Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
An Albuquerque man injured in a crash with a stolen vehicle that was being chased by Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies has died.
Robert Chavez, 66, who hadn’t left the hospital since the Aug. 6 multi-car crash, died Friday afternoon, Kay Lovato, his sister-in-law, said in an interview with the Journal.
She said deputies told Chavez’s family to refrain from talking to the media, which the sheriff’s office denies.
“We were told not to talk to the media,” Lovato said. “I said, ‘I don’t care,’ because I’m sick and tired of them chasing people.”
Chavez was tending to errands when the vehicle he was driving was struck by a car near Broadway and Avenida Cesar Chavez SE, Lovato said.
The crash, which happened around 9:30 a.m., involved at least three vehicles, including the one deputies were chasing. Ten people were hurt, and five were sent to the hospital, according to a prior news release from Albuquerque Fire Rescue.
Lovato said Chavez broke his back, shoulder, forearm, wrist, ribs and pelvis in the crash and also had other internal injuries.
She said since the crash his only means of communicating was blinking his eyes until he had a heart attack and died Friday afternoon.
The family plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit, their attorney Sam Bregman said.
Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales hasn’t returned phone calls or text messages asking about the crash, and he hasn’t explained why deputies got into a high-speed chase with a suspected stolen vehicle.
Deputy Johann Jareno, a spokesman for the agency, said BCSO is still investigating the pursuit. But he said investigators deny telling Chavez’s family not to discuss the crash with the media.
Oscar Contreras Zamarripa, 32, who was a passenger in the stolen vehicle, according to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court, has been charged with conspiracy to receive or transfer a motor vehicle and tampering with evidence.
BCSO is not identifying the driver, but Jareno said he still in the hospital and being guarded by deputies.
Since Chavez’s death, BCSO said they are amending the charges to include homicide by vehicle.
The complaint said a deputy on a “proactive patrol” checked the license plate of a Hyundai Sonata near Coors and Iliff NW and the plate was reported stolen. Deputies in marked cars tried to pull over the vehicle, which led to a chase.
Prior to chasing the vehicle, deputies shot at it with a StarChase tracking device, which allows deputies to monitor a car’s path using GPS data, according to the complaint.
Gonzales has told local television stations that the device is intended to prevent some vehicle pursuits.
The number of vehicle chases involving Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies has soared in the last year and a half, after the sheriff changed the office’s policies to give deputies more freedom to chase suspects in nonviolent crimes, according to prior Journal reports.
In 2016, deputies were involved in 11 vehicle pursuits, but last year the number of car chases jumped to 74, according to county statistics.
Bregman points to the increase and says he believes the policy is directly responsible for Chavez’s death.
“Granted, we’ve got people who do bad things, but this department exacerbates the problem by chasing someone in the middle of the day when they don’t have to,” Bregman said.
By comparison, Albuquerque police – an agency about twice as large as the sheriff’s office – was in 12 car chases in 2017.
Several current and former sheriff’s office officials have testified that they disagreed with Gonzales’ decision to change the pursuit policy.
In March, Bernalillo County commissioners passed a resolution calling for an outside agency to review sheriff’s office policies governing use of force and vehicle pursuits. The county has hired the Daigle Law Group, a Connecticut firm, to complete the review.
Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins sponsored the resolution that led to the review.
“The tragic death today of an innocent bystander highlights the risk of engaging in high speed pursuits and why we need to take a close look at current BCSO pursuit policies,” she said Friday. “I’ve expressed my concern about the sharp increase in pursuits over the last year and realize that any decision to engage in a vehicle chase has to balance the danger of the perpetrator’s actions against risk to the public. But public safety has to come first, and we have a duty to assess and look for best practices for the county.”
Journal Staff Writer Elise Kaplan and Matthew Reisen contributed to this report.