A high-ranking Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office official and three other first responders battling a small wildfire in northern New Mexico were all killed when the helicopter they were in crashed Saturday evening in a remote area near Las Vegas.
A sheriff’s office spokeswoman said the crew had been “providing bucket drops and other air logistics needs to fire crews on the ground” prior to the crash. The BCSO helicopter — dubbed Metro 2 — crashed at about 7:20 p.m., spokeswoman Jayme Fuller said in a news release.
The cause of the crash is unknown, she said, adding that an investigation is underway and the information provided “is still considered preliminary.”
Officer Ray Wilson, a State Police spokesman, said the National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the scene at 4 p.m. on Sunday.
The helicopter was left mangled and in multiple pieces in a field peppered with small trees near the small northern New Mexico village of Chapelle.
BCSO identified those killed as Undersheriff Larry Koren, Lt. Fred Beers, Deputy Michael Levison and Bernalillo County Fire Department rescue specialist Matthew King.
Koren, a pilot, had been with the sheriff’s office for more than 23 years, while Beers had been with BCSO for 13 years. Deputy Levison was also a member of the New Mexico Air National Guard, and King was an accomplished paramedic of 17 years.
“Seldom do you lose one or two, much less undersheriffs and lieutenant officers as well as patrol deputies to a single event,” said Dr. Drew Harrell, a University of New Mexico associate professor of emergency medicine who knew all four men and has worked on numerous rescue missions with BCSO.
“It’s a terrible hole and a sadness for the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department that will certainly reverberate for quite some time.”
He said he and others were preparing to respond to Saturday evening’s crash before they were called off. There were no survivors.
Police and firefighters from throughout New Mexico lined Interstate 25 on Sunday afternoon to pay tribute to the four first responders as their bodies were escorted to the Office of the Medical Investigator in Albuquerque. Flags were raised along the route and many saluted as the somber caravan of motorcycles, police vehicles and fire trucks brought the men back home.
Sheriff Manuel Gonzales and BCSO deputies mourned behind closed doors on Sunday as other public safety leaders remembered the men killed as heroes.
“Our hearts are broken by the tragic and distressing news that we lost four of the state’s finest public servants, killed in the line of duty,” state Public Safety Cabinet Secretary Jason Bowie said in a statement. “It’s a sacrifice no one should have to make.”
Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina tweeted, “Prayers for our brothers and sisters in the county and all those (affected) by the loss suffered as a result of this tragic accident.”
East Mesa Fire
The helicopter was a Bell UH-1 Iroquois, according to the online flight tracking website FlightAware. It crashed about 25 miles south of Las Vegas.
BCSO said the crew had been helping to fight the East Mesa Fire and that the helicopter was heading back to Albuquerque.
Wendy Mason, a spokeswoman with the state Forestry Division, said the East Mesa fire is burning on private land south of La Liendre. She said the fire had grown to about 75 acres as of Sunday evening and was 65% contained. The fire started on Thursday evening and the cause is under investigation, she said.
New Mexico has seen a record setting fire season in 2022, with the two largest wildfires in state history burning this year. BCSO aircraft has been called on to help fight several fires in recent months.
‘We need … prayers’
New Mexico State Police announced the crash at about 12:15 a.m. Sunday morning in a tweet.
“State Police is on scene of a helicopter crash with four fatalities in San Miguel county,” the agency said. “(The Federal Aviation Administration) and NTSB are responding to investigate.”
BCSO announced minutes later that its helicopter was the one that went down.
“There are no known survivors,” Fuller said in her initial news release issued at 12:22 a.m.
BCSO later tweeted, “We need all the prayers we can get right now,” above a picture of a black band across a sheriff’s office badge.
News of the deadly crash left New Mexicans — from the governor to parishioners at Sunday services — stunned.
Bernalillo County Commissioner Charlene Pyskoty took to social media to say she was “absolutely devastated,” while Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she was “heartbroken by the tragic loss of four New Mexicans while in the line of duty.”
“These were four dedicated public servants who were doing what so many of our first responders do day in and day out: working tirelessly to serve and protect their fellow New Mexicans,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement.
This wasn’t the first fatal crash in the state involving law enforcement or first responders. Including the BCSO deputies who died Saturday, there have been 15 local, state and federal law enforcement officers killed in aircraft crashes in New Mexico dating back to the 1950s, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
In 2009, a New Mexico State Police sergeant and pilot and a UNM graduate student were killed when the helicopter they were in crashed in the mountains near Santa Fe. In 2014, three crew members on a medical flight died in a crash while on their way to Tucumcari.
An experienced crew
When Beers was promoted to lieutenant during a 2020 ceremony, Undersheriff Sid Convington praised his experience. After joining the sheriff’s office in 2009, Beers at different points in his career was a firearms instructor, a member of an emergency response team and part of the Special Victims Unit. He also volunteered as a member of the honor guard, where he represented the sheriff’s office at funerals, graduations and other ceremonies.
Beers’ wife, Anita, and son, Daniel, attended the ceremony. Daniel pinned the badge on his father, with Anita’s help.
“Everything is built from other people,” Beers said. “From below us who have built it up, everyone else has helped me to get to where I’m at.”
Beers was also part of Cops on Top, where officers summit mountain peaks to honor fallen officers. In 2017, he organized a hike to the top of Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico, as part of that effort, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
Matthew King had been a paramedic since 2005, when he graduated from the University of New Mexico EMS Academy Paramedic Program. He was a rescue specialist and helicopter hoist operator and had also been a part-time faculty member at Central New Mexico Community College. He has worked for Bernalillo County for 11 years.
Levison, in addition to working for the sheriff’s office, was a member of the New Mexico Air National Guard.
Koren was one of two BCSO undersheriffs. He had been with the sheriff’s office for more than 23 years. Prior to his career in law enforcement, he was an aircraft mechanic and pilot.
He told the Journal earlier this year that when BCSO bought a repurposed military helicopter for $1 in the early 2000s, he personally overhauled and rebuilt it.
“It was all in addition to my duties as a field deputy out on patrol on a graveyard shift,” Koren said. “I would come in and work extra, and volunteer a lot of hours and blood, sweat and tears into those programs.”
During his recent unsuccessful run for sheriff, Koren said that despite the “defund the police” movement, he hadn’t given up on Albuquerque and wanted to continue to work in law enforcement.
“Have I given up and has the community given up?” Koren said during his campaign. “I haven’t. I’m still in the fight right now — fighting crime and protecting others.”
Harrell, the UNM associate professor of emergency medicine, said he was a physician on many rescue missions piloted by Koren.
“We’re not sure the man ever slept; he was the consummate professional,” he said. “If you needed to talk to him, he picked up the phone.” He described Beers as a thoughtful, pragmatic deputy.
Koren piloted the New Year’s Day rescue of 19 TEN 3 employees and a tram operator who got stuck while descending in the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway on New Year’s Eve. Beers also helped in the rescue.
“Over the last 24 hours we’ve had a lot of time for introspection and retrospection, and I cannot recall a time that I ever remember Undersheriff Koren or Lt. Beers being anything other than two of the calmest individuals working through a problem,” Harrell said. “I never worried with Larry at the controls about how we were going to handle the rescue.”
He described the crew’s ill-fated Saturday mission as routine.
“It takes a huge team to make these operations work. And we’ve lost a huge part of that team,” Harrell said. “And it’s going to take a long time for everyone to come to grips with that. We’ve lost four outstanding individuals who dedicated their lives to making sure that the people that live in Bernalillo County and Albuquerque in the greater metropolitan area and the state of New Mexico are safe.”
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to accurately state how long Matthew King worked for Bernalillo County.