Augusta Liddic/The Daily TimesSan Juan County Sheriff’s Deputy Rob Gross points to the public address system a new feature on the Sheriff’s
Augusta Liddic/The Daily Times San Juan County Sheriff's Deputy Rob Gross points to the public address system a new feature on the Sheriff's Office helicopter.
AZTEC — Stephaney Yazzie, 22, had escaped her alleged kidnapper's truck and was running over rugged terrain north of County Road 6480 near Kirtland at 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 25.

Police said Micah Griffin, 28, was chasing after her on foot when, Yazzie told deputies later, they heard a helicopter flying overhead and Griffin turned around and ran back to his pickup.

He was arrested by the San Juan County Sheriff's Office minutes later and charged with first-degree kidnapping, aggravated assault and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

Yazzie made it to safety.

"That was the call that every cop lives for," said San Juan County Sheriff's Office Deputy Rob Gross, who is the pilot and supervisor of the sheriff's office Air Support Unit. "That was what we train for years for."

The call was a perfect storm of circumstances that show the type of emergency when a police helicopter is vital, Gross said.

Griffin had allegedly taken Yazzie from her home south of County Road 6480 and driven her north to an isolated, hilly area without roads or a long line of sight for an officer on the ground. He allegedly threatened to kill Yazzie and the nearest police officer was about five miles away when the helicopter located him, Gross said.

"We got there in the nick of time," he said. "I believe we saved her life."

Griffin is being held at San Juan County Adult Detention Center on a $260,000 bond. He waived his preliminary hearing on Thursday and his case is headed to district court, Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien said.

Yazzie's kidnapping was one of several high-profile emergency calls the sheriff's office helicopter has responded to in the last two weeks.

On Oct. 20, the helicopter was on a scheduled patrol when it was called to an isolated area near Blanco where a woman crashed an off-highway vehicle and needed medical attention. The aerial crew spotted the woman and directed emergency responders to her.

A few hours later, the helicopter responded to a suspected hit and run crash north of Farmington on N.M. 170 involving a suspected drunken driver.

Gross said he quickly spotted the suspect careening off embankments on either side of a dirt road in the Glade Run Recreation Area.

Gross and his tactical flight officer — a deputy who flies alongside the pilot and coordinates police responders — flew about 1,000 feet off the ground and tracked the vehicle until it stopped and the three suspects inside the truck were arrested.

The sheriff's office helicopter is involved in more arrests than ever before and it is spending more time in San Juan County skies.

The helicopter was in the air for 240 hours in the first 10 months of the year. In 2011, the helicopter flew 176 hours and in 2010 it flew 149 hours, according to a sheriff's office statistical report created Thursday.

The San Juan County Sheriff's Office has had a helicopter since 2001. It's the only police helicopter in hundreds of miles, the next closest is in Albuquerque.

The unit comprises just Gross, two deputies trained as tactical flight officers and a civilian contract pilot who is slated to retire at the end of November, Gross said. Its annual operating cost are about $85,000. The cost of the unit stays low because the office received its helicopter, spare parts and equipment from other law enforcement agencies or from grants from the federal government, Gross said.

The air support unit's role in local law enforcement has been steadily increasing, especially in the last four years because the unit has shortened its response time and received additional training and equipment, Gross said.

The number of times patrol officers from all local law enforcement agencies request the helicopter is sharply increasing. There were 31 requests for the helicopter in 2011. So far in 2012 patrol officers requested the helicopter 42 times. There were only nine requests for the helicopter in 2001.

For deputies on the streets, the helicopter has become what a cell phone used to be. Once a luxury, now it's a crucial tool, said Kevin Bell, a sheriff's deputy.

"If you've got a critical scene, one of the first things we hear is Can we get the helicopter?'," Bell said.

During a high-speed chase, if the helicopter gets involved it allows patrol officers to back off and let the helicopter track the suspects.

If the helicopter is on a scheduled patrol, it has a significant effect on routine stops because there's an obvious a change in the demeanor of a suspect if there is a helicopter overhead, Bell said.

"He's buzzing around over and now the individuals I'm dealing with are getting nervous," he said. "Anytime we get the helicopter we have such a huge advantage."