Speeding up the Beeline on a warm, September evening, Cody Archuleta was startled by the flashing red lights of Seth Meeske’s DPS cruiser in the rear-view mirror of his white Buick.
Already addled with drugs and booze, he now felt a tragically familiar flush of fear.
He glanced down at the AK-47 resting on the passenger seat, then back to the panting pit bull named Tekeshi, perched on the back seat. The contents of his car flashed through Archuleta’s mind: camping gear, a red film canister full of dried marijuana, pain pills, a case of Top Ramen and Sour Patch candy, marijuana seeds and lots and lots of ammunition, according to details of the gripping case contained in more than 1,000 pages of police reports obtained recently by the Roundup through a Freedom of Information Request. Chilling, new details of that fateful night offered here have been reconstructed from reports, plus a day spent sifting through court records in Maricopa County to reconstruct this picture of a kid whose dreams all went bad thanks to a broken family, drugs, alcohol, damage — and a series of wrong turns.
As Archuleta pulled over to obey the insistent flash of the red lights, he reached for the silver .380 semi-automatic Kahr handgun and waited. In that moment, he made a desperate choice, the final bad call in a short life already long on blunders and blind corners. He wanted to be a Marine, a paramedic, the protector of his family. But he ended up just a kid with a gun and a rap sheet and a metal plate in his head and a drinking problem and a baffled, persistent fury, sitting in the dark with the red lights flashing as he tried to decide what to do.
Another young man approached the waiting Archuleta, himself the product of a very different set of choices. Seth Meeske has spent 14 years as a Department of Public Service officer, winning commendations and praise for his work ethic, professionalism and endless willingness to serve. He approached the passenger’s side of Archuleta’s car away from the traffic lane — a careful routine for yet another speeding ticket. On this night, that habit probably saved his life. The son of a cop who played football at Payson High School, the tall, friendly, low-key Meeske reached out to tap on the window. But before his knuckles touched the glass — Blam! Blam! Blam!
The shots in an instant reshaped these two lives and rocked the sleepy communities of the Rim Country.
Archuleta immediately sped off — hoping somehow to avoid the consequences of his terrible choice.
Wounded officer radios call
Meeske stumbled to his cruiser, shot in the arm, back and leg. An artery squirted blood. His bulletproof vest likely saved his life. But with blood smeared over the side of his car and the artery oozing blood through his clenched fingers, Meeske knew he had to get to the hospital or die. But first he calmly, carefully, radioed in the shooting — knowing Archuleta was now armed and desperate with other officers in his path. So Meeske made choices of his own.
“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...,” he radioed to dispatch.
On another traffic stop near the Mazatzal Casino, rookie DPS officer Robert Derango heard the chilling call. Just minutes earlier, he and Meeske had been parked side by side, waiting for speeders.
Rookie faces tough choice
This marked Derango’s first night alone in a cruiser. Now he too faced a difficult choice — help his wounded comrade or pursue the shooter.
“If I see this car pass, I will, but if I don’t, I will turn around and help Seth,” said Derango.
Just then, Archuleta’s white Buick blew through the stop light.
Derango said Meeske’s calm radio call had described the vehicle perfectly. He immediately knew the driver of that white Buick had shot his fellow officer. Should he give chase or rush to help Meeske?
Just then, Meeske’s reassuring voice came over the radio. With remarkable composure, he said he was driving himself to the hospital.
“He was calm, it helped me to remain calm,” said Derango. Now, he felt free to pursue Archuleta.
So started a long, dangerous chase that would involve three law enforcement agencies and end in death in a field atop the Mogollon Rim. The shooting illuminated how things can spin out of control and how a kid can squander his life bit by bit, moment by moment — until there’s nowhere left to run.
A life full of dark choices
Making tragic choices was nothing new for Archuleta. At 22, he was a dark-haired man with a square jaw set on a football player’s stout neck. His small, deep-set dark brown eyes framed by arched brows and a churlish smile gave him a formidable look on his driver’s license.
For five years, Archuleta had staggered in and out of trouble, drinking, doing drugs, committing petty crimes, running from police, standing up in court, spending time in jail and on probation.
It all started after his parents divorced in 2008. He was 15.
In 2009, at the tender age of 16, he attempted to sell contraband after he and a friend burglarized the home of Phoenix resident Russell Cummings, according to Maricopa County court records.
Archuleta and his accomplice stole musical and electronic equipment, sporting goods and guns valued in the thousands of dollars. But when they tried to sell the loot, they got caught.
But even that somehow didn’t get through to the kid with the cocky smile and a deeper anger.
On New Year’s Day 2010 while awaiting his court hearing on the burglary charges, Archuleta found himself driving around with a friend drinking. When he saw flashing lights in his rear-view mirror for a traffic violation, he made another bad call.
The chase down Wagner Road in Phoenix ended abruptly when his car crashed into the center divide.
Archuleta’s passenger wore a seatbelt and suffered no injuries. Archuleta, in contrast, wore no seatbelt and sailed out of the car. He sustained major damage to his skull. He ended up with brain damage and a plate in his head.
At the hospital, he had a blood alcohol level of .219 percent. Officers also found marijuana in his car, making drugs a theme that would run throughout his brief, troubled life.
His outlook grim, Archuleta waived his right to a trial and pled guilty to the trafficking in stolen property — a class three felony.
The judge put him on probation and ordered him to pay $50 per month restitution until he paid off $9,092 in damages.
Plea for a second chance
When Archuleta faced the judge again for driving while intoxicated and endangering his passenger, he begged for probation, fearing jail would endanger his health due to his head injury. He wrote a letter to the judge admitting his mistakes and insisting the accident would set him straight.
“Before the accident, I was far from being a perfect kid. Things were getting to a point where my own brothers disowned me and didn’t respect me. Basically my whole family didn’t want me around … I was being a very dumb little hoodlum for a long time … (but) … God did something for me that not many experience, he gave me another chance at life, to start over and actually do something with this new life that was given to me … I have now shown them (his family) tremendous improvements and have started earning their trust back.”
He also discussed how the accident had affected him. He could not think the same way or manage the activities and sports he used to enjoy. But he vowed to no longer associate with the people who had encouraged his poor choices.
At the time he wrote the letter in 2010, Archuleta had moved in with his father to finish high school and start taking classes at Mesa Community College.
His parents, family and lawyer supported him with letters to the court.
Archuleta’s great uncle, U.R. Neely Jr., wrote: “I have shared with him things that would help him to feel needed and useful. I feel that Cody is responding to my encouragement and that of other adults that are trying to inspire him.”
Vow to turn his life around
His lawyer, Robert P. Jarvis, hoped the criminal justice system would support Archuleta’s efforts to change. “Cody has made significant improvements relating to the depression issues that arose from the TBI (traumatic brain injury) … His biggest hurdles, even with the TBI, that he faces in the next few years are his felony record and loss of driving privilege … I hope the system can place the faith in Cody he deserves.”
Archuleta’s father, Bruce, told the court that after the accident, Cody worked around the house and for his aunt and uncle without being asked. He wanted to get a diploma from high school and no longer went out on weekends “like other teenagers… These things may not be a lot to some people, but to me it is a huge change … I know that given a chance he will be an asset to society,” wrote Cody’s father.
Cody’s grandmother, Gail McKinley, said Cody had changed for the better. “Cody lived with my husband and me for a while last year and we really enjoyed having him with us. His grandfather loves to watch funny things on the Internet. He would call Cody to come back and I would hear them laughing and talking about humorous things that they were watching. I am hoping that we will be able to spend many more happy days with him in the future.”
Cody’s mother, Stacie, said he took the ending of her 23-year marriage to his father hard, choosing friends in the wrong crowd. She said Cody had dreamed of joining the Marines after finishing school, but the accident put an end to that plan. So she said he had now hoped to become an Emergency Medical Technician.
“Cody told me he would like to help people who are experiencing medical emergencies, such as the one he experienced,” she wrote.
Stacie said Cody regularly attended AA meetings, had a good sponsor and enjoyed receiving his chips and reaching his goals. Moreover, Cody had returned to a belief in God after the accident, which gave her hope he could have a normal life. He had trouble finding a steady job, but worked a part-time beekeeping job and did yard work for his great aunt and uncle, while applying for other positions. He lived with his father during the week, but spent weekends with Stacie in Surprise.
“Cody has a family that loves and supports him, including his father, myself, his three brothers, and his grandparents. We love him very much and are praying for him.”
Tragically, their prayers proved futile.
The last day
By Sept. 21, 2013, Cody had gained a girlfriend. He had also suffered other accidents that damaged his back and shoulder, leaving him increasingly dependent on pain pills. He still lived with his father, but had lost touch with family members. The drugs in his system that fateful night hint at the reason for that relapse.
Bruce, Cody’s father, reported all of this to police afterwards. He said on Saturday, Sept. 21, Cody confessed he had done something that he did not want to come back on the family. Cody refused to elaborate on this cryptic message, but Bruce noticed Cody had recently reached out to family members, in particular his grandparents and brothers.
Perplexed by the conversation, Bruce went to work as a claims adjuster for the day.
He returned home at 4 p.m. to find Cody and his girlfriend, Autumn Szabat, drinking. The three sat and talked until Bruce left to have dinner with a friend.
At 10 p.m. Bruce returned home from dinner. He immediately noticed the white Buick he had inherited from his brother was missing. Inside the house, he found Autumn now very intoxicated. She said she had no idea where Cody had gone. Then Bruce noticed one of the dogs was also missing.
Feeling more and more uncomfortable, Bruce checked his gun supply. He found the two handguns and one pump-action rifle right where he’d left them in the bedroom.
Relieved, he went to sleep, without checking the rest of the guns — scattered throughout the house.
The next morning with Cody still missing, Bruce checked all the guns in the house. He kept at least one gun in each room in case of a home invasion. He noticed his .380 handgun and 7.62 x 39 AK-47 rifle were missing.
He didn’t notice all the missing camping gear. The contents of Archuleta’s car suggest he planned a long stay in the woods. Some of the equipment and the bag of marijuana buds and seeds suggest he might have intended to set up a marijuana garden, common enough operations in remote areas of Gila County.
Father’s worst fears realized
Bruce decided to turn on the news.
That’s when he learned someone had shot an officer near Payson and fled.
Fearing for his son, he called the police. They confirmed his greatest fears — Not only was Cody the suspect, but he was dead.
Later in a meeting with police at the Mesa Public Library on Monday, he said he had no idea why Cody would shoot a police officer. He said he had told his son to respect officers. However, Bruce added, if Cody had shot at the officer, he would have focused on shooting at the vest because he would know a .380 bullet would not go through the officer’s ballistic vest.
Police also called Cody’s mother, Stacie, who said she didn’t know why on earth her son would shoot a police officer. She filled in some gaps regarding Cody’s life, although she had been estranged from him since November of 2012.
Stacie said Cody had threatened her significant other with physical violence. In a text message found on his phone, Cody’s own words confirmed Stacie’s fears. (Quotes include original spelling.)
“Thts good man. Ay tho u should let dad come help u move back to AZ. He’s crying drinkin n s * * t, all because ur gonna let the guy tht made mom cheat on dad help u move. When mom came with him to see Dylan in the hospital I waited outside for him, I was gonna shoot that fk. He new it too I sat outside staring at him watin for him for an hour. Ill go to prison over tht b * * * h I don’t give a f * * k. Archuleta’s are archuleta’s, the only way out is a wood box. I just wanna let u know dads havin a real hard time with it, whether he says it or not cause he has to much pride. I just don’t like seein pops like this all because some shriveled up old p * * * y a * * b * * * h tht couldn’t even look me in the eye. If u can call it off with mom n tht b * * * h and let our birth father come help u the way it should be. It would help spirits around the house big time!!”
Also on the cell phone, Cody had pictures of himself holding his father’s guns with a bandana over his face.
Stacie said she knew Cody had gone to Mesa Community College, but had recently heard he was no longer attending. She said Cody had suffered three accidents, the worst being the one with the head injury.
Stacie said Cody’s father had convinced him he could play pro football and that he might have been taking steroids. She also knew he was not working, because she and Bruce argued about it. She said his father would “basically let Cody do whatever he wanted.”
One final choice
Soon after fleeing from shooting Meeske, Cody picked up seven police cruisers.
Listening to the cacophony of sirens, he fled recklessly — driven by fear and damage and fueled by drugs and alcohol.
When he reached milepost 289 off of northbound Highway 87, he swerved off into what looked like a soft meadow in the darkness. He hoped to flee into the woods.
But a surprise wash gulped up his Buick, setting off his air bags and dashing his hopes of reaching the nearby trees.
In one last push for escape, Cody jumped from his car and ran, shooting at the police who returned fire.
Finally, he stopped in the darkness, at the end of everything — seemingly out of places to run.
It all had been for nothing — surviving the divorce, his fierce and misguided loyalty, the accidents, the injuries, the rage, the sorrow — the withered second chances and repeated blunders. He would not be a paramedic or a combat Marine. He was just a kid, from a broken home with a head injury and a drinking problem, having clawed his way to this final trap one bad choice at a time. Now he was alone in the field in the dark, a dumb kid who shot a cop for no good reason at all.
Dropping the AK-47, he levered a bullet into the chamber of the silver, semiautomatic .380 caliber Kahr handgun.
Then he made his final, deadly choice. Once again, he pulled the trigger.
When the police found his cooling, bare-chested body, the note he had scribbled on the back of an envelope lay in the cool grass beside him. The note remains a mystery. No one knows when he wrote it. There scarcely seemed time during the chase — nor even in that pause in the darkness in the gully with nowhere left to go.
Did he write it before he saw those flashing lights in the rear-view? Did he write it as Meeske approached? Did he somehow write it when he finally decided he could go no further?
In the end, the note didn’t answer the essential question. It offered a blunted and baffling benediction for a kid who had his dreams, but then squandered all his second chances.
He wrote: “Give Tekeshi to my dad tell Autumn I’m sorry.”