HATCH, NM — When shots rang out in the small southern New Mexico town of Hatch on Friday afternoon, halting the steady hum of tourist traffic through the village known for its chile, Fred Cabrales said he rushed out of the roadside shop his mother-in-law owns.
He knew right away that an officer had been shot.
“You could see under the vehicle, and you could see his uniform,” he said. “In the first couple of minutes, there were probably eight or nine police cars (that showed up).”
Sheriff’s deputies say that 38-year-old Jesse Hanes, a fugitive wanted on murder charges out of Ohio, fired at one of the Hatch Police Department’s seven officers during a traffic stop on Franklin Street. Another officer returned fire, but Hanes and his two passengers sped away in a silver Lexus.
The fallen officer, Jose Chavez, 33, was airlifted to the University Medical Center in El Paso, where he died after surgery. He’d been shot in the neck.
Border patrol agents, deputies with the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office and New Mexico State Police joined Hatch officers in a manhunt for the suspects. Hanes and his traveling companion, James Nelson, 36, were arrested a couple of hours later after authorities say Hanes carjacked, shot and wounded a motorist at a rest stop.
Nelson was wanted in the same Ohio murder and was taken into custody a couple of miles from where Hanes was arrested.
Hanes was charged with an open count of murder in Chavez’s death.
Nelson wasn’t charged in Chavez’s death, but he was charged with being a fugitive from justice and was booked into the Doña Ana County Detention Center.
A man originally believed to be a third suspect was a hitchhiker who was not involved in the shooting and is being treated as a witness, Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Kelly Jameson said.
‘All about catching bad guys’
Ever since he was a little boy in Juárez, Mexico, Chavez wanted to be a police officer, his two older sisters told the Journal on Saturday. They said he became a United States citizen about 10 years ago, after the family moved to Las Cruces.
“He worked really, really hard to complete school and got his citizenship,” said his sister Patricia Ramirez. “He got his job, and he always wanted to do more. We told him we didn’t like it, that we worried for him all the time, but he was all about catching bad guys.”
Lupita Chavez said her brother loved animals and had recently been excited to tell her about helping a woman find her lost dog.
Jose Chavez wasn’t supposed to be working Friday. But he decided to go in that day for overtime.
He called his mother about 20 minutes before he was shot to check in, according to his close friend Leonel Palomares.
“You don’t think it will happen so close to you. I still can’t believe it,” Palomares said.
Ramirez said she too can’t believe it. She said that when her brother asked a nurse to tell his family and his girlfriend he loved them before he went into surgery, it didn’t cross her mind that he might not make it.
Then, this morning, they had to tell his youngest daughter, Aryam, 6, the news.
“She’s just been looking through all his pictures that her mom has,” Ramirez said. “She wanted to see all the pictures since they met.”
She said Jose Chavez’s older daughter, 14-year-old Jannely, has been strong, like her father would have been, and is holding the family together.
Doña Ana County deputy Michael Hinojosa, who was in the academy with Chavez, said he was touched by how much Chavez cared for his daughters.
Hinojosa and other Doña Ana County deputies took over calls for the Hatch Police Department while they mourned the loss of their officer.
He said all the officers in the department escorted Chavez’s body to the Office of the Medical Investigator in Albuquerque on Saturday.
At a midday news conference in Las Cruces, Doña Ana County Sheriff Enrique ‘Kiki’ Vigil and Undersheriff Ken Roberts spoke about Chavez.
“We’ve lost one of our best, our finest,” Vigil said. “We’re mourning with the rest of law enforcement here in the county.”
Ohio law enforcement knew that Hanes and Nelson were violent.
They had put out multiple bulletins and wanted posters for the pair after an investigation into the killing of a 62-year-old bus driver last month.
In that case, Theodore Timmons was found dead of multiple gunshots in his home July 25, according to a report in the Chillicothe Gazette.
It’s unclear what the motive was for the killing, but officers quickly homed in on Hanes and Nelson as suspects.
Authorities said they believed the pair had fled the state, and one of the wanted posters said they were “extremely dangerous.”
Hanes was on parole when Timmons was killed, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
He had served nearly three years in prison in a robbery case and was released in April of this year. He was supposed to serve additional years on parole, but he violated his conditions of release, according to the DRC records.
Nelson was also on parole. He served nearly a year in prison for two drug charges and was released in mid-July.
How he and Nelson ended up in the tiny town of Hatch – and what they were doing there – is unclear. Jameson didn’t say if authorities believe they were just passing through or if Hatch was a destination.
Blood on his hands
Minutes before he was shot, Chavez told a fellow officer on the phone that he was about to make a traffic stop.
When the officer arrived as backup around 3:40 p.m., he saw Chavez near the suspect’s silver Lexus holding paperwork while also reaching for his gun. He saw smoke, then Chavez fell to the ground, Jameson said.
Deputies believe Hanes shot Chavez through the passenger side window.
Jameson said Hanes led officers on a chase exceeding 100 mph south on Interstate 25 before pulling into a rest area near Radium Springs.
She said Hanes approached a motorist, demanded his car keys, then shot the man when he refused to go with him. The 36-year-old victim was taken to a hospital in El Paso where he was in stable condition Saturday afternoon.
Hanes fled in the stolen red Chevy Cruze, Jameson said.
Authorities slowed him down by putting down a spike belt, but it wasn’t until he crashed into a woodpile behind a house off N.M. 185 that they were able to take him into custody. He had a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his leg and was taken to the hospital, where he remained late Saturday. Authorities said he was conscious and alert, but they didn’t know when he would be released from the hospital.
Charles and Karma Brewster were watching television in their home when Hanes came careering down their long driveway. His two front tires were flat and about 25 officers were right behind him.
Charles Brewster said Hanes backed into the woodpile in their backyard, then tried to accelerate, but he was stuck. They could see he had blood on his hands.
“He hit this woodpile,” he said. “I saw one gun on the dash that was silver and then another in his hand that was black. We hit the floor.”
Officers escorted the family out of their home and took Hanes into custody a short time later. Television crews descended on the Brewsters’ home.
Shock and sadness
Throughout the day Saturday, small memorials cropped up around Hatch. Balloons, chile ristras and flowers adorned a signpost near where Chavez had been gunned down. Other tokens were left on an empty police cruiser a block away and a small shrine of candles was left at the police department.
At the Hatch Chile Express, Cabrales said passing tourists who stopped in for chile products asked them about Chavez, and expressed their shock and sadness. Some people left sympathy cards addressed to the village.
About 100 members of the community, police officers and first responders attended a candlelight vigil in front of the police department Saturday night. The vigil, punctuated by the sobs of Chavez’s youngest daughter, included prayers from a Catholic priest and a Baptist minister, and a State Police officer thanked Chavez for his service.
When asked if he wanted to say anything, Hatch Police Chief James “Trey” Gimler teared up and shook his head, saying, “I can’t.”
Cabrales said it was hard to believe that an officer he had just joked with at the convenience store the day before was killed.
“We see most officers on a daily basis,” he said. “They’re constantly patrolling and then will stop in and visit. Of course, it’s such a small town and I see them all four or five times a day.”
The shooting, he said, has made him feel differently about the place he calls home.
“I’ve always thought it was safe here,” Cabrales said. “We don’t lock our doors. But, last night, we did.”