Four Corners police, community react to death of Navajo Nation police officer

Steve Garrison
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Law enforcement officials throughout the Four Corners expressed support Friday for Navajo Nation police as new details emerged about a Thursday evening shootout that left one tribal officer dead and two others wounded. The suspect was also killed in the gun battle.

Officers from the Division of Public Safety's Shiprock Police District were dispatched at 2:15 p.m. Thursday to a residence just south of the Little Water Express convenience store after receiving reports that Justin Fowler, 26, was pistol-whipping his mother and girlfriend, according to a press release from the tribe's Office of the President and Vice President.

Dispatchers allegedly heard shots fired while on the phone with Fowler's brother, who reported the incident, the release states.

Anderson Dez was the first officer on the scene, the release states. Fowler allegedly began shooting at the officer with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and then fled in a silver Ford Flex SUV, according to the release.

Dez was not injured in the altercation.

According to San Juan County police dispatch, Shiprock police requested assistance from the San Juan County Sheriff's Office at 3 p.m.

Sheriff Ken Christesen said Friday that his office initially dispatched a helicopter and an armored vehicle, but the request for assistance was cancelled after police lost contact with the suspect.

At 8:20 p.m., Fowler returned to Little Water in his vehicle. Once he was near the police mobile command center, the press release states, he made a U-turn in an effort to taunt officers before leading them on a car chase.

Several officers pursued Fowler on Navajo Route 13, and Fowler again opened fire, disabling one police vehicle. Police eventually located Fowler in his vehicle parked approximately 11 miles south of a trading post in Red Valley, Ariz. The store is located about 30 miles southwest of Shiprock.

Officers attacked Fowler's position, the release states. Fowler opened fire, killing Officer Alex Yazzie and wounding officers Herbert Frazier and James Hale, according to the release.

Fowler was killed in the shootout.

Yazzie, 42, of Crownpoint, was a U.S Marine Corps veteran who joined the Shiprock police in 2012, according to a press release from the Navajo Nation Office of the Speaker. Before joining law enforcement, he served as a resource enforcement officer with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency.

A spokeswoman for Desert View Funeral Home in Shiprock said a date for Yazzie's funeral has not yet been scheduled.

Deswood Tome, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelley's chief of staff, said Friday that Hale was transported to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque for treatment after he was shot in the right leg.

San Juan Regional Medical Center spokesman Haroon Ahmad said Friday afternoon that Hale had been treated at the Farmington hospital and released.

Frazier was shot in the shin and treated at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, according to a press release.

More than 30 Navajo officers responded to the incident, the releases states. Four Navajo police vehicles were damaged during the incident.

Politicians, law enforcement officials and community members throughout the region expressed condolences and offered support to the Navajo police officers affected by the shooting.

Farmington resident Damita Barton and her children left flowers outside the Shiprock police department, which was closed on Friday, to honor the officers injured and killed in the shooting.

"It's our way of saying 'thank you' and showing our support, because it is a tragic loss," Barton said.

Barton said she knew Yazzie through her work at Northern Edge Navajo Casino in Upper Fruitland, where he was one of three police officers who provided security at the gaming facility.

"He was the kind of guy who would go around and joke around with everyone and talked to everyone," she said. "He was a really nice guy."

Shelly said in a press release issued late Thursday night that he heard about Yazzie's death by telephone while attending a New Mexico House of Representatives session in Santa Fe.

"We send our condolences to the family of the Navajo police officer who gave his life in the line of duty tonight," he said in a statement.

He further proclaimed that Navajo Nation flags would hang at half-staff in honor of Yazzie until sunset on Monday.

U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez lamented Yazzie's death in a press release sent Friday afternoon.

"His loss is a tragic reminder that the work of our law enforcement officers is profoundly heroic and deserving of our most emphatic support," he said.

San Juan County law enforcement officials also expressed their support for Navajo police officers and their families.

"It's an absolute tragedy what happened," Sheriff Christesen said Friday. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those injured and their co-workers. We will support them in any way we can, not only with equipment and personnel, but whatever they may need in their time of need."

Sheriff's deputies covered their police badges in black tape Friday to publicly mourn Yazzie's death.

Farmington police Chief Steve Hebbe said his department sent a critical incident debriefing team to the Navajo Nation to assist tribal officers who were processing the loss of their co-worker.

"Today is unfortunately a terrible reminder of what our men and women face in law enforcement," he said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families."

A support organization, the Concerns of Police Survivors Arizona, said in a press release that it would also be offering support to officers impacted by the shooting.

Navajo Nation reporter Noel Lyn Smith contributed to this story.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and Follow him @SteveGarrisonDT on Twitter.