Police said officer Brian Pitzer fired an undisclosed number of times at Joaquin Ortega, 34, and struck him at least once after Ortega robbed a woman and her 7-year-old grandson of $15 at gunpoint and tried to take a truck belonging to the owner of a nearby muffler shop.
A criminal complaint filed Wednesday in Metropolitan Court cites unnamed witnesses who told police that Ortega threatened Pitzer with a silver handgun, turned to run away but then turned back toward the officer and shot at him.
That account differs from that of the victim of the attempted carjacking, Jim Sutton, who told the Journal in a phone interview that Pitzer shot at Ortega seven times as Ortega was running away. Sutton said Ortega threw away his weapon after the officer’s first two shots, and that he did not see Ortega fire his gun .
Ortega, who has a long criminal history that includes drug possession with the intent to distribute, is facing a slew of charges as a result of the alleged robbery and attempted carjacking, including, but not limited to, armed robbery, aggravated assault on a police officer, aggravated assault and child abuse. He could also face federal charges, police said.
Pitzer, who started at the Albuquerque Police Department in April 2007, was one of two officers who shot two suspects during a confrontation at an Albuquerque apartment complex in November 2009, according to news reports at the time. Both suspects, one armed with a sledgehammer and the other with a knife, survived.
And in November 2010, Pitzer was one of several officers who rushed into the home of a man who was threatening suicide and holding a 3-inch paring knife.
Pitzer shouted, “I’m going lethal!” before entering the home. Police said Pitzer shot the man after he ignored officers’ commands to drop his knife and walked toward the officers. The man survived, and his family has since filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging the officers used excessive force.
Pitzer has also been honored for resuscitating and saving the life of a 2-day-old infant who was choking in November 2012.
Apart from the criminal complaint, police have not released any more details about Monday’s shooting on Central Avenue, other than releasing Ortega’s name on Tuesday and Pitzer’s on Wednesday. An Albuquerque police spokeswoman said the department is still catching up with interviews and investigations from Saturday’s rampage by a man who shot four law enforcement officers, injuring one badly, in a sprawling police chase from Southeast Albuquerque into the North Valley.
The criminal complaint filed Wednesday in Metropolitan Court cites Sutton and other witnesses in piecing together the events of the shooting, which happened shortly after 5 p.m. Monday near Central and Washington.
Sutton, reached by telephone Wednesday, said he told police his account of the shooting, which begins as he was walking into the parking lot of his muffler shop to retrieve something from his truck. That’s when Ortega approached him and asked for a ride.
When Sutton said he wasn’t driving anywhere, Ortega jammed the gun into his stomach and said, “Come on, man. Just a couple blocks,” Sutton said. Sutton then tried to talk Ortega down just as an APD officer arrived.
The officer, later identified as Pitzer, approached Ortega, Sutton said, and demanded that Ortega show his hands. Ortega then silently produced a gun from under his shirt and held it at his side as he began running away from Pitzer, Sutton said.
The criminal complaint includes Sutton’s story about the attempted carjacking but does not include any statements from him about what happened afterward.
And those details contradict accounts from unnamed witnesses in the complaint that Ortega shouted “Hell, no!” when asked to show his hands and that he then threatened the officer with the gun before fleeing.
In the phone interview, Sutton said Ortega began slowly running and walking away from the officer along Central Avenue, and Pitzer opened fire.
“He kept walking,” Sutton said Wednesday. “I don’t know if (Pitzer) was missing him or what.”
Sutton said Pitzer fired two shots, and then Sutton saw Ortega toss his gun to the side near a shed in the muffler shop’s parking lot. After that, Pitzer fired five more shots, Sutton said.
Asked whether the officer might have seen Ortega discard the gun, Sutton said, “I saw it, and I was right behind (Pitzer). I don’t know how he couldn’t have.”
According to the criminal complaint, witnesses told police that the man they saw “turned toward the police officer in an aggressive manner and shot at the officer.”
Sutton said Ortega fell to the ground after being shot in the back. When he fell, he was immediately surrounded by about 20 police officers, Sutton said.
Sutton said he told officers where to find the gun after the shooting, pointing out that it was near a shed.
APD spokeswoman Tasia Martinez declined to comment on the contradictory stories Wednesday, saying the shooting is still under investigation. Officer-involved shootings are investigated by other law enforcement agencies, the District Attorney’s Office and the Independent Review Officer, who reports to a civilian board that reviews complaints against police and reviews police shootings.
APD Chief Allen Banks and Deputy Chief Macario Page declined to comment Wednesday afternoon. They have tentatively scheduled a news conference for Friday afternoon “in reference to recent events.”