The traffic stop at 10 p.m. Saturday seemed routine — something Department of Public Safety Officer Seth Meeske had done a thousand times in his 14-year career.
But the routine stop abruptly turned into an officer’s worst nightmare as Meeske approached on the passenger side of the white sedan on the shoulder just outside of Payson at mile marker 248 near Oxbow Estates.
Without warning, at least three shots came through the passenger side window from inside the car. One bullet struck Meeske in the leg. One passed through his forearm, severing an artery. The third shot struck him in the back and might have killed him but for his bullet-proof vest.
The driver of the car was Cody Archuleta, 22, a Tempe man with a criminal past, including a charge in 2010 that involved fleeing from officers to evade an arrest for extreme DUI and other drugs. Previously, Archuleta had also pleaded guilty to trafficking in stolen property in connection with a 2009 incident.
Now, Archuleta sped off, leaving Meeske bleeding from potentially fatal wounds on the side of the road.
What Meeske did next borders on the incredible.
Gripping the spurting artery tightly with one hand he made it back into his patrol car, calmly radioed that he’d been shot and added a description of the suspect’s vehicle. He then climbed back into his car, calculating that he would likely bleed out before an ambulance could arrive.
So he matter-of-factly told dispatchers he would drive himself to Payson Regional Medical Center. What he didn’t say was that he had to steer the squad car with one knee, since he could not use his wounded leg and could not release his grip on the severed artery.
Meeske made it to the emergency room four minutes after he put out his call, where doctors leaped into action to save the heroic officer’s life. A former Payson High School quarterback, Meeske has spent most of his DPS
career in Payson. His father — a Vietnam War hero — had supervised the Payson DPS office for years before his retirement.
As soon as doctors stabilized Meeske, they loaded him onto a Native Air helicopter and rushed him to a Valley trauma center, where surgeons went to work on his wounds.
DPS withheld Meeske’s identity until Monday afternoon.
He has made a remarkable recovery from his wounds — and is expected to leave the hospital soon.
Shooter’s criminal past
Meanwhile, Meeske’s radio call had spurred a dramatic, multi-agency high-speed chase, said Carrick Cook, a public relations officer with DPS.
Police still aren’t sure why Archuleta opened fire and fled, although he was a convicted felon with several firearms in his vehicle.
Felons are not allowed own firearms under state and federal law.
In connection with a 2009 incident, Archuleta pleaded guilty to trafficking in stolen property apparently in return for prosecutors dropping additional charges involving trespassing and theft.
The next year, Archuleta pleaded no contest to an extreme DUI with a blood alcohol level of .18 or more and unlawful flight from law enforcement. He also had marijuana, other drugs and “vapor” in his system.
Phoenix media outlets played a recording of Meeske’s call to dispatch.
“I’m at (milepost) 248 (on Highway) 87 ... I’ve been shot ... need medical and backup ... a white vehicle ... he shot through the passenger window ... um, I didn’t get a plate ...”
When dispatch repeated what he said and told him help was on the way, Meeske just said, “I’m gonna start to Payson hospital.”
Barely a minute after Meeske’s calm but desperate call went out, rookie DPS officer Robert Derango, out on his first night solo, saw the white car blast through the Main Street stoplight, said Cook.
“I got a visual on the white car,” said the officer to dispatch, “Just ran through the stoplight at Green Valley Parkway and 87 northbound,” apparently in reference to the highway intersection at Main Street.
Officer Derango then sped after Archuleta.
As the two cars barreled through Payson, the DPS dispatch radioed all other agencies in the area.
DPS uses a different, long-range frequency than the Payson Police Department, but dispatchers can readily coordinate their calls.
Immediately, five Payson police cars and a Gila County Sheriff’s car responded.
Don Engler, Payson police chief, said his officers regularly monitor all the law enforcement agency scanner frequencies. As soon as they heard the “officer down” call, they took off to support the chase.
The seven cars followed Archuleta on a 40-minute “Blue Brothers” chase through Rim Country, said Cook.
Speeds varied between 30 and 100 miles per hour as the line of speeding cars negotiated the twists and turns of the highway, said the DPS information officer.
The stretch of Highway 87 between Payson and Pine often yields accidents, even in the daylight at normal speeds — and the switchbacks climbing out of Pine up to the Rim remain among the most treacherous stretches of highway in Rim Country.
The chase ended on top of the Rim in Coconino County at mile marker 289 — or Jones Crossing, said Cook.
“He drove into a field and crashed into a ditch,” said Cook.
“He got out and shot at officers. Payson police and the Gila sheriff returned fire. Then it went silent.”
Cook said officers approached the gunman, moving out across the meadow behind the cover of a Gila County sheriff’s car. When the officers saw him on the ground, they realized he was shot in the head, but still breathing.
They immediately began performing CPR.
As the officers worked on the gunman, a DPS rescue helicopter landed and paramedics took over. However, the paramedics soon pronounced Archuleta dead at the scene, said Cook.
Cook said indications at the scene suggest Archuleta took his own life, but DPS doesn’t yet have the results of ballistics and other tests. Reportedly the pursing officers only fired a couple of times after Archuleta opened fire on them.
In a small community, news travels fast. The Roundup posted on its Web site news of the shooting and the chase within the hour, as the chase continued. Rim Country residents kept in touch on the Internet as the chase progressed.
Michelle Mulkey wrote on the Roundup Facebook page, “I saw the chase, they flew right by my house on the highway.”
Sal & Teresa’s Restaurant wrote, “Prayers go out to the officer and his family. Glad they caught the guy.”
Debi Crobman Labonte wrote, “I was out coming home from work at that time. Scary to think ...”
Others had wondered what all the noise was about and appreciated the local party line through Facebook.
“Ironically, it was ‘Thank an officer day’ yesterday,” said Cook on Sunday when he stopped by the Roundup office to give an interview.
Cook said Rim Country residents should be proud of the people who work up here.
“(Meeske) had life threatening injuries — if he had not driven himself to the hospital, he may have died,” said the public relations officer.
Meeske’s family gathered at Banner Good Samaritan, waiting through the surgery and Meeske’s remarkable recovery from his grave wounds. They took the trouble on Sunday to send a text message for Cook to relay to the Roundup, hoping to reassure the community that he was “doing well and in good spirits.”
The family, through Cook, also “expressed sincere thanks to the public for their concerns during this trying time. The family has requested that they have time to recover as a family and should they want to speak, DPS will notify the media.”
DPS Director Robert Halliday said, “Words fail me in describing the incredible bravery and presence of mind exhibited by Officer Seth Meeske during this incident. He is alive today because of his quick thinking after being shot numerous times.
“The men and women of DPS have a very difficult job and perform it with courage every day. As we have seen too many times, it is dangerous work.
“My thanks to the Gila County Sheriff’s Department and the Payson Police Department for their assistance.
“I would like to commend the excellent response by DPS Officer Robert Derango.
“All of us at DPS pray for a speedy recovery for Officer Meeske. Our thoughts are with his family at this time.”
Chief Engler in the DPS release added, “This case is a great example of numerous law enforcement agencies working together to resolve a complex, highly dangerous incident while doing their best to protect the public. All law enforcement agencies in Rim Country work together on a daily basis, which enhances their ability to operate as a single law enforcement unit when critical incidents occur.
“The Payson Police Department is very thankful Officer Meeske is recuperating so well from his injuries.”
Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd said, “I would like to thank all of the officers involved and my deputies who were called out to assist in this event.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to Officer Meeske for a rapid recovery and return to duty.”
Protecting the community
Meeske’s father, Ernie, was a Vietnam War combat veteran who spent 20 years with DPS, ending his career based in Payson patrolling long stretches of busy highway.
His son followed easily in his footsteps and also has worked out of the Payson station for much of his 14-year DPS career.
Former Payson High School football coach Max Foster recalls Meeske’s terrific work ethic and maturity, when he made a position as backup quarterback despite his slight, 130 pounds.
But what Meeske lacked in weight he made up in heart, playing hard and building himself up, said Foster. “He just had an amazing attitude.”
Meeske graduated in 1991, then went to work for the Forest Service. Among other things, he served as a wildlands firefighter, said Foster.
Meeske entered the law enforcement academy in February of 1999 and reported for duty in June of 1999, with his first assignment in the Tonto Basin DPS office.
Officer wins honors
Meeske has won honors and awards for his service. Former Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores recognized his service with an award for “professionalism and dedication.” The citation said, “Officer Meeske has received accolades from law enforcement and citizens alike for his service and courteous manner. Many attorneys that work with him say he is available, prepared, well-informed in courteous. He is among the top of his district in arrests for DUIs, felony DUIs and more.”
In a previous interview with the Roundup Meeske said, “It’s nice to know people respect how you’re doing your job. The best part of the job is the people we’re able to help. The toughest part is 1 percent — 99 percent of the people we deal with are really good people ... I’ve always been a small-town person. Small towns produce really nice people and I enjoy the people in the area.”
Born in Sells, Ariz. he has three children, but is divorced.
An avid hunter and fisherman, Meeske remained a runner and athlete. For instance, he participated recently with a 12-person team from the Mile High Running Club in the Ragnar Del Sol Relay on a grueling 200-mile course.
But he especially enjoyed the part of his job where he got to help. For instance, he took on the task of distributing stuffed bears to kids as part of the Arizona Highway Patrol Association’s Comfort Bear program. The Roundup put out an appeal for the stuffed bears and more than 100 poured in from readers and community members. Meeske collected the bears for distribution to children who’d suffered trauma, since DPS and other police officers must often comfort victims and family members —many of them children. Charlie and Rhonda Walters also helped collect the bears in memory of their son.
DPS officials said that they expect Meeske to leave the hospital soon to return home. The family has asked for privacy until they’re ready to cope with the public interest in Meeske’s remarkable, cool-headed heroism.