By Rick Nathanson
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A CNM student who witnessed an illegal camper's stalemate with police officers Sunday afternoon in the Sandia foothills said the officers had the man surrounded, their guns trained on him and that the man dropped motionless after "what sounded like three to four shots with live fire."
The man, who has not been identified by police, died at University of New Mexico Hospital on Monday morning.
Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden, who was named to that position last month, said Sunday the man had been armed with knives and threatened the officers. He said nonlethal force was used and that a shot was fired by an officer.
But on Monday, police remained mute on any more details except to release the fact that the man died Monday morning and that "use of force in this incident involved APD personnel," not State Police.
Police said they are waiting for the medical investigator to release his name. A police spokeswoman said the department would release more information at a news conference sometime this week.
Jon Pilgrim, 22, told the Journal he was at his parents' home, located close to the Copper trail head, for a family barbecue when he watched the stalemate unfold through binoculars. This provided him with "an unobscured and very close" uphill perspective. He estimated his parents' home is about 270 yards from the shooting.
Pilgrim said he arrived at his parents' home about 5 p.m. and they told him the stalemate had been going on for about an hour. Looking through his parents' binoculars, he said he observed "a cop dressed in SWAT gear about 30-35 yards above the man." The officer, armed with an assault-type rifle with a scope, was taking cover behind a boulder and was in the company of another officer who had what appeared to be a shotgun.
Another officer was positioned about 30 yards below and to the west of the man. That officer, also taking cover behind a boulder, was armed with "some sort of rifle with a scope."
Three other police officers were taking cover "southwest, down a side trail only 10 to 15 yards from the camper," Pilgrim said. Two of them had shotguns and the third officer was with a dog.
Pilgrim said the man looked to be in his early 30s and had long hair covered with a bandana. The extent of the possessions with him appeared to be two bags and a satchel with a shoulder strap.
Police were called to the area after a call about a "suspicious person" about 4 p.m.
Neighbors had said the man had been camping in the area, which is off limits to overnight camping.
When officers arrived, the man threatened the officers with a knife, and they backed off to wait for a Crisis Intervention Team and a supervisor.
"I couldn't tell if he was drunk or on drugs," Pilgrim said of the man. "He looked pissed off and scared, and he was waving his arms around and holding something shiny that could have been a knife. I felt sorry for the guy."
Eden said Sunday that the man requested State Police, and State Police officers did arrive. Eden said the man continued to issue threats.
A neighbor's cellphone video obtained by KRQE showed the man gesturing and yelling: "I'm going to hunt you down and kill you. That's my personal promise."
Sometime between 6:30 and 7 p.m., Pilgrim said he saw "a flash of light" at the man's feet followed by a cloud of white smoke and a loud explosion. "I assume it was from a flashbang grenade," Pilgrim said. "It was pretty loud. Louder than a gunshot, maybe as loud as one of those big fireworks that explode in the air."
The police dog was then let loose to approach the man, who was "clearly stunned" but who nevertheless "stretched out his right arm," causing the dog to back off. "The officers then started moving toward him, yelling at him to get down on the ground, but the guy didn't seem very responsive."
That's when Pilgrim said he heard three to four shots ring out and saw wisps of dirt rise from a boulder behind the man.
Pilgrim, a former Navy missile technician, said he is "not unfamiliar with firearms." The shots he heard sounded like "live fire" from some sort of rifle, "but definitely not a shotgun," and not the sound made by rubber bullets or a bean bag round, he said.
The man then slumped to the ground, "and it looked like the dog was attacking him for like 15 seconds until they pulled the dog off," Pilgrim said. "At that point he wasn't moving at all."
The police officers en masse clustered around the motionless man, paramedics showed up with a stretcher mounted to a single wheel, "and then it was too dark, and I couldn't see anything more."
The incident was the first officer-related shooting since Eden took over as chief.
APD failed to respond to any questions Monday, including whether the man died from a gunshot wound, whether he was an immediate threat to anyone, whether he appeared to be inebriated or mentally ill or whether he indeed had some kind of "liaison" relationship with the State Police, as he claimed at one point. APD did not release the names of any officers who fired shots.
State Police referred all questions to APD.
Copyright 2014 the Albuquerque Journal
McClatchy-Tribune News Service