dispatchers are requesting unspecified damages for unlawful sex discrimination, retaliation and violations of their rights to free speech and equal protection under the First and Fourteenth amendments. The case is currently moving through civil court.
Amy Reyes, a bilingual mother of five with a background in mental health and law enforcement, is now the sheriff of Lake County. She works alongside the dispatchers, who returned to LCSO after she took office in January, and Saige Bertolas, the newly hired Leadville Police Chief.
While Mendoza is confined to prison, women are now in charge of law enforcement in Lake County.