Three charged with 1st degree murder, conspiracy in shooting death of San Juan County man

John R. Moses
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON – A police pursuit beneath stormy skies Sunday night ended peacefully on 30th Street in Farmington with the surrender of two murder suspects accused of gunning down a San Juan County resident in his front yard earlier that day.

Brothers Eli Chaffin, 19, and Tyler Chaffin, 23, of La Plata, each face counts of murder in the 1st degree and conspiracy to commit murder in the 1st degree. Tyler Chaffin also faces charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, being a felon in possession of a firearm and tampering with evidence by destroying clothing.

Court documents state that Sierra Collins, 21, admitted to being in the vehicle when the fatal shots were fired and was charged with being an accessory to murder in the 1st degree and with conspiracy to commit murder in the 1st degree. A court document listed her address as being in Aztec.

Motions to hold the three without bail until trial will be heard Aug. 1 in the Eleventh District Court in Aztec by Judge Daylene Marsh. No defense attorneys were listed in court documents.

San Juan County Sheriff’s Detective Cody Decker, who was on the scene July 24 after the shooting was reported, found 37-year-old William Johnson, dead outside his Flora Vista-area home on Road 3400, his cell phone near his body.

“Witnesses stated they saw a white SUV pull up to the residence where two men exited the vehicle with weapons and fired multiple rounds at Johnson,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a new release.

Decker sorted out details leading up to the confrontation in a series of arrest warrant affidavits that describe Collins’ previous relationship with the man who was shot, and various versions of what the defendants say led up to the trio driving to Johnson’s house and allegedly getting into an altercation that turned deadly.

After interviews by Sheriff’s Office personnel with all three of the suspects, and a review of text messages on Johnson’s phone and on Collins’ phone, the decision was made to charge them all.

“I was able to get into William's cell phone after Sierra provided the passcode for it,” Decker wrote in Eli Chaffin’s affidavit. “There were texts from Sierra to William where she threatened to have people, she knew 'shoot William in the face' and other shooting threats. Based on the interviews with Sierra, Eli and Tyler it was clear that they went to William's residence with more intent than to have conversation."

“Based on my training and experience, when individuals want to have a conversation, they do not immediately exit their vehicle and point firearms at others,” the affidavit continued. “Sierra, Eli, and Tyler went to the residence of William Johnson."

Both men participated in murdering Johnson, the affidavit stated.

Man who was shot was known to investigator

Police got a warrant and processed the crime scene, and also reviewed security footage from a nearby home to determine they were looking for a white Ford Expedition SUV with tan running boards captured on video at 11:53 that morning.

“Shots were heard around 1154 hours on the same cameras,” the arrest warrant affidavit filed July 25 stated. “Around 1157 hours the same vehicle can be seen traveling back northbound.”

Decker, who recognized the man who had been shot through previous dealings, wrote that he also knew the man had an on-and-off relationship with Collins.

Another Sheriff's Office detective contacted Collins, who agreed to meet in Aztec for an interview.

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According to that detective's report describing that interview, Collins told him the confrontation escalated into one of the brothers pistol-whipping Johnson with the .22 caliber pistol, and eventually shots were fired.

“While outside Sierra sat down on the curb near the helipad, and she told me that she was in the vehicle and saw William Johnson get shot,” the detective wrote. “She told me the males that did the shooting were brothers. She told me she thought they were just going to drive by William's house because they wanted to know where he lived.”

“Sierra said after that, the driver of the vehicle, later identified by Sierra as Eli Chaffin shot William Johnson several times,” the report included in the affidavit stated. “Sierra said they left the area and drove back to Farmington where she was dropped off and Eli and his brother went on their way to a destination she did not know. As we walked back inside the office, Sierra was crying and told me ‘It was not supposed to happen like that.’”

Technology tracked two of the suspects

With the names of the suspects on record, the Sheriff’s Office turned to technology to track the vehicle suspected of being used during the shooting.

The plate number “was provided to Farmington Police Real Time Crime Center. The vehicle was picked up in Farmington traveling eastbound on Pinon Hills near NM170. There was a picture attached and it showed the vehicle,” the arrest warrant affidavit for Eli Chaffin stated. “It appeared to be the same vehicle from the surveillance cameras at 8 Road 3400."

The vehicle was picked up on camera again around 1708 hours traveling northbound on NM170, driving in the direction of the suspects’ home in La Plata.

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A search warrant was obtained for the home where Eli Chaffin lived, and the suspect vehicle was on the move again with Decker following.

“After the search warrant was obtained, the white Ford Expedition was seen leaving the residence around 2045 hours,” the affidavit stated. “Due to the dangerous nature of the crimes committed it was likely the suspects would flee. I eventually initiated my emergency lights and siren at 38th Street near the intersection of Dustin in Farmington. Another police vehicle blocked the roadway and the white Expedition drove up onto the sidewalk and around the police vehicle before stopping at the intersection. Once stopped two males exited the vehicle and surrendered peacefully.”

Text threads became evidence

Text messages between one of the brothers and Collins were found after a search warrant was executed on Collins’ phone and were noted in a court document, as were exchanges between Collins and Johnson.

At one point, Collins’ arrest warrant affidavit states, Collins texted Tyler Chaffin and told him to “quit f------ texting me the cops gonna have my phone.”

Texts between Collins and Johnson were often confrontational.

“There are several texts back and forth where William and Sierra degrade one another,” Decker wrote in that arrest warrant affidavit. “William also sent nude pictures of a female that appear to be Sierra, although some of the pictures do not show a face. …Further, I found an interesting text exchange where Sierra began threatening William after he sent her nude pictures of herself. William continued to text Sierra, calling her various names, and degrading her.”

Their last text exchange was at 11:37 a.m. on July 24.

“Throughout the text thread William went from degrading Sierra to telling her he missed her, and that he loved her,” Decker wrote. “At no point did I discover any threatening messages from William to Sierra.”