Small community of Little Water tries to process fatal shooting of Navajo Nation police officer

Noel Lyn Smith
The Daily Times

LITTLE WATER — The residents of this small community, nestled on a remote stretch of U.S. Highway 491, struggled on Friday to understand the events that led one of its resident to shoot and kill one Navajo Nation police officer and wound two others before he was himself killed in a gun fight.

Justin Fowler, 26, is suspected of engaging in a shootout with tribal police in Little Water on Thursday afternoon before leading officers to an area near the New Mexico-Arizona state line later that evening. That area, near Red Valley, Ariz., is where both he and a Navajo police officer were killed while exchanging gunfire.

Fowler shot and killed Officer Alex Yazzie and injured Officers Herbert Frazier and James Hale, according to a press release from the tribe's Office of the President and Vice President. Both wounded officers are reportedly recovering in different hospitals.

The incident started after an officer from the Division of Public Safety's Shiprock Police District responded to a 911 call reporting Fowler was beating his wife, Rayana Ramone, and his mother, Cecelia Begay, with a pistol, according to the press release.

A Facebook page for a man named Justin Fowler who lived in Little Water was deleted from Facebook on Friday. The page showed several photos of an AR-15 assault rifle and a silver Ford Flex SUV, both of which Navajo Nation police said the suspect used on Thursday.

On Friday afternoon, shopping resumed at the Little Water Express convenience store. Traffic noise from U.S. Highway 491 echoed throughout the parking lot.

"It's unusual for something to happen because it's usually a quiet place," said Nicky, a Little Water resident who declined to provide his last name, saying he feared for his safety.

An employee of the convenience store spoke to The Daily Times but did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation. The employee said that while leaving the store on Thursday afternoon, gunshots could be heard in the distance.

The employee left the store but was called back later that afternoon to close the store because a shooting had been reported nearby. The Fowlers' home is less than one mile from the convenience store.

Upon returning to the store, "there were 20-plus cops" there, the employee said. Officers used the area as a mobile command center.

"We're so lucky he didn't choose to do what he did to employees or customers on the premises," the employee said.

The employee added that Fowler was a frequent customer of the store, and co-workers said he was always polite to the cashiers.

"We were startled with the whole shebang happening outside," the employee said, adding that no employees or customers were harmed during Thursday's events.

Nearby communities also reacted to the shooting. The Central Consolidated School District has students in afterschool programs at Newcomb middle and high schools shelter in place, according to a press release from the district. District officials informed bus drivers in the Newcomb and Sanostee areas about the situation, and the drivers were on alert while driving students home, the release states.

"The district closely monitored the situation as events unfolded and implemented emergency procedures to ensure student safety," CCSD Superintendent Don Levinski said in the release.

On Friday afternoon, Fowler's mother stood with other relatives and briefly spoke to The Daily Times.

"We're sorry for the loss of their loved one. That's all I want to say," said Begay, struggling to find words.

Begay said Fowler was the eldest of her three sons. He often worked on construction projects outside the state, she said. He is survived by his wife and two young children.

"We're at a loss at the present, at the moment," said Louise Duncan, Fowler's aunt.

Duncan described her nephew as an outgoing, friendly and helpful person.

"It's a shock to find out about what's transpired. It feels so unreal to us," she said. "From the bottom of my heart, I want to say, this is tragic, and I'm sorry it had to happen to everybody in the community."

The family issued a statement Friday evening, once again expressing their condolences to the police officers and their families.

"We, as parents, raise our children the best way we know how. When they reached the age where they get on their own feet to face the world, with the freedom of choice, some of our children do make the wrong decisions, such as in this tragic event," the statement reads.

It also said, "We will continue to keep your families in our thoughts and prayers. We hope you find it in your hearts to forgive our son."

At the Division of Public Safety's Shiprock Police District and the Shiprock District Court, flags flew at half-staff on Friday afternoon. A makeshift memorial of flowers was at the base of a flagpole at the police headquarters.

Lorenzo Lee, of Shiprock, was among the residents who left flowers at the site on Friday. He said he did not know the fallen officer but left the flowers to commemorate the bravery of all officers.

"It's really terrible, all the violence that's happening in the U.S.," Lee said.

Reporter Steve Garrison contributed to this story.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.