Flags across Arizona are at half-mast today to honor Navajo Nation police officer and U.S. Marine Corp veteran Alex Yazzie, who was shot dead in the line of duty on March 19.
Two other officers were wounded but are expected to survive, while the suspect was also fatally shot.
The tragic events began unfolding at 2:15 p.m., according to Navajo police, when a call came in to the Shiprock police district from a man named Jordon Fowler, saying that his brother Justin Fowler was pistol-whipping his wife and beating his mother. In addition, the operator heard shots being fired in the background, the tribe said in a statement.
Officer Anderson Dez responded, was shot at by Justin Fowler, and took cover in his vehicle, escaping injury, the statement said. The suspect took off in his own car. Hours later, at 8:20 p.m., Fowler returned and made a U-turn in front of the mobile police command center “in an apparent taunt” before fleeing the scene with several officers in pursuit, including Navajo police lieutenant Phillip Joe.
Miles later, on Navajo Route 13, Fowler pulled over and fired at the pursuing police, disabling Joe’s vehicle, then drove toward Arizona. In all, more than 30 Navajo police officers responded from five police districts in the hunt for Fowler, said Deswood Tome, chief of staff for the Office of the President and Vice President, to the Associated Press. Fowler drove 11 more miles into New Mexico before crashing his car and shooting at police in earnest, Tome told AP.
Police shot and killed Fowler, but not before he had shot three officers, one fatally, with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.
“Officer Herbert Frazier was shot in the shin, Officer James Hale was shot in the right leg,” the Navajo Nation said in its statement. “Both were transported to nearby medical facilities. Officer Hale was then airlifted to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, NM. Officer Alex Yazzie was fatally shot by the suspect.”
In addition, four police vehicles were damaged, rendering two of them nonoperational, tribal authorities said. Officers responded from Shiprock, Crownpoint, Window Rock, Chinle, and Kayenta. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is conducting the investigation with the Navajo Department of Criminal Investigation, the Navajo statement said.
Family members remembered 42-year-old Yazzie as a man of courage, honor, kindness and wit. The 14-year veteran of the Navajo police force—he had served in Shiprock since 2012—was married with two young children.
“He’s always been our hero. The hero of our family,” his niece Jade Maestas told the Navajo Times on Friday.
“The Navajo Nation mourns the loss of Alex Yazzie, a dedicated Navajo Police officer that gave his life in the line of duty to protect the lives of others,” said Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly in a statement ordering that flags be flown at half-mast across the reservation from sunrise on March 20 through sunset on March 23. “We are deeply saddened over his sudden departure.”
This was the third shooting of a police officer on the Navajo Nation in recent years, the Associated Press noted. In October 2014, Officer Joseph Gregg was shot in the face by Raymond Herder as the officer responded to a domestic dispute. He survived, and Herder is scheduled to go on trial in June on charges of assault with intent to commit murder and of discharging a firearm during a violence crime, AP said. Three years before that, in 2011, Navajo Officer Sgt. Darrell Curley was shot and killed while intervening in a domestic dispute as well, AP said.
Meanwhile, the latest incident left the Navajo Nation reeling, from relatives of the suspected gunman, to tribal and state officials. Louise Duncan, Fowler’s aunt, told AP that he was outgoing, friendly and helpful.
"It's a shock to find out about what's transpired," she told the newswire. "It feels so unreal."
Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates offered condolences on behalf of the governing body.
“I join my Council colleagues in grieving for the family of Officer Yazzie,” Bates said in a statement from the council. “We offer our thoughts and prayers for the fallen officer’s family and also for the recovery of the wounded officers.”
U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick told AP she was heartbroken and that the incident served as a reminder of the degree to which law enforcement officers risk their lives daily. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey expressed sorrow as well.
"I'm deeply saddened to learn that Navajo Nation Police Officer Alex Yazzie was shot and killed in the line of duty Thursday night," Ducey said in a statement requiring that flags be flown at half mast statewide on March 21. "Like all of our brave men and women who wear the badge, Officer Yazzie risked his life daily to protect our communities and our citizens. His death is a stark and sobering reminder that, for law enforcement, no call is ever routine.”