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The man who police say shot and killed a New Mexico State Police officer during a traffic stop outside Deming on Thursday was on his way to Las Cruces for a drug deal.
Omar Felix Cueva, 39, was pulled over in his white Chevrolet pickup truck heading eastbound on Interstate 10 as part of an operation by State Police and Homeland Security Investigations.
Police say he fired at least one shot, killing Officer Darian Jarrott, before leading other officers on a chase, firing at them and blowing through a tire deflation device.
About 30 miles from where developments began, he shot a Las Cruces Police Department officer and multiple officers fired back, killing him. The LCPD officer was treated at a hospital in El Paso and released later that evening.
Roxanne Garcia-McElmell, a spokeswoman for the 3rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Doña Ana County, said they were told the suspect was wearing a bulletproof vest. A State Police spokesman has since said that’s not true.
It wasn’t the first time Cueva was reportedly involved in a high-speed chase during a drug transaction.
In September 2010, he was federally charged with possession with intent to distribute crystal methamphetamine in California. According to an article in the San Diego Union Tribune, Cueva and two other men led police on a chase – at times exceeding 100 miles per hour – on the interstate before crashing into a fence and fleeing into a nearby ravine.
The men were eventually arrested, and found to have a loaded assault rifle and a duffel bag containing 15 pounds of methamphetamine, worth about $252,000, according to the article.
Cueva pleaded guilty to three counts of using a cellphone to facilitate a drug offense and, in August 2011, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, according to court documents. It is unclear when or why he was released.
Cueva, who was living in the Deming area, does not have a criminal history in New Mexico and it’s unclear how long he has been in the state. Lt. Mark Soriano, a State Police spokesman, said Cueva had been charged with possession of a controlled substance twice, importation of a controlled substance – at least one of which was cocaine – three times, writing a fake check and burglary. He said the charges were accumulated between 2000 and 2010 in Southern California.
Details about what exactly HSI agents were looking for on Thursday and what Cueva was being investigated for remain sparse, but State Police Chief Robert Thornton had said in a late-night news conference Thursday that they knew he was traveling from the Deming area to Las Cruces “to engage in a drug interaction or a drug buy.”
Leticia Zamarripa, a spokeswoman for the Department Of Homeland Security, did not answer questions about the operation, or about whether authorities knew how dangerous Cueva was or what safety protocols were in place.
She did say State Police had been assisting HSI special agents – who focus on investigating transnational crime and threats – in “an enforcement operation in Deming, New Mexico, related to an ongoing narcotics investigation.”
“Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) extends its deepest condolences to our law enforcement partners at the New Mexico State Police for the tragic loss in the line of duty of Officer Darian Jarrott. We grieve along with the rest of our law enforcement community for this heroic officer who lost his life serving his state and protecting his community…,” Erik Breitzke, special agent in charge of HSI El Paso, said in a statement. “The community should also be thankful and proud of the courageous Las Cruces Police Department officer who was injured in Thursday’s shooting incident.”
Thursday night, Chief Thornton said investigators were serving search warrants on Cueva’s home. The 6th Judicial District Attorney said his office has asked for those records to be sealed in order to protect the ongoing investigation.
Editor’s note: this story was updated to correct inaccurate information provided to the Journal that Cueva was wearing a bulletproof vest.