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Sheriff: Helicopter Was Shot Down

By Krystal Zaragoza
Journal Staff Writer
    A bullet that hit a Bernalillo County Sheriff's helicopter would have taken the life of its pilot had it not been for a pedal, Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White said Tuesday night.
    At a news conference, White revealed a bullet hole was found in the left side of the "bubble," or the metal cockpit just below the windshield of Metro One. White said the shot forced the pilot to make an emergency landing.
    "Let me be very clear, we intend to use every resource available to track down the coward who is responsible for this sick and twisted act," White said. "The potential for the loss of life was narrowly averted due to the experience, skill and training of the crew of Metro One."
    Chris Holland, a contract pilot who was flying Metro One when it fell 400 feet early Saturday morning, was taken to University of New Mexico Hospital. Ward Phefferle, a 9-year veteran with the sheriff's office, was taken to a hospital and treated and released.
    White said there are no suspects, but they have several leads.
    The helicopter crashed near Golf Course and Paradise shortly after 12:30 a.m. The helicopter was responding to a call of burglary, which White said never actually happened.
    White showed pictures of the cockpit, which the authorities had been reconstructing all day Tuesday. Just below the front of the helicopter, put back together with neon green tape, is a small hole with blood spatter.
    "If it were not for that pedal, Chris Holland would not be alive," White said. "We did a trajectory of the round from the windshield through that pedal and it would have entered directly into his chest."
    In earlier interviews, Phefferle said he heard a loud pop and then he felt something hit his arm.
    White said metal debris from the bullet is what Phefferle felt.
    White said the bullet impacted the pedal and exploded, sending metal debris into the leg and face of Holland, and the arm of Phefferle.
    White said Holland had undergone surgery Tuesday and would suffer permanent injuries from the accident.
    "We also learned from talking to the pilots of APD (that) it's not the first time that these helicopters have been fired upon," White said. "(APD helicopters) have been (fired at) as well. Unfortunately, this bullet found its target."
    Albuquerque Police Department's helicopter, Air 1, is a frequent target, but no bullets have ever connected, said Trish Hoffman, an APD spokeswoman.
    "Unfortunately, there are people that choose to do that," Hoffman said of shooting at law enforcement aircraft.
    Earl Watters, a 17-year pilot who flies for Aerowest helicopters, said he has never been shot at flying over Albuquerque. Once, while flying over Sacramento, Calif., a bullet hit his helicopter's rotor and forced him to land.
    A bullet hitting a critical point on a helicopter can cause the craft to crash, although it isn't an easy shot, Watters said Tuesday night during a phone interview.
    "It's tough to do, using a pistol or a rifle," said Watters, who is currently flying in Montana to help control wildfires there.
    White said they are unsure of who they are looking for.
    "It could be somebody who is very proficient with a weapon," White said. "It might have been somebody who was just lucky, but that's really irrelevant to us. We want to find the person."
    The FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration and detectives from the Albuquerque Police Department who specialize in firearms are assisting in the investigation.
    White said when the responsible party is caught the office will seek federal and state charges for the destruction of an aircraft and any other related charges.
    Anyone with information can call the Sheriff's Office at 980-2496 or Crime Stoppers at 843-Stop.