“I remember somebody screamed and I thought there were a lot more people in the emergency room than usual,” said Department of Public Safety Officer Seth Meeske, of the night he shuffled into the Payson Regional Medical Center clutching the artery severed by an assailant’s bullet. As he spoke, cameras from Channels 15, 12, 10, 5 and 3 had their black lenses trained on his lean, cheerful face.
“I said, ‘Ma’am, I’ve been shot,’ to the lady admitting patients,” said Meeske as the cameras whirred at the Payson press conference. He was covered in blood, after having driven himself from the scene of the shooting, guiding his squad car with his one good leg. “And she said, ‘Oh my, have a seat,’ — out of consideration.”
As soon as he sat down, Meeske said all his strength left him. He turned to a man in the lobby (later identified as Robert De La Vega) and asked if he would hold his arm to keep the arterial blood from spurting out of his wound.
“He took my request to heart and squeezed real hard,” said Meeske. “He was quite strong.”
Meeske said his drive to the hospital was the most surreal five minutes of his life. On Thursday he told his story in public for the first time, with his father — a DPS veteran himself — sitting at the table beside him.
The evening had started with Meeske and Officer Robert Derango sitting in the median south of the Mazatzal Casino. It was Derango’s first night out alone in a car.
Suddenly, each of the officers saw a traffic violation, said Meeske. “We had been working side by side that night making traffic stops. Officer Derango was sitting next to me when he decided to stop a pickup truck. Then I saw a vehicle that was speeding.”
That vehicle turned out to be driven by Cody Archuleta, a 22-year-old man from Tempe with a criminal past.
Meeske said nothing out of the ordinary alerted him of the danger Archuleta posed. He said Archuleta took longer than normal to stop, but he thought it was a senior driver that was confused or a woman that was nervous about getting pulled over.
Meeske said he approached on the passenger side and rapped on the window for the driver to lower it.
That’s when Meeske heard and felt the gunshot. “I did not know where I was shot,” said Meeske. “I thought I had been shot in the face, but it was just glass.”
Meeske said his mouth and eyes were full of glass. He thought the glass in his mouth was his teeth.
Meeske said he spun and felt a bullet hit his vest at his back left muscle. Meeske said if he did not have his vest on, that bullet would have killed him.
He had no idea he had been shot in the leg until he got out of his car at the hospital. “Then I realized my right leg was not correct.”
Meeske said he clutched his cell phone in the hospital as he waited for the doctors to transfer him to an air ambulance for the ride to the Valley.
Meeske insisted on making the calls to his family himself so they could hear his voice and know everything would be OK — when in reality, Meeske said he wasn’t sure if he would.
But from the moment he was shot, he had grave concerns for Derango, the rookie he knew would hear his call.
“I knew my role was over with and I was safe — whatever was going to happen was going to happen,” said Meeske. “But I knew what that individual (Archuleta) was capable of and as I listened to him (Derango) on the radio, I was shocked with how composed he was.”
In the car with Officer Robert Derango:
“I was about to make a traffic stop when Seth called out (on the radio), ‘I need help,’” said DPS Officer Robert Derango, who also on Thursday offered his first public account of the tragic and deadly events of that Saturday night.
“I was not sure of his location ... he puts out the description, a four-door white sedan with the passenger window shot out.”
The 25-year-old rookie officer said it was difficult to make the decision — pursue or help his brother.
“If I see this car pass, I will, but if I don’t, I will turn around and help Seth,” said Derango.
Just then, Derango saw the car flash past his position on the highway by the casino, where he had made his traffic stop.
Derango said Meeske had done such a great job putting out the description of the vehicle, he knew exactly what to look for.
Meeske’s voice came over the radio informing dispatch he would drive himself to the hospital, knowing that he had only minutes before the spurting of the severed artery would prove fatal.
“He was calm, it helped me to remain calm,” said Derango.
In that instant, Derango decided to follow the white car.
“I had every light on that my car had,” he said of the first part of the chase, but he also had to use the combat breath technique he had learned during his DPS training to stay focused.
Meeske’s call had used the 999 code that remains every officer’s worst nightmare, say veteran DPS officers.
Derango said you don’t hear it often because if you use it, you tell the world you don’t know if you are going to make it.
“It was pretty intense,” said Derango.
He credits his training with his response and focus throughout the 40-mile chase.
What made the rookie officer most nervous was thinking he might have to chase this violent suspect by himself.
Then he saw the lights of a Gila County Sheriff’s car and what ultimately proved four Payson Police cars fall in behind him before he left Payson.
“I felt a lot more comfortable with officers with a lot more experience behind me,” he said.
Derango also used the word surreal to describe the chase.
At times pushing 100 miles an hour, then slowing down to bank through intense curves, Derango said he worried about the public when Archuleta sped up and swerved back and forth across the center line — but he worried for himself when Archuleta slowed down.
He thought Archuleta could slow down enough to either stop or get out and shoot at him. A nerve-wracking thought.
But he stayed on Archuleta, despite getting cut off by traffic. At one point, traffic slowed the pursuers enough that they lost sight of the hurtling white car.
“(It) scared me for a moment, he could have easily driven off the road,” said Derango.
But he didn’t.
Instead, Archuleta drove off into one of the few fields on the highway above the Rim.
Investigators have not released many details about the suspect or that final confrontation, waiting for the conclusion of the investigation.
All Derango would say was that Archuleta was shot.
But throughout it all, he thought about Meeske.
“That was really hard to cope with, not knowing if he was OK throughout the entire pursuit,” said Derango.
A father’s story — Ernie Meeske:
“It’s something you never expect as a parent,” said Ernie Meeske, Seth’s father, despite the fact that Ernie is a Vietnam veteran and worked through a distinguished career as a DPS officer. He said he and his wife were home that Saturday night when Seth called. He regrets that his wife got to the phone first.
“It buckled her knees and fortunately I was standing by her side,” he said.
They rushed to Payson Regional Medical Center and Ernie said he had to make one of the toughest calls of his life — to his daughter, Seth’s sister.
“(But) we are a strong family group, we have strong family love and relationship and strong faith in our Lord. We put a lot of faith in all those things as we went to the hospital.”
Yet, he did not let down his guard until he looked into his son’s eyes.
“When we walked in, the first place we saw Seth was in the emergency room on a bed or gurney and they were preparing him for transport,” said Ernie. “I knew immediately when I looked ... in his eyes, he was going to be OK.”
Then Seth spoke to his father.
“He asked me to pray for Robert (Derango),” said Ernie.
Seth told his father that for all he knew, Robert was alone out on a chase with a suspect willing and able to shoot a police officer — and it was his first night by himself in a car. Ernie said Seth could only worry about his fellow officer’s well-being.
Ernie, a square-jawed man with a full head of pure white hair, said despite his long career with DPS and a decade of that on a SWAT team, he never had to fire his gun in the line of duty. He had only one experience with gunshots while on duty. It was during a SWAT operation. But even then, Ernie neither had to use his gun nor was he shot.
When asked about his relationship with his son now, Ernie said, “I’m more proud of him now. I’ve always been proud of him because of his professionalism and heroism throughout — (and yet) I look at him differently, because I can look at him — he is here with us today,” he said. “He shares my profession, but we have a much closer bond than that. We have done everything together our whole lives, hiking, hunting and fishing. We have a strong bond in our faith and beliefs, and a strong bond as Arizona Department of Public Safety officers.”
Seth’s message to his supporters:
“I have had unbelievable community support — not only the community, but the department as well. When I arrived at the hospital, as many that could from Payson came. When I made it to the hospital in Phoenix, almost the entire command staff in full dress attire, I think about 15, lined up.
“Over the couple of days I was in the hospital, the community came. There continually were people sending well wishes. It confirmed that we work with an awesome Payson P.D. and sheriff’s department. The Payson community ... sent food and called and have just stopped by. This has been an unbelievably positive experience. I hope it really confirms (to the community) that we are there to help.”