FARMINGTON — A Jeep fled a movie rental store Sunday night carrying suspects who avoided capture by law enforcement after a car chase and an extensive search south of Farmington that included a two-hour helicopter flight.

Police responded to Front Row Seat, 740 West Main St., shortly before 11 p.m. Employees said a green sport utility vehicle and a gray Jeep pulled into the parking lot and people were arguing.

As the vehicles left the movie rental store, the employees heard between four and eight shots fired, Farmington police Lt. Taft Tracy said. Police have yet to confirm if shots actually were fired and no victims were located.

A Farmington police officer spotted the Jeep nearby on Apache Street. When the officer attempted to stop the Jeep it fled. Police believe there were three people inside, Tracy said.

The officer pursued for about a minute when the Farmington police supervisor called off the chase because it was not clear what role the vehicle may have played in a possible shooting, Tracy said.

Because car chases can pose a threat to other drivers, it is department policy for officers to receive authorization based on whether suspects inside the vehicle committed a serious crime that justifies a high-speed chase, Tracy said.

San Juan County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Kyle Lincoln spotted the vehicle near Murray Drive and N.M. 371 and continued the chase. He followed the vehicle to the Dunes Vehicle Recreation Area about 1.5 miles south of Farmington where it disappeared from sight for about 15 minutes.

The Jeep was found locked and empty in the recreation area.

Farmington police's K-9 Unit and the San Juan County Sheriff's Office helicopter were called to troll a large swath of land surrounding the vehicle until about 2:30 a.m. Monday.

An article of clothing was found nearby but no suspects were located, Tracy said.

Gary Mauldin, a Sheriff's Office deputy, piloted the helicopter. He said the combination of high cliffs to low washes, a nearly full moon which would have illuminated escape routes and a large search area may have helped the suspects avoid capture.

And because the county's helicopter is on call after hours, it didn't arrive on scene until about an hour after the Farmington police first started the pursuit.

"I was hopeful on the way there we were going to find them. It was a good night for a search," he said. "I think the time frame got us."

Mauldin said suspects who are intimately familiar with the large outdoor recreation trail systems near Farmington — primarily Glade Run Recreation Area north of Farmington and the Dunes to the south — can sometimes slip away when being chased.

The helicopter, the K-9 Unit and additional law enforcement searched an area from the Dunes to Northern Edge Navajo Casino for more than two hours.

Tracy said Farmington police transported the Jeep to a secure location where it will remain until investigators get approval to search it.

Ryan Boetel may be reached at rboetel@daily-times.com; 564-4644. Follow him on Twitter @rboetel