A Night Of Deadly Choices

Wild, lethal chase unfolds

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Robert Derango pulled up alongside Seth Meeske’s cruiser in the dirt median, picked up his radio and motioned he was ready to start his first day solo on patrol, a rookie Department of Public Safety officer on the job for just three months.

He wasn’t yet trained to run radar on his own, so he listened while Meeske called out the speeds of passing northbound cars on the cool, clear Sept. 21 night, the lights of the Mazatzal Casino in the distance to the north.

It looked like a quiet shift, with a handful of stops — a safe routine. Derango, 25, later told an investigator he had slept peacefully the night before.

It would be his last peaceful night for a while.

After reviewing more than 1,000 pages of reports, the Roundup pieced together the chaos that ensued when a motorist shot a DPS officer three times, which triggered a high-speed chase that ended in gunfire and death.

At 10:11 p.m., Meeske spotted a pickup passing at 76 mph in the 65 mph zone.

Derango radioed he would make the stop and pulled up behind the pickup, the spotlight from his 2009 Crown Victoria beaming off the truck’s back window.

The truck quickly pulled to the shoulder — routine.

What happened next changed the lives of Meeske, Derango and every officer on the call.

As he sat on the side of the road preparing to write the ticket, Derango heard a call crackle over the radio.

“Seth called out, ‘9-9-9, I’ve been shot, I need assistance, medical assistance,’” Derango told investigators later in a Payson Police Department interview room, a pile of aerial shots from the scene littering the table in front of him.

Derango didn’t get on the radio right away; he waited to see if Meeske would say more. If he didn’t hear anything, he told himself, he would turn around and find Meeske.

“I didn’t know if Seth was on a traffic stop or not, I wasn’t sure if it was a drive-by shooting with him sitting there running radar, didn’t know if he was out on a stop, had no idea what Seth’s activity was at that moment.”

Then Meeske radioed the shots had come from a white, four-door sedan and he was going to drive himself to the hospital.

Derango later learned that just after he had left to pull the truck over, a speeding white Buick passed Meeske. The DPS veteran and son of a retired, high-ranking DPS officer, stopped the vehicle along the dark roadway. Meeske noticed a brown and white dog in the vehicle’s back seat.

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DPS Officer Robert Derango

As he tapped on the front passenger widow, gunshots rang out, sending glass flying everywhere. He fell back in a spray of blood. Meeske retreated to his vehicle with three bullet wounds, barely able to see, with shards of glass like daggers in his eyes.

The gunman had fled.

The chase begins

Minutes later, the white sedan with a blown-out passenger window passed Derango, who immediately followed.

When Derango caught up with the sedan at the casino light, the suspect’s driving grew erratic.

At Main Street, the sedan blasted through a red light, then darted around vehicles in the left turn lane, bobbing and weaving through traffic.

Derango radioed his position and gave chase.

In Payson, officer Brandon Buckner was training new hire Nathaniel Mullins, and Officer Jesse Davies had trainee Fernando Torres under his wing for the night.

Sgt. Les Barr had his son in the police cruiser for a ride along.

Shorthanded, it had already been a busy night for the Payson Police Department officers.

Buckner and Mullins had just finished an arrest and were logging paperwork back at the station.

Davies was out back of the station letting his K9 police dog, Dex, play.

Gila County Sheriff’s Office deputy Layne Johnson was on patrol with his wife on a ride along.

At 10:12 p.m. they heard an officer had been shot.

That’s all they needed to hear.

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Payson Police Officer Brandon Buckner

The suspect’s sedan barreled north on the Beeline toward Johnson. He did a U-turn and joined the pursuit, second in line.

He didn’t worry about his wife’s safety sitting next to him, fully focused now on the pursuit.

Barr called Police Chief Don Engler and Lt. Woody Eldredge.

“An officer has been shot.”

Derango looked in his rear-view mirror and saw a line of police lights. He’d gone only a few blocks through Payson, but already multiple police cruisers had joined the chase. Derango sped through town as the white sedan was hitting 50 mph in the roundabouts.

The driver of the sedan, Cody Archuleta, floored it, topping out at 100 mph.

The officers watched helplessly as Archuleta nearly struck a motorist head-on.

Derango radioed their speeds and asked if he could do a PIT or precision immobilization technique maneuver. The high-risk move requires an officer to ram the side of the suspect’s vehicle so it skids sideways and comes to a stop.

Dispatch radioed back that neither the sheriff’s office or Payson police could perform the dangerous maneuver. However, DPS supervisor Capt. Jaime Escobedo, gave Derango the go-ahead to perform the move.

Officers lose radio communications

However, as the chase sped out of town, Derango’s radio began to lose contact and he never heard the authorization.

As the men drove north, the communication channels phased in and out. Soon, they had only intermittent car-to-car communications, although the calls from dispatch faded in and out as the high-speed chase developed.

Dispatch radioed that officers had laid down spike strips at milepost 324. Derango’s heart drops — that is 40 miles away.

Derango keeps on Archuleta’s tail, which isn’t hard. Archuleta frequently slows to 25 mph then “strangely” speeds up again.

Derango believes Archuleta is reloading his weapons when he slows, getting ready for a shoot-out.

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Gila County Sheriff’s Deputy Layne Johnson

“I knew he had weapons in the car because of Seth being shot, so, uh, he could be reloading or gearing or maybe getting body armor on. I’m not sure.”

Further north, news of the shooting has spread quickly across the police departments.

Several DPS officers head south on Highway 87. The Winslow Police Department closes the highway south of the prison.

One officer, while racing south, comes upon two elk in the road. He swerves, but strikes one, smashing the front passenger side of his patrol vehicle. He continues on anyway. Once the officer-down call goes out, nothing else matters in the brotherhood.

Another officer worries he’s about to run out of gas, but pushes on.

With poor radio reception, many officers must make their own decisions — determined not to become the weak link that will allow the shooter to escape.

With no way to plan a stop, the officers chase Archuleta to Pine.

Later, Johnson realized he may have pushed it too hard in some turns.

“There was some scary turns that were, um, you know, I should have, have been more conscious. I had my wife, but when I got into the pursuit mode I kind of like tunnel vision to where I didn’t see my wife was with me…”

Buckner eventually can’t keep up with the rest of the group and falls back in line.

In Pine, PPD officers lose contact with dispatch and switch to the county channel, but lose that too north of Strawberry and can only call each other.

Erratic driving stokes fears

Given his erratic driving, Buckner thinks Archuleta is trying to kill himself.

“I didn’t know what he was going to do. I thought, obviously, he had shot an officer. Uh, his, his behavior, I didn’t know what to expect, I was expecting the worst, I was expecting that he was going to shoot it out with us…”

At milepost 289, the officers watch as the Buick leaves the highway, runs through a barbwire fence, tears across a field and falls nose-first into a gully.

Officers give different accounts of what they saw next.

In the beam of the spotlights, officers watch a man almost immediately rush from the driver’s door.

One says Archuleta looks back and fires several times from a semi-automatic rifle.

Derango said he never saw Archuleta turn, only reach behind his back.

With sirens blaring, shouting commands is futile.

From his position, Buckner watches as Archuleta looks back at officers before firing off several shots.

“I felt that he was trying to kill me and the other officers on scene.”

Fearing for their lives, Buckner and GCSO Deputy Layne Johnson return fire.

Buckner then takes cover behind a tree.

Inside Johnson’s patrol vehicle, his wife ducks below the dash.

Derango doesn’t fire back. “Why not?” investigators ask.

“Um, I wasn’t sure if this may have been a hostage situation, unsure if the driver was the one who assaulted the police officer. There’s too many unknowns for me to fire my weapon.”

Archuleta runs into the night

Archuleta runs north from the Buick and into the dark ditch, toward the lights from a home off in the distance.

Unsure if anyone else is in the Buick, no one runs after Archuleta. Derango wonders if he is the shooter or a hostage.

Sirens still blaring, Derango yells to turn them off.

Barr calls out, asking if everyone is OK. No one is shot.

Unsure what to do next, the officers break up to secure the scene. Some go to the highway to make sure Archuleta does not commandeer a vehicle, while others keep a lookout so he doesn’t flank them.

Another group comes up with a plan.

They send Dex to the vehicle to see if anyone else is hiding inside.

On Davies’ command, Dex jumps into the vehicle and comes back unexcited. He is sent back again, but doesn’t come back, nor bark. The men approach gingerly, using a GCSO SUV as cover and find a pit bull sitting in the back seat and the two dogs very friendly.

Otherwise, the vehicle is empty. The car stereo blares and officers quickly turn it off.

A captain from Flagstaff notes that everyone is leery of entering the ravine without tactical support.

But a SWAT team is at least 90 minutes away, too long to wait.

Derango sees house lights in the distance and knows a campsite is nearby.

Several officers visit the sites and find campers hiding inside their trailers.

So many unknowns

The men discuss what to do next, with so many unknowns.

“We weren’t sure if he was still on foot, had no idea where he was at all. We didn’t know how deep this berm was. We didn’t know if he continued on foot through the berm and we just couldn’t see him. Had no idea what the environment was like in this field, if it was tall grass, short grass, if he could conceal himself.”

The men can’t use the SUV as cover to approach Archuleta in the wash, so they take cover behind two officers wearing ballistic vests.

Buckner is concerned.

“You know we are all really close here, it’s a small department. Also, Sgt. Barr had his son with him and there’s obviously concern. I had concerns because everyone’s my friend and obviously when you’re taking on rounds, I was, they’re like your brothers, so I was really concerned about them.”

They approach cautiously, cutting through a barbwire fence.

Then they spot a dark figure lying in the wash.

They yell commands, but the body lies motionless.

They send Dex up to investigate, but he only sniffs Archuleta and walks away.

They hear shallow moans coming from Archuleta, who is balled up in the fetal position.

They cuff and turn him over, revealing two weapons, a silver handgun and AK-47 rifle, under his stomach.

Archuleta’s breathing is labored, his silk head wrap soaked in blood. But he’s nearly gone now. Paramedics later declare him dead on the scene.

A medical examiner rules the death a suicide — a single gunshot to the left of his head.

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