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Officer’s death still a mystery after 25 years

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — No one from the Mountainair Police Department attended officer Stephen Sandlin’s funeral 25 years ago.

But this month, the town’s current police chief – a former New York City police sergeant – led a long-overdue memorial service to honor Sandlin as an officer shot in the line of duty.

A 4-foot-tall monument to Sandlin’s memory now sits just outside the entrance to the Police Department office, where the 21-year-old rookie officer was found dead on May 7, 1988, still in uniform; still technically on duty. He was shot once in the head, his .357 Magnum found next to his body.

On May 7 of this year, Sandlin’s 26-year-old son, who never knew his dad, was in attendance at the town’s ceremony, as was Sandlin’s father, retired Albuquerque police Lt. Tom Sandlin.

“The town … has been overshadowed by a dark cloud of mystery and deceit following the death of Stephen,” wrote Yvonne Sandlin, who is married to Tom Sandlin, in a letter this month to the Journal. She said the community joined forces “to try and right a wrong. They reached out to our family and erected a monument to honor our son.”

The case remains unsolved, but the investigation continues.

But over the past 25 years, key figures have died, including Melvin King, a prime suspect in the death that was initially labeled a suicide.

King’s arrest for drunken driving by Sandlin weeks before the officer’s death led to the police seizure at King’s rural home of 50 pounds of marijuana packaged for sale.

But the confiscated marijuana disappeared from the nearby Torrance County sheriff’s evidence room, and King was never prosecuted.

King’s death in December 2004 was ruled an accident, cause by an overdose of Tylenol. His autopsy report said he had been on a methamphetamine high and had ingested antifreeze.

Tom Gillespie, head of the state attorney general’s investigations unit in 1988, died of cancer in 2004.

After receiving citizen complaints, Gillespie had traveled to the sleepy town at the foot of the Manzanos to interview Sandlin and others in the Mountainair Police Department about the handling of police evidence.

Gillespie reportedly announced that the Attorney General’s Office would be back for more interviews. By the next evening, Sandlin was dead.

Evidence emerged that the seized marijuana disappeared from the sheriff’s custody before Sandlin was shot. But several packages showed up in Sandlin’s rental house after his death, in what AG investigators believed was a botched attempt to discredit him. Tape recordings of his traffic stops and arrests, kept at his house, are still missing.

After more that two decades, key questions remain.

Did Sandlin discover the marijuana had been stolen from the evidence room? Was he about to report the missing dope to the AG’s Office? Is that what led to his death?

Over the past two decades, the FBI joined the investigation, and the case was featured on the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries.” A federal grand jury in Denver explored the drug trafficking aspects, but no indictments related to the death emerged.

Attorney General Gary King is the fourth state attorney general to oversee the Sandlin investigation.

“I was practicing law in Moriarty when officer Sandlin was killed,” King told the crowd of about 150 who attended the recent memorial service. “I still very much remember the day that we got the news. We were stunned.”

King offered no details at the town’s ceremony to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Sandlin’s death.

But he made this pledge:

“I don’t think that I can tell you today what the truth is, but it’s something that we continue to work on. I have agents that continue to work on this case, and we hope that one day we can find out what occurred to give some closure to the family. And also, if there’s anybody that’s still out that’s responsible for this, we still want to bring them to justice.”

Mountainair Police Chief Robert Chung, who retired from the NYPD after 28 years, said he hopes that with the presence of the memorial in Mountainair, featuring Sandlin’s photo, “Somebody who may not have come forward back then will be moved to do so.”

The evening after the ceremony, Chung said he saw a man standing across the street “looking at the memorial. He was just crying his eyes out.”

Two hours later, Chung happened to drive by and noticed someone had “pulled (a car) right up near it and I think they were crying too.”

“Wouldn’t it be something if someone just looking at the memorial would be moved to maybe provide the little piece so the attorney general can put it all together?” he added.

Chung, who’s been chief for two years, said he never knew Stephen Sandlin, but “he certainly gave us a standard to which we need to aspire to. I mean, he gave up his life.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Colleen Heild at 505-823-3963 or cheild@abqjournal.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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