Speed demons: Fleeing police all too common in San Juan County
Impaired driving and proximity to Navajo Nation contribute to the high number of aggravated fleeing cases
SAN JUAN COUNTY — At 5 feet 7 inches tall and 200 pounds — paunchy and pale — Matthew Harrison was easy to underestimate.
On June 9, 2015, the day after he was expected to testify against a man who shot him during a domestic dispute, Harrison had holed up in a house in the Wild Horse Valley subdivision. Members of a U.S. Marshals task force staked out the residence.
The 34-year-old life-long Farmington resident was one of San Juan County's most notorious rabbits, exhibiting what one defense attorney described as an over active fight-or-flight response. He was a reckless but uncommonly lucky driver, willing to blow through traffic lights and take the chase off road to escape the law.
"Everyone was telling us he didn’t want to go back to jail," said Chris Stanton, a Farmington police officer and former Marshals task force member. "He was on the list, but we just couldn’t get him, because he was able to escape every time."
Harrison is one of several men notorious among local law enforcement for aggravated fleeing, an offense that endangers lives and property.
A USA Today analysis found at least 11,506 people were killed in high-speed chases between 1979 and 2013, with almost half of those killed uninvolved in the chase. The analysis showed 17,600 people were hurt in chases from 2004 to 2013 in six states, not including New Mexico, reviewed by USA Today.
About two dozen people are arrested every year in San Juan County for aggravated fleeing of law enforcement, according to court records, and 2016 is on-track to be a watershed year, with 14 defendants already facing charges for fleeing police in the first three months of the year.
Court records do not include the number of chases in which the suspect escapes, San Juan County Sheriff’s Office detective Lt. Kyle Lincoln said. Sheriff’s office deputies chased 116 vehicles between 2011 and 2015.
By comparison, over the past five years, McKinley County courts report that fewer than 30 defendants were charged with aggravated fleeing. And in the first three months of 2016, only one defendant has been charged with fleeing police in McKinley County, according to court records.
Lt. Taft Tracy of the Farmington Police Department said he was not certain why San Juan County charged more defendants with fleeing than McKinley County. He said other law enforcement agencies have their own pursuit policies, which could impact the statistics, and the high number of DWI offenders in San Juan County could play a role.
"Many times they don’t want to stop, because of the poor judgment from being impaired," Tracy said.
Within the last year in San Juan County, a 33-year-old man and his 25-year-old girlfriend were critically injured in November after the man allegedly crashed a stolen motorcycle while fleeing deputies near Crouch Mesa. In February, a 38-year-old man struck two cars while attempting to flee deputies near Bloomfield. No one was injured in the crashes.
Aggravated fleeing of a law enforcement officer — which means the driver put others at risk of physical harm — is a fourth-degree felony, punishable by up to 18 months in prison.
Cat and mouse
Task force members outside the home in Wild Horse Valley knew Harrison was wanted on seven arrest warrants and that he had skipped bail that April after receiving a prison sentence for twice fleeing police in 2013. He had a history of methamphetamine use that some law enforcement members said made him hyper-aware.
Beginning at age 20, Harrison had been arrested several times on drug and theft charges, and was sentenced to three years in federal prison in April 2005 for selling two ounces of meth to a state narcotics agent. He was released in January 2007 but arrested again in September 2009 and sentenced to an additional six months in prison.
Harrison didn't respond to a request for comment for this story. His parents also could not be reached for comment.
Harrison's defense attorney argued for leniency. Harrison was, by age 28, a deadbeat dad with a drug problem, the attorney argued.
Local law enforcement said he was something else.
Harrison was so successful as an escape artist that rumors spread among law enforcement that he was a former race car driver, though The Daily Times could find no evidence to support that possibility. Lynn Hensley, an announcer at the Aztec Speedway, said he reviewed his race notes spanning more than 20 years, and he could find no evidence to suggest Harrison ever raced at the speedway.
"I don’t think his skill would be much use for racing," Hensley said.
Whether Harrison had raced or not, he built a reputation fleeing law enforcement. Stanton said he and his partner in the U.S. Marshals Service couldn’t get close to the home where Harrison was hiding out.
"We heard from other people that any vehicle that he saw coming down the road that he didn't recognize, he automatically assumed was police, and he would go out a back door and run," Stanton said.
Other officers had similar stories about Harrison’s paranoia.
Detective Andy Gilbert of the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office said he has chased Harrison about a dozen times in the past few years on various warrants. He said fleeing was always Harrison’s first instinct.
"When people see (police car) lights behind them, they pull over, because that’s the thing to do," Gilbert said. "It got to the point where he’d see lights behind him, and his automatic reaction was to shoot off."
Gilbert said the paranoia likely stemmed from meth use.
"He’s so high on methamphetamines," Gilbert said. "One of our recent pursuits — he came up to a stop sign, and we are in an unmarked vehicle, so we have no reason to believe he knows we are police. But he’s so paranoid he thinks everyone is police."
Gilbert said Harrison refused to leave the four-way stop; he wanted the officers to go first so they couldn’t tail him.
"As soon as we don’t go in front of him, because we think it’s him and we’re actually trying to find him, he goes up into an area near his parent’s house, and before we can even get lights on, he’s running stop signs full bore, in a residential area driving unreal speeds," Gilbert said. "It’s just crazy."
So, knowing Harrison's history, Stanton said he and the marshal waited for backup on the outskirts of the Wild Horse Valley subdivision between Bloomfield and Farmington. While they were waiting Harrison left the residence in a white Ford Explorer.
"I could see him plain as day," Stanton said. "I knew it was him."
Harrison turned onto U.S. Highway 64 and headed toward Bloomfield. Stanton attempted to follow him in an unmarked truck, but Harrison did a U-turn and began driving toward Farmington.
"I think he was checking to see if anyone was following him," Stanton said.
Stanton said his partner, who was in a separate vehicle, then began following the Ford Explorer, but by the time they reached Murray Drive and Bisti Highway near San Juan Regional Medical Center, Harrison began to make erratic turns.
A Farmington police sergeant attempted to stop Harrison, but it was too late. Harrison tore through the west side of town, behind the Walmart on West Main Street, and into the outskirts, weaving through heavy traffic at speeds of up to 90 mph.
New Mexico State Police prepared to perform the "precision immobilization technique," where the police car nudges the rear of the fleeing car, with the intention of forcing the Ford Explorer off the road. Harrison reversed course and headed back into town.
Law enforcement later said they suspected Harrison was using a police scanner during the pursuit.
Lincoln said he and another detective were in a vehicle near Walmart prepared to stop Harrison if he came back through Farmington.
"Well, he came back," Lincoln said, adding later. "He was coming straight at us."
They were pinned in traffic, and Lincoln said he and the officer scrambled to get their seat belts off as the Ford Explorer barreled toward them.
"He hit the median and he was doing at least 80," Lincoln said. "He was coming straight at us, and there was nowhere to go."
Harrison cut across lanes and narrowly dodged the lieutenant and detective, still trapped in their vehicle.
It was at that point the sheriff’s office dispatched its helicopter to track Harrison’s vehicle from above. But Harrison had vanished into the dense suburbs surrounding downtown Farmington.
A ninth arrest warrant was issued for Harrison the next day.
Law enforcement policies on high-speed pursuits in New Mexico are shaped by state law.
The Law Enforcement Safe Pursuit Act was passed in 1978 to establish, among other things, a minimum standard for when a vehicle pursuit can be initiated.
The law says an officer must have reason to believe a suspect poses, "a clear and immediate threat of death or serious injury to others" before initiating a pursuit, and that threat must have existed prior to the high-speed pursuit.
The officer also must weigh whether the suspect’s continued freedom is a greater threat than the pursuit itself. If not, the pursuit should be canceled.
The pursuit policies of both the sheriff’s office and Farmington Police Department contain the same language.
Lincoln said the office will not pursue suspects unless they are wanted for a violent felony, which includes offenses such as homicide, criminal sexual penetration, armed robbery and kidnapping. They also might pursue if the driver appears intoxicated.
"If we aren’t chasing for a violent felony, or they don’t have indicators of driving habits, like DWI, where you got to get them off the road, prior to turning on the lights, we aren’t chasing," according to Lincoln.
Lincoln said the Law Enforcement Safe Pursuit Act was good law, but sometimes "it’s hard to swallow."
So, were policies followed last year when Harrison was careening through Farmington?
"Everyone was just trying to keep up with him," Lincoln said. "To figure out where he is going."
Tracy said officers are heavily scrutinized by administrative officials and their fellow officers whenever they initiate police pursuits "because of the risk involved."
Both Lincoln and Tracy said part of the frustration for law enforcement is some suspects, including Harrison, will intentionally drive dangerously to force police to call off a pursuit.
"The criminal mindset is unique," Tracy said. "You can’t figure out what they are thinking. Whatever the advantage is, they are going to try and get it."
Another difficulty for law enforcement is suspects who flee toward the Navajo Nation, where local law enforcement do not have jurisdiction and officers are often less familiar with the terrain.
"In my career experience, I’ve seen it a number of times where they have made their way to the reservation, or attempted to, because they know that we have limitations out there, whether jurisdictional or common knowledge," Tracy said.
Lincoln said many of those who flee see the reservation as a safe zone, at least temporarily.
"If they get to the reservation, they don’t get arrested," Lincoln said. "We have to do warrants, and we get them later."
Lincoln said that is what happened in April when 18-year-old Diego Mark allegedly stabbed another 18-year-old man at a prom party in Kirtland, and then fled, running a vehicle off the road in the process.
The sheriff’s office called on the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service — agencies that can make arrests on the reservation — to assist in the search for Mark, who drove to the Navajo Nation after the incident, according to court records.
Tracy and Lincoln said officers will wait at well-known thoroughfares — U.S. Highway 64, New Mexico 371, U.S. Route 550 — to thwart would-be absconders.
New Mexico State Police can make arrests on the Navajo Nation, because of a memorandum of understanding the agency has with the tribal government.
Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe has attempted to secure a similar memorandum with the Navajo Nation, but has so far been unsuccessful.
Hebbe said in March the higher purpose of the memorandum is to build closer relations with Navajo police, but it would be an asset in high-speed pursuits.
Harrison missed his court appearance, which was scheduled for the day before he eluded police in June 2015.
He was scheduled to testify against Thaddeus Carter, the man who allegedly shot him in November 2014 outside a residence on Glade Lane in Farmington.
As it turned out, Harrison's elusiveness was lucky for Carter as well. Because Harrison didn't testify, Carter, who faced several felony charges, including battery with a deadly weapon, instead pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor domestic battery offense. He was later sentenced to time served.
Three months after the June 9 chase, Harrison was arrested in Hamilton County, Neb.
Benjamin Dennis, a deputy attorney there, said in December that officers, based on a tip, found Harrison leaving a residence and placed him under arrest.
He did not run, according to Dennis.
Harrison is currently being held at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center on about a dozen felony offenses, including aggravated fleeing, evidence tampering, burglary and vehicle theft.
His attorney, Ruth Wheeler, did not respond to numerous phone calls and messages seeking comment. Harrison didn't respond to a letter requesting comment sent to him at the jail.
He is scheduled to appear in court on those offenses in December.
Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.
Editors note: A previous version of this story published on Aug. 27 contained an incorrect reference to a Matthew Harrison who helped Jeff Graham build race car engines. That Matthew Harrison is a different person than the one who police pursued on June 9, 2015.