N.M. officer dies after cruiser hits cow

Martin Salazar, Journal Staff Writer
Albuquerque Journal
Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal

A State Police officer on his way back to Española after responding to a "shots fired" call died Sunday night after striking a downed cow on U.S. 84 and being ejected from his police unit.

An unidentified motorist traveling southbound and driving what State Police believe was a Mazda SUV apparently struck the cow but continued without stopping, a preliminary State Police investigation has revealed.

Officer James Archuleta then encountered the cow, which was down on the highway. Authorities say Archuleta took evasive action but struck the cow anyway, causing his police unit to roll several times.

Archuleta, a 27-year-old father of two, wasn't wearing his seat belt and was ejected onto the roadway. While lying on the northbound lane, he was struck by two vehicles, a Nissan Ultima, which stopped, and an SUV, which left the scene, the State Police report said. The accident occurred on U.S. 84 about 10 miles north of Española.

Authorities are searching for the drivers who fled. State Police Lt. Juan Martinez said the vehicle that struck Archuleta was described as a Jeep-type SUV. He said the drivers who left the scene could face charges.

Martinez said those drivers should turn themselves in and asked anyone with information on those vehicles or on the accident to contact the Española State Police office at 753-2277.

Meanwhile, the New Mexico Livestock Board was trying to determine who owned the cow that caused the accident, Martinez said. He said once that's determined, the owner will be interviewed and could be cited for failing to maintain the livestock. The owner probably also faces civil liability.

Archuleta, of El Rito, was a two-year State Police veteran, having been commissioned on June 18, 2004. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps, then joined the reserves and was called to active duty. Archuleta, who served a tour of duty in Iraq, is survived by a fiancee and two children, 10 years old and 10 months old.

"This is a tragic loss for the department for such a young officer and a veteran of the United States Armed Services," State Police Chief Faron Segotta said in a news release. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the Archuleta family during this very difficult time."

El Rito church bells rang out in honor of Archuleta on Monday morning.

"He liked to serve and help people. That was the type of person he was," said cousin Joseph Archuleta. He said his cousin joined the service after graduating high school from McCurdy.

"That was something he always wanted to do," Joseph Archuleta said. "He wanted to serve his country."

Joseph Archuleta said his cousin was reactivated after joining the State Police and was sent to Iraq. He just got back a few months ago, he added.

"We all worried," Joseph Archuleta said. "When you go to war, you don't know if you're going to come back. We were relieved when he came back."

According to State Police, Archuleta was dispatched to a disturbance and shots fired call at the race track in Medanales at 7:38 p.m. Sunday. Lt. Martinez said officers didn't find anything in Medanales, a rural community about 15 miles north of Española.

At 10:34 p.m., Archuleta left Medanales en route to the Española Hospital to interview a shooting victim. While traveling south, he entered a slight curve and struck the cow.

Other State Police officers who responded to the shooting call with Archuleta arrived at the accident scene shortly after, Martinez said.

The incident prompted authorities to shut down a portion of U.S. 84 throughout the night and into the morning so that the State Police accident reconstruction team could conduct its investigation. Officials said the highway remained closed until at least noon Monday.

Martinez said the shooting incident was handed off to the Rio Arriba County Sheriff's Office because of the accident.

Sheriff Joe Mascareñas confirmed that his agency took over the investigation. He said someone had apparently been shot, though he did not know specifics.

A message left Monday afternoon for the sheriff's investigator handling the shooting case wasn't immediately returned. 

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