Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
On Thursday morning, police say, a teenager was walking home after spending the night at his father’s house when he was robbed in a neighborhood off East Central.
The robbery, and the Albuquerque Police Department response to it, led to a dramatic shootout between a suspect and officers along a busy Northeast Albuquerque street.
Officer Mario Verbeck, a 17-year veteran with the department, was shot in the neck and arm and remained in critical condition at the University of New Mexico Hospital on Friday.
Three other police were injured – officer James Eichel Jr. was shot in the forearm, Sgt. Sean Kenny was shot in his bulletproof vest and officer Harry Gunderson was struck in the eye by shrapnel.
Only Kenny had been released from the hospital, according to an APD spokesman.
“We are incredibly grateful to the physicians and all the hospital staff at UNMH,” APD Chief Harold Medina said in a news release. “We continue to pray for the recovery of the brave officers who put their lives in harm’s way to keep the public safe.”
The suspect, 27-year-old James Ramirez of Los Angeles, was shot and sustained multiple injuries. He is in stable condition at UNMH. He is charged with armed robbery, three counts of aggravated battery on a peace officer, felon in possession of a firearm and other crimes. APD said he may also face federal charges.
It is unclear who his attorney will be.
Luis Patiño Jr., a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said Ramirez was sentenced to four years in prison for first-degree burglary in October 2017.
“Per law he was eligible for one extra day of credit for each day served. The sentencing court also gave him 1,461 days of presentenced credits – usually given for time served in jail while awaiting adjudication,” Patiño said. “Since his credits were longer than his sentence, he was deemed to have already served his full term. Ramirez was paroled on the same day … He was discharged from parole at the statutory maximum on Feb. 11, 2021.”
All four injured officers have been with the department for more than 10 years.
Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman, said Verbeck has been with the department since 2004. He said Eichel has been with APD since 2009, Kenny since 1999 and Gunderson since 2004.
Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, said as senior officers the men are all highly respected by their peers.
“I would be praying that one of these guys or all of these guys were there to assist me if faced with the same situation (as the robbery victim),” Willoughby said. “They dedicated their lives to serving this community, they are proud Albuquerque police officers. And it’s important to understand they’re not just officers, these are fathers, husbands, I’m sure they have been coaches. They’re just very, very good men – all of them.”
He said on Thursday morning every officer who heard what happened jumped into action.
“Every single person who knew this was going on dropped everything,” Willoughby said. “They left training, they didn’t even log on if they were off at home they just dropped everything and came to work to see what they could do to help.”
But, he said, the officers are angry about an upswing in violent crime and frustrated by understaffing, politicians and the court-ordered reform effort. APD has been under a settlement agreement mandating reforms since a Department of Justice investigation found in 2014 that officers had a pattern and practice of using excessive force.
“It’s officers that are hesitating to do their job because they don’t want to get in trouble,” Willoughby said. “It’s the brazen acts of criminals that know that Albuquerque police officers are handcuffed … We have stepped away and de-policed this city. From the very beginning our officers are carrying a card of misdemeanors that they’re not supposed to arrest on.”
Officers are encouraged to issue citations for misdemeanors like concealing identity, criminal trespass, criminal damage under $1,000, littering, possession of drug paraphernalia, prostitution and others.
According to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court, Thursday’s incident unfolded after a teenager told police he was walking home from a bus stop near Central and Western Skies around 7 a.m. when two men approached him and asked him if he wanted to buy drugs. He said that when he said no one of the men pointed a “Glock style handgun” at his head and demanded everything he had – his wallet, Puma backpack, white Nike Air Pro shoes, a gold chain necklace and a PlayStation game console.
The teen said the two men walked away, and he went to find first his mother and then a friend who took turns driving him around the neighborhood looking for them.
The teen and his friend found their suspects, carrying his backpack, around 8:40 a.m. on Juan Tabo and Copper NE, according to the complaint.
That’s when they called 911.
Verbeck was dispatched to the call. Eichel was sent to assist. They saw the men turn down Summer from Juan Tabo NE and run down an alley toward Dutch Bros Coffee.
“The offenders started to run south in the alleyway and Officer Verbeck and Officer Eichel pursued them on foot,” an investigator wrote in the complaint. “The larger male discharged his handgun suddenly at Officer Eichel and Officer Verbeck in the alleyway and struck both of the officers, seriously injuring them … The officers discharged their firearms back towards the offender. I later observed the officers on-body recording devices and observed the officers getting shot and bleeding profusely from their injuries.”
Kenny and Gunderson arrived just south of the scene near the crowded drive-thru at Dutch Bros Coffee. They saw the suspect “raise his head between two vehicles” and commanded him to drop his gun.
Instead, police say, the suspect shot at the two officers.
“Officer Gunderson and Sgt. Kenny returned fire,” the investigator wrote. “Sgt. Kenny was struck by gunfire in his chest where he was wearing a ballistic vest, and officer Gunderson was struck on his face with glass and fragments as he took cover behind his marked vehicle. The offender continued to fire multiple rounds at the officers, and the officers continued firing rounds back at the offender.”
Eventually, the suspect – later identified as Ramirez – was struck by the hail of gunfire and fell to the ground. The officers rendered aid until he was taken to the hospital. Police found the robbery victim’s ID and credit card in his wallet, according to the complaint, and a gun next to him in the parking lot.
The second suspect in the robbery, a “smaller skinny” man, was seen running south down the alley. Officers did not see that he was armed or shooting at them. The incident sparked a massive manhunt as tactical officers and helicopters searched the area for hours.
APD on Friday released photos of a man they said they believe is the second suspect, describing him as wearing all black and carrying a Puma backpack.