SANTA FE – A New Mexico State Police officer who fired three times at a minivan full of children as their mother drove away from a contentious traffic stop near Taos has been placed on administrative leave.
State Police Chief Pete Kassetas told The Associated Press on Thursday that Officer Elias Montoya was placed on paid leave Wednesday pending a disciplinary investigation into the Oct. 28 shooting outside Taos.
Kassetas called for an internal investigation after a police dash-cam video of the chaotic encounter between three officers and driver Oriana Farrell, 39, of Memphis, Tenn., drew national attention.
The three officers involved, including one who bashed out a window of the van as children inside screamed, had all previously been placed back on duty. The Taos district attorney has said they will not face criminal charges.
Journal efforts to reach Kassetas were unsuccessful and messages left for Montoya at the State Police office in Taos were not returned.
The chief “is not inclined to speaking to anyone at this time,” said spokesman Sgt. Emmanuel Gutierrez in a text Thursday afternoon, after Kassetas gave his statement to the AP. Asked why the chief wouldn’t comment further, Gutierrez replied, “Unknown.”
In a police report, Montoya has said he was trying to shoot out a tire “in an attempt to immobilize the vehicle” when he fired three shots as Farrell drove the van away from officers for a second time after she had been stopped for speeding.
Farrell, a writer, rapper and home-school parent, had been pulled over on NM 518 with her five children, ranging in age from 6 to 16 inside the van. What at first was a cordial interaction with an officer went south after Farrell is heard balking at signing the ticket and then drives off without the officer’s permission or resolving the ticket situation.
The dash-cam video shows that she stopped after a short distance and two other officers, including Montoya, were called to the scene. This time, an officer has to pull on Farrell before she gets out, then her 14-year-old son briefly struggles with an officer before they both get back into the van and lock the doors. When Officer Tony DeTavis starts breaking out a van window with swings of his baton, Farrell pulls away. Montoya aims and then fires the three shots at the vehicle.
Farrell led the officers on a high speed chase before pulling over at a Taos motel, where she and the 14-year-old were arrested.
Farrell pleaded not guilty to felony charges of aggravated fleeing an officer and intentional child abuse and misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia at her Nov. 12 arraignment and is free on $10,000 bond.
In a statement shortly after the incident, Kassetas said he had “concerns relating to the conduct of the officer who discharged his firearm.”
“As the Chief of the New Mexico State Police, I take all officer-involved shooting investigations seriously and, once this investigation is complete, I will take appropriate disciplinary action if warranted.”
A meeting scheduled for today between Taos community leaders and Kassetas to discuss concerns over the incident was postponed until next week because of the winter storm that hit northern New Mexico on Thursday.
Efforts to reach Farrell’s Taos attorney Alan Maestas on Thursday were unsuccessful.
Taos Mayor Darren Cordova knows Montoya and said this week that he “considers him a role model” who is active in youth sports activities.
Chad Pierce, president of the New Mexico State Police Association, told the AP the union will make sure “due process is followed” and that Montoya receives a fair disciplinary hearing.