AZTEC — A Mora County Sheriff's Office deputy was arrested Thursday afternoon during his police academy training in Kirtland for allegedly trying to solicit sex from a minor.
The San Juan County Sheriff's Office announced Thursday evening that Mark Preller, 56, was arrested on suspicion of two counts of child solicitation by an electronic communication device, which is a third-degree felony. Preller was booked into the San Juan County Adult Detention Center, where he is being held on a $50,000 cash-only bond.
"The sheriff wants to get more proactive against Internet crimes against children," Capt. Brice Current said during a press conference. "We have a high number of registered sex offenders in this area, so we are obviously out there making an attempt to locate these individuals and protect the children in our own community."
On Tuesday, a deputy who is a member of the sheriff's Special Enforcement Team posed as a female minor and made contact with Preller on the Internet. Preller had explicit conversations with the deputy on Tuesday and Wednesday both online and via text messages, Current said.
"The conversations were sexual in nature," Current said. "It was obvious it was for purposes of enticing a child."
Investigators set up a sting and learned that the suspect was a deputy when Preller allegedly drove a Mora County Sheriff's Office vehicle to a location where he thought he was meeting the minor for sex, Current said.
Deputies didn't disclose the location of the meeting place.
Current said investigators gathered surveillance footage of Preller trying to meet with the minor. He left after he couldn't find her.
Preller attended police academy classes on Thursday. In the afternoon, he was called into the instructor's office and was arrested.
Current said investigators acted quickly once they learned the suspect was an officer because of fears he would try to abuse his authority.
"Did we feel safe in letting this person go back home for the weekend to his residence, which is out of the county, out of our area and where we couldn't keep an eye on him? No, we did not," said San Juan County Sheriff's Office Undersheriff Ron Anderson. "We don't know if there are victims out there or if there would be one this weekend. So on the side of the safety, we got enough information, got our warrant and made the arrest today."
The sheriff's office said it was not targeting the officer when it started communicating with him.
"We just throw out the line, and we get what we get," Anderson said. "We didn't even know he existed."
The S.E.T. deputies who investigated the case are part of a New Mexico Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. The task force is comprised of 64 law enforcement agencies and its aim is to arrest sexual predators and child pornographers who troll the Internet.
Preller was in San Juan County to take the San Juan County Criminal Justice Training Authority program at the Safety City facility in Kirtland. His training started April 1 and was scheduled to be completed Sept. 13.
Current said that Preller had been working as a sheriff's office deputy in Mora County for nearly a year. Mora County is about 250 miles east of Farmington. In New Mexico, police officers and deputies are allowed to work one year before they must pass a police academy program. The program is offered at the law-enforcement facility in Kirtland and at one in Santa Fe.
Mora County Sheriff Thomas Garza could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.
In July 2012, Garza's law-enforcement certification was suspended for four months after a New Mexico Law Enforcement Board meeting in Farmington.
The board suspended Garza for fighting with a deputy and forcing him to release a drunken driving suspect who allegedly had a blood-alcohol concentration of .16, which is twice the legal limit.