SANTA FE – The New Mexico State Police officer who fired shots at a van full of children while their mother was fleeing a traffic stop near Taos in late October has been fired.
State Police spokesman Lt. Emmanuel Gutierrez said that officer Elias Montoya, who was placed on paid administrative leave Wednesday, was terminated from his position as of Friday.
Gutierrez said he had confirmed the firing with State Police Chief Pete Kassetas. Gutierrez declined further comment “until all appeals have been exhausted,” though he did confirm that two other officers who were present for the chaotic traffic stop were still employed by the State Police.
Kassetas called for an internal investigation into the shooting after an officer’s dashboard camera captured video of the Oct. 28 encounter between State Police and Memphis, Tenn., resident Oriana Farrell, who was stopped for speeding with her five children, ranging in age from 6 to 16, in her van.
According to Montoya’s report of the incident, he fired at the van’s left rear tire in an effort to immobilize the vehicle “so as not to put any other human life in jeopardy.”
“My decision in shooting at the tire and not at the driver was because of all the people in the vehicle. … I may have exaggerated in keeping the muzzle of my weapon down so no innocent person would get hit with the shots I fired,” he wrote.
The video of the incident received national media attention, including on CNN and ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Media legal analysts weighed in, criticizing the actions of Montoya.
But in-state, he is receiving a lot of support. A Facebook page has been created on his behalf, and postings praising the officer and criticizing Farrell, 39, a writer, rapper and home-school advocate, for causing problems during the traffic stop were piling up Friday night. The page had almost 2,200 “likes.”
“This is not right,” one poster wrote. “Our State Police now (are) pandering to channel 7 and whatever Civil Liberties Organization backing this crazy woman and her crazy lifestyle choices.”
Friday night, Taos District Attorney Donald Gallegos said, “Whatever they (State Police) decide to do they’ll do. Their department will decide whether he was right or wrong.”
Gallegos previously said he was not considering bringing charges against Montoya or two other officers involved in the traffic stop. When asked if the news of Montoya’s firing changed his view, he responded, “Not at this point. I haven’t seen anything else.”
The video shows officer Tony DeTavis, who made the initial traffic stop, trying to bash in a window as the children inside scream and then Montoya firing when Farrell takes off a second time, leading to a high-speed chase into Taos.
DeTavis stopped Farrell’s Kia Sedona minivan for travelling 71 mph in a 55 mph zone on NM 518 south of Taos on the afternoon of Oct. 28. Five children ages six to 16 were in the van.
After an initial polite exchange with the officer, Farrell drove away without the officer’s permission or resolution of her speeding citation and was pulled over a second time a short distance down the highway.
This time, DeTavis couldn’t get Farrell out of the van and at one point tries to pull her out. Her 14-year-old son also leaves the van and briefly struggled with police, prompting DeTavis to pull out his Taser.
After both mother and son jumped back into the van and locked the doors, DeTavis swung his baton a few times to break out a window, the video shows. At this point, Farrell drove the van away again and Montoya fired three shots at the van.
Farrell sped away and was eventually traveling at speeds of 90 to 100 mph before she pulled over at a Taos hotel, a prosecutor said at Farrell’s Nov. 12 arraignment.
Farrell is charged with felony counts of aggravated fleeing a law enforcement officer and intentional child abuse, and misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia, and is free on $10,000 bail. Her 14-year-old son is charged with battery against and assault on a police officer.
Montoya later bought the family dinner from McDonald’s and brought it to them while Farrell and her 14-year-old son were being booked.
After the video made national news, Chief Kassetas issued a statement saying that State Police’s top priority is to ensure officers respond appropriately so as to not complicate a situation and endanger others.
Efforts to reach Farrell, her attorney or anyone who could speak for Montoya were unsuccessful Friday.
But there was plenty of praise and sympathy for Montoya on the “I Support Officer Elias Montoya” Facebook page.
Dozens of posters praised Montoya and many criticized Farrell for causing the problems at the traffic stop.
Moriah Montoya, apparently the officer’s daughter, posted: “My father look sad n been thinkin lot but he had faith. Ofc, he had good heart as gold. Just keep pray my father.”
A Taos resident responded: “Moriah Montoya, please tell him he does have support and the citizens of Taos won’t sit back and take this. My thoughts are with your family. You’ve always been so good to the rest of us.”
Other posters said:
- “An officer has seconds to decide what he needs to do. This officer was extremely patient with the lady. They also need to think of the safety of the community, that lady taking off and the high speed pursuit that ensued not only put her kids the officers lives in danger but also all the other motorists in danger. The officer acted correctly and should be commended for his patience.”
- “And she not only put her kids in danger, but also the people of Taos by going 102 mph through our streets. It sickens me that the media shows you only what they want you to see. He gave her not only one, but 3 chances, when he could’ve given her none and taken her straight to jail after the first time she tried to run off. I’ve known Elias all my life, he’s a great family man and he would never put kids in danger (hence why he shot at the TIRES). There’s more to the story than just what the media wants you to hear. These leeches will do anything to destroy and degrade a person.”
- “Elias Montoya Has A Heart Of Gold, And This Is How They Repay Him, This Is Not Fair!!!!!!Or Right!!!!!!!”
The page says a rally to support Montoya is being organized for next Thursday.
According to a profile from a 2010 Taos News article, Montoya is a father who once mentored boys in an organization called Taos Men Engaged in Non-violence. “My dad was a minister and things were expected of you. He taught me how to be responsible,” Montoya said of his late father.
Journal reporter Andy Stiny contributed to this report.