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A SWAT standoff in Southeast Albuquerque on Wednesday night ended with the suspect fleeing the house after it caught fire and a boy – believed to be in his early teens – found dead inside.
Police arrested 27-year-old Qiaunt Kelley on felony warrants outside the home in the 8100 block of San Joaquin SE. Authorities said he is also a person of interest in several violent crimes.
In a Thursday afternoon briefing, Albuquerque Police Department Chief Harold Medina said they have not identified the boy who died but said they believe he was 14 years old and went to the home with Kelley.
Medina said no officers fired their weapons during the hourslong incident, and investigators are working to determine what caused the blaze. He said an autopsy will be done on Friday to determine how the boy died.
By Thursday evening dozens of people gathered at Central and Wyoming to protest the death of the teen, who was Black. They waved signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and “(expletive) the police.”
Those who lived at the home wondered whether gas canisters fired by the SWAT team sparked the fire, which also destroyed the home, killed a dog and displaced the family.
Elizabeth Fields said her sister Sundra Coleman owns the house, which was handed down from their mother when she died in 2017. Fields said two young guys were visiting her sister’s son when SWAT showed up with guns drawn, ordered everyone out of the residence and put several of her family members in handcuffs.
She said they didn’t realize that the two males had gone back in the house.
“And then they start pulling off the windows, they started removing the doors, they had a machine that ripped up the tree, and so then they started throwing gas bombs in there,” Fields said, adding that “the whole house went up in flames.”
Medina said the SWAT team used an unknown number of Flameless Tri-Chamber tear gas canisters and rounds of powder-based chemicals into the home more than an hour before smoke was seen.
“They’re built in a way that’s supposed to reduce the likelihood of causing a fire. And it’s something we use over and over – in tons of calls,” he said of the canisters.
Medina pointed out that there are stories of the devices possibly causing fires in other parts of the country but it had never been reported here in Albuquerque.
APD Sgt. Michael Jones showed a tear gas canister, which is manually thrown into the home, and Ferret rounds of powdered tear gas and pepper spray, which are fired from launchers into the ceiling.
“The goal is to make it uncomfortable for the subject and propel the subject to come out … peacefully,” Jones said.
The incident began Wednesday evening with a search for Kelley, who police said was wanted on a warrant for auto theft from Santa Fe and a federal warrant for a probation violation.
Kelley has a criminal history that includes arrests and some convictions for carjacking, armed robbery, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and auto theft.
Medina said officers with the Investigative Services Unit were out looking for Kelley and found him with the boy. He said they followed the pair to the home where they were seen working on a motorcycle, which turned out to be stolen, in the front yard.
Medina said detectives moved in to arrest Kelley around 6:50 p.m., and the two ran inside the home. He said a judge signed a warrant at 9:05 p.m. and the SWAT team was called in, sparking a standoff.
Medina said, in the hours that followed, the boy came out of the house and went back inside “of his own will,” and tear gas and other less-lethal chemicals were used.
“Around 1 a.m. we do know that one munition was put into the home – we’re working to determine – if this munition caused the fire,” he said. Medina said an hour and 20 minutes went by between the last tear gas canister being used and the fire breaking out.
Albuquerque Fire Rescue said in a release that APD requested fire crews around 2:45 a.m. when smoke was seen coming from the roof of the home.
“Police were dealing with a barricade(d) subject within the structure when they noticed active flames,” according to the release. Fire crews were asked to extinguish the fire but “due to the subject still being barricaded” they were forced to fight it from outside “in coordination with APD.”
The suspect exited the home as the fire was being put out and fire crews went inside and found the dead male, according to the release. One firefighter sustained minor injuries and was treated at the scene.
Medina said they have received different information on the boy’s identity, first hearing it was Kelley’s little brother – which turned out to be false. He said at one point they were told it was a man in his 30s but APD believes he is a teen.
“We’re getting a lot of mixed information from community members,” Medina said, adding “we just know that this was a young individual that hung out with Mr. Kelley.”
He also addressed allegations that police fired actual bullets at the home and let the house burn down, citing the difficulty with letting fire crews fight a fire with a person believed to be “armed and dangerous” inside.
Medina said a gun was seen “in plain sight” in the vehicle Kelley and the boy arrived in.
He said APD asked Albuquerque Fire Rescue to assist in determining the origin of the fire and the Multi-Agency Task Force is working to “get to the root of what occurred.”
Medina asked that anyone with video or information on the incident to come forward.
He said the people living at the home were not “full-time residents” but were displaced by the fire. Medina said APD worked with the Community Safety Department to find them housing for 90 days, food, diapers and other resources.
In a video posted to YouTube, the SWAT team appears to fire multiple canisters before gas or smoke appears to waft from the home. A woman can be heard expressing concern about her dogs inside.
The smoke or gas appears to dissipate soon after and onlookers, neighbors and others confront officers near the crime scene tape before the video ends.
By Thursday afternoon, the charred frame of the house could be seen and those who lived there as well as neighbors expressed anger at the situation.
“It’s demolished,” said Olivia Archie, who was in the home before police began ordering the suspect to come out.
With one of the two family dogs dead and the home a total loss, Fields called APD’s actions “overkill.”
“They didn’t save a life and they burned down a family home that we can’t get back,” Fields said. She continued, “They said, ‘Well, we were trying to negotiate,’ it’s 2022! These are Black men that fear the police. You really thought you were going get them to come out the house?”
Journal photographer Adolphe Pierre-Louis and Journal City Editor Martin Salazar contributed to this report.