ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A man accused of killing a tribal policeman two years ago says he did not know that the person he was shooting at late one night in a remote part of the Navajo Nation was an officer.
Kirby Cleveland, 35, pleaded guilty Thursday in Federal Court to second-degree murder. He faces a possible life sentence in connection with the death of 27-year-old Navajo Nation police officer Houston Largo, who was fatally shot near Prewitt in March 2017.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the plea.
Asked to share his version of events with the court, Cleveland said he fired believing that the officer was another person who was out to get him – he’d been attacked by a group armed with bats just days before.
“Mr. Cleveland believed he was defending himself,” Theresa Duncan, one of his lawyers, said in court Thursday. Cleveland admitted that he acted with “callous and wanton disregard for human life,” by firing a .22 caliber rifle after drinking.
Cleveland had been given permission to leave a halfway house, where he was staying because of an earlier assault conviction, for a weekend to visit family. During the visit, he was in the car with relatives when they were boxed in by “some people they were having a feud with,” and a brawl ensued, his attorney Donald Kochersberger said in an interview Thursday. Cleveland and his father were beaten unconscious. His sister used thread to stitch up a wound on his head, and their father had to be taken to the emergency room. Kochersberger added that Cleveland became paranoid that the group would return to try to “finish the job.”
He never went back to the halfway house and admitted Thursday that violation as well.
Kochersberger said that on March 11, 2017, his client was upset that his family was not taking his concerns seriously. A complaint filed in the case alleges that Cleveland’s wife called police to report that he was being violent. The complaint says that the wife then drove Cleveland, who was intoxicated, to his uncle’s house. When his uncle was driving him back home some time later, the two were stopped by Largo.
“Officer Largo turned the corner and sort of cut them off, and apparently officer Largo then got out of his car at which point Mr. Cleveland thought that it was these people returning to beat him up,” Kochersberger said. “And so he jumps out of the (vehicle) and runs.”
Largo handcuffed the uncle to the mirror of the truck, and shouted at Cleveland something like, “I don’t want to have to come up there, I’ve got a gun,” Kochersberger said.
Cleveland “was drunk, he was suffering from a head injury, and he just kind of blindly shot the .22 down the road a number of times,” he said.
When things quieted down, Cleveland walked back to the truck and saw, “to his horror” that he’d shot a police officer, Kochersberger said .
A neighbor saw the police lights and assumed the uncle had been stopped for drunken driving. She went to the scene and found Largo lying bleeding on the ground beside his vehicle. She tried to call 911, but didn’t have cellphone service. Instead, she told Largo she was taking his keys and flashlight and used his police radio to call for help.
Cleveland returned to his home, told his wife what he had done and said she should go help the officer, according to the complaint.
Largo, who suffered a gunshot wound to the head, was taken to an Albuquerque hospital where he died the following afternoon.
Authorities found Cleveland hiding under a large rock about a mile and a half from the scene.
“It’s just a tragic thing all the way around,” Kochersberger said. “Officer Largo is dead and he shouldn’t be, and Mr. Cleveland is going to go to prison for all or at least significant portion of the rest of his life. And it just all never should have happened.”