In the hours before a deadly shootout on the Navajo Nation, authorities say, the gunman hit his wife and mother with a pistol, taunted police by making a U-turn in front of a command station, and disabled a police vehicle that was chasing him.
The pursuit ended 40 miles away in a shootout that killed a Navajo Police Department officer and injured two others. The gunman also died.
The slain officer, Alex Yazzie, 42, had worked for the tribe’s Shiprock police district since 2012. Officers James Hale, 48, and Herbert Frazier, 41, also with the Shiprock district, were hospitalized and expected to survive, said Deswood Tome, chief of staff for Navajo President Ben Shelly.
The shootout occurred Thursday night near the Arizona-New Mexico border after 24-year-old Justin Fowler crashed his own vehicle, Tome said Friday.
Fowler then opened fire on officers, killing Yazzie and wounding Hale and Frazier, before he was killed by police, authorities said.
The incident highlights the danger that tribal officers can face when patrolling the huge reservation – sometimes alone. The tribe has a policy on domestic violence calls that requires two officers to respond.
Police were initially called by Fowler’s brother, who reported that Justin Fowler was assaulting family members and had fired a gun toward his mother at a home near Shiprock.
The first officer to reach the scene was immediately shot at and took cover.
“The suspect went on the offense and shot his AR-15,” Tome said.
Fowler then fled, and police had a full description of his silver Ford Flex when he pulled up to a police command center about six hours later and made a U-turn “as a taunt,” Tome said.
Officers were called in from around the reservation to pursue Fowler. At one point, he pulled off to the side of a road and fired at a police lieutenant’s vehicle, stopping it in its tracks, Tome said. Fowler then drove another 11 miles, crossing the New Mexico border into Arizona before he crashed in Red Valley and began shooting at police, Tome said.
The Associated Press called a phone number listed for Fowler’s mother, Cecelia Begay, but it went unanswered Friday. Begay told the Farmington Daily Times, “We’re sorry for the loss of their loved one.”
News of the deaths and injuries prompted prayers from a number of officials, as well as on social media.
“We send our condolences to the family of the Navajo police officer who gave his life in the line of duty,” President Shelly said in a statement.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey ordered that flags at all state buildings be lowered today to honor Yazzie. Shelly ordered all Navajo Nation flags flown at half-staff on the vast reservation until sunset Monday.
U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico Damon Martinez called Yazzie “a dedicated law enforcement officer and a courageous public servant.”
“His loss is a tragic reminder that the work of our law enforcement officers is profoundly heroic and deserving of our most emphatic support,” Martinez said in a statement. “The thoughts and prayers of the law enforcement community will be with officer Yazzie’s family and loved ones throughout this difficult time.”
The FBI sent investigators to process the crime scene and talk with family members and witnesses.
In all, 30 of the Navajo Nation’s 234 commissioned peace officers responded Thursday from five police districts across the reservation. Police on the reservation get roughly 250,000 calls a year for service, with alcohol and domestic violence factoring into many crimes.
In October, Officer Joseph Gregg was seriously wounded in the face by a shotgun blast after responding to a domestic violence call in Kaibeto. Raymond Herder was indicted on charges of assault with intent to commit murder and discharging a firearm during a violent crime. He’s set to go on trial in June.
Three years earlier in the same town, Navajo Officer Sgt. Darrell Curley was shot and killed while responding to a domestic dispute. Curley, who showed up to back up another officer at a home where two brothers were fighting, was killed by the brothers’ father, who was upset that Curley was arresting them, according to court documents.
The officer’s wife, Pauline Curley, said Friday that her husband always was concerned about Navajo Nation officers responding alone.
“I know it is ongoing and then when it’s addressed to the high commanders, it always falls back down to funding,” she said. “It’s just a lack of manpower.”