More than an hour after a Bernalillo County deputy threw a pepper spray canister into a home during a standoff last month, the SWAT team saw it smoldering on a mattress.
They tried to grab the canister with a bomb robot, but the claw fumbled it. Then, they pulled the flaming mattress from the home. But the damage was done.
The flames went on to consume the house after their target, Qiaunt Kelley, 27, surrendered, leaving 15-year-old Brett Rosenau dead inside from smoke inhalation.
During a news conference on Friday, Albuquerque Police Department Chief Harold Medina said that regardless of who threw the device that likely caused the fire, it was APD’s call from the start.
“I just want to make sure that’s out there loud and clear, that this was an APD initiated response,” he said. “We wanted to take Kelley into custody and this is an APD issue.”
APD officials also noted at the news conference that Rosenau has been linked to a shooting days before his death. The family referred the Journal to a lawyer, who did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Capt. Jason Ramirez, of Albuquerque Fire Rescue fire investigations, said the fire has been ruled accidental, but he stopped short of saying whether the canister started the blaze.
“We were unable to eliminate that device being an ignition source, all other ignition sources in the room were eliminated at this point,” he said.
When pressed, Ramirez added, “at this point in our investigation, there is no other possibility.”
Gilbert Gallegos said he didn’t know if the device, a Flameless Tri-Chamber OC Grenade made by Defense Technology, has been used since the incident. Whether APD will continue to use the devices, he said, “depends on what the investigation shows.”
“Clearly this was an issue in this fire that we’ve never experienced before, but we are looking at that as well as maybe other options for when we’re dealing with a barricaded subject, what else can be done to mitigate that,” Gallegos said.
At the time of the incident Kelley was wanted on a parole violation, but he has since been charged in a recent homicide and an unrelated shooting. Detectives were following Kelley when he went to the home with Rosenau in tow.
When police went to arrest Kelley, both ran onto the property, kicking off an eight-hour standoff. Under APD’s command, SWAT members that included BCSO deputies used flash bangs, ferret rounds — powder chemical munitions shot into the ceiling — and the canisters.
APD Deputy Cmdr. Kyle Hartsock said the SWAT team’s incident commander makes decisions “in real time with lots of consultation and experience and training.” He said those decisions will be reviewed as part of an investigation by the Multi Agency Task Force.
“Others are going to also look at it in hindsight, which is always tricky to make decisions, ‘Was that right? Even if it was right, do we want to change it up or retrain or redo something? If this were to happen again?’” Hartsock said. “We’re open minded to change.”
The Attorney General’s Office is conducting an independent investigation into the incident at the request of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, Rosenau’s family and APD Chief Harold Medina.
Rosenau’s death was met with backlash from the community and hundreds protested in the weeks that followed, criticizing the actions of law enforcement.
Hartsock said, after the fire, a gun found in the car that the pair drove to the house was tied to a July 1 shooting in an East Central neighborhood. The victim, according to police, picked Rosenau out as the shooter from a photo array.
“It’s a non fatal shooting, but had Brett survived, he would have been charged with that shooting,” Hartsock said.
More than 80 calls to suspect went unanswered
Hartsock gave a timeline of the incident and shared lapel footage, dispatch traffic, drone video and photos.
He said around 12:40 p.m. on July 6 detectives with the Investigative Support Unit saw Kelley riding a bicycle in the area but lost sight of him. Hours later, Kelley and Rosenau drove up to the house in a vehicle that belonged to one of the residents.
Hartsock said Kelley, Rosenau and others were seen coming in and out of the house over several hours and at 6:47 p.m. detectives tried to arrest Kelley. He said Kelley ran into a backyard shed, which was later discovered to have a tunnel into the home.
Hartsock said Rosenau and others in the home came out but then the teen ran into the backyard and tried to jump a wall. Lapel video showed an APD officer with a rifle confronted Rosenau before the teen retreated back into the yard.
He said at 9:45 p.m. a judge signed a warrant to enter the home and the SWAT team took over the incident. Hartsock said the team discussed having to rescue Rosenau, believing he was possibly held against his will.
In radio traffic, one of the officers said Rosenau appeared to follow Kelley “at his own free will.” Another replied, “but it’s a (juvenile) so the kid’s going to do what they’re told to do.”
Hartsock said that during the standoff crisis negotiators put a phone in the house to reach Kelley and made 83 phone calls, sent two text messages and left one voicemail, made by the homeowner.
In the voicemail, the woman said, “Q, this is mama bear. I need you to give yourself up. We’re all sitting out here waiting for you to come out. OK, I need you just to surrender. We want you alive. OK. Don’t give them any reason to do anything to you. We’re waiting on you.”
Hartsock said that between 10:44 p.m. and 12:26 a.m. the SWAT team used multiple flash bangs and ferret rounds and threw one tri-chamber canister into the home.
He said Kelley came out of the shed around 12:29 a.m., laid on the ground and then went back inside.
“This is the last time police will see him before he’s arrested,” Hartsock added.
He said around 1:06 a.m. two more ferret rounds and three canisters were used.
One of those canisters, he said, was thrown into the front window by a BCSO SWAT member and landed on a mattress. Hartsock said “smoke or gas” emitted from the same window around 2:30 a.m. and AFR was called after BCSO deputies smelled smoke.
He said at 2:47 a.m. a drone was sent inside and captured the canister on a smoldering mattress. Hartsock added that “by design and past performance of the trial chambers, it should no longer be emitting gas.”
Video showed a bomb robot struggle to grab the canister in its claw. Eventually it grasped the canister and lifted it before dropping the canister. Hartsock said by 3:04 a.m. the mattress caught fire and a rook pulled it from the home “but the fire has spread and still stays inside the home.”
He said AFR arrived at the home and, around 3:12 a.m., an AFR incident commander ordered crews to fight the blaze from the outside while SWAT members with ballistic shields stood in front of them. Hartsock said Kelley ran out of the burning home around 3:16 a.m. and told SWAT members “his little brother was still inside.”
Firefighters pulled Rosenau’s body from the fire minutes later. A mattress that had been seen in the hallway earlier had been moved into the room in which Rosenau was found.
Hartsock wouldn’t speculate as to why the teen didn’t leave the home like Kelley.
“When Albuquerque Fire Rescue found him, they were able to extract him from the house very quickly,” he said. “… Kelley was also able to come out of the home quite easily when he chose to. We can’t know everything that went on inside the house.”
‘We didn’t want that to happen’
When APD searched the car the pair arrived in, they found a gun on the passenger side and it came back as a match to a shooting days earlier.
On July 1 police had responded around 10:30 p.m. to a shooting near Pennsylvania and Central NE.
A man was shot four times and was hospitalized in critical condition, according to a police report filed after Rosenau’s death. The man told police he was shot by a young black male with curly hair and a tattoo between his eyebrows.
The man said he had heard the shooter had died in a SWAT situation and picked Rosenau out of a photo array as the suspect, according to the report. A woman who saw the shooting also gave a description of the shooter that matched Rosenau.
Hartsock said what happened to Rosenau in the end was tragic.
“We didn’t want that to happen. I don’t think anyone wanted Brett to die that night and he didn’t deserve to die that way,” he said. “What we tried to show you today is what we knew at the time, and how that made us shape some of the decisions that were being made.”