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Motive unclear in shooting of officer on I-40

Robert Benjamin Nelson

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Why would a 28-year-old Arizona man traveling behind his parents on Interstate 40 on their way to a funeral Sept. 12 open fire on a New Mexico State Police officer after she pulled him over for a minor traffic offense?

And why did the man, who had no warrants for his arrest or contraband in his truck, flee the scene after the shooting, only to pull over a second time and grab an AK-47 rifle from behind the seat as the injured officer caught up with him in traffic?

Unanswered questions resonated throughout a detention hearing in U.S. Magistrate Court in Albuquerque on Monday that concluded with an order that Robert Benjamin Nelson be held in federal custody pending trial on charges of attempted murder of a federal officer.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John Robbenhaar agreed with prosecutors that the motive was a mystery.

“He’s an individual with no criminal history traveling with his parents who is pulled over by State Police … and (when the officer approaches his truck) unloads three rounds at the officer’s head,” the judge said. ” … It doesn’t make any sense. The nature of the crime is as serious an offense as one might imagine.”

The charges are in federal court because the officer, who served in the U.S. Army before joining the State Police, was assigned to a Homeland Security drug interdiction task force at the time she stopped Nelson.

The officer suffered bullet wounds to both hands. She also had damage to the retina of one eye, which was 90% covered with small glass fragments, from being shot through the passenger window of Nelson’s truck, according to court testimony Monday from Special Agent Bryan Acee, coordinator of the FBI’s violent crimes task force.

The State Police officer has been identified in state court records as Sharron Duran.

Just before the shooting, Nelson was driving behind his parents on their way to Wichita, Kansas, for a funeral, according to his attorney, Devin Fooks. He lives with them in Scottsdale, Arizona, Fooks told the judge.

That morning, Duran was on patrol in the median of Interstate 40 when she noticed Nelson traveling too close behind an RV being pulled by his parents’ truck. She checked Nelson’s truck’s registration in Arizona and saw that it didn’t have an expiration date, agent Acee testified Monday.

Once stopped, Duran left her drug interdiction dog in her State Police vehicle as she walked up to the passenger side of Nelson’s vehicle. Acee testified that the officer, who is less than half Nelson’s size, posed no threat, didn’t have her hand on the weapon and was about to tap on the passenger’s-side window when she saw Nelson point a handgun at her head and fire. He fired three shots and fled.

The officer fell back, hit a bush and returned fire as the truck peeled away. She was able to get to her State Police vehicle, call for backup and chase Nelson’s truck east on the interstate near the Bernalillo County line.

At some point, Nelson telephoned his parents, who saw him get pulled over and took the next off-ramp, where they waited, according to an FBI search warrant affidavit filed last week.

“Shortly thereafter, they observed the police vehicle drive by with its emergency lights flashing,” the affidavit said. Nelson’s mother later told investigators at the scene that her son had told her over the phone that “he was in trouble and the police had shot at him,” the affidavit said.

The mother, who wasn’t identified, said she didn’t understand what her son was saying so she handed the phone to her husband. He told Nelson to pull over, the FBI affidavit said.

About five miles into the chase, the injured, bloodied officer caught up to Nelson’s truck, which was in the slow lane behind a tractor-trailer, Acee testified Monday.

That’s when the officer saw Nelson reach behind the front seat and retrieve a rifle, which he propped up on the seat. Nelson turned on his truck’s hazard lights and pulled over to the shoulder.

She then relied on her experience as a military combat veteran, Acee testified. “That’s when she thought she was too close to the defendant’s truck, having seen the rifle.” So she made a U-turn down the median and got back onto the freeway farther behind Nelson to try to ensure a safe distance between them.

Two Laguna Pueblo police officers hearing her radio call for backup were headed in the opposite direction on the interstate but responded to the scene where Duran had stopped about 75 yards behind Nelson’s GMC Sierra with her patrol rifle trained on the truck. Nelson surrendered with his hands up.

During the hearing, broadcast on Zoom, Nelson’s attorney, Fooks, noted his client’s lack of criminal history and asked that he be held at a halfway house in Albuquerque pending trial.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Mysliwiec told the judge, “Unless and until we know why the defendant acted the way he did and being that so much is unknown, we have no way of determining if he is a danger. We have a relatively mysterious origin of the use of deadly force against a law enforcement officer. I’m sure his parents have been doing their best, but they are not able to mitigate the risk.”

An FBI search warrant affidavit filed last week by agent Acee sought permission to check two cellphones found in Nelson’s truck.

Investigators hoped the devices would “contain evidence of Nelson’s communications with his parents as well as information that may help agents establish a motive for the otherwise senseless shooting. …”

“To date there’s been no obvious motive,” the affidavit said. “He is not a fugitive from justice. There are no known state or federal warrants for his arrest. (The State Police officer) was not harming him in any way and there was no illegal contraband in his truck. As such, it stands to reason that his motives are philosophical.”

The affidavit noted that though it wasn’t clear whether Nelson subscribed to such beliefs, “there currently exists an unfortunate and expanding anti-law enforcement sentiment among some individuals in our country.”

Such anti-law enforcement sentiments may be evidenced on the devices, as anti-law enforcement protests, video blog posts or other commentary, the affidavit said.

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