Wrong-way driver hit, killed off-duty Mesa officer

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- An off-duty Mesa police officer was killed in a head-on crash with a wrong-way driver that had been going for miles early Monday morning.

Mesa police Chief Frank Milstead identified the officer as Brandon Mendoza.

The wrong-way driver was killed in the crash, as well.

It happened at about 1 a.m. on the flyover ramp at the Interstate 10 and US 60 interchange

The wrong-way driver was first spotted at about 12:30 a.m. near the Loop 101 Pima Freeway and Cactus Road in Scottsdale.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety received 33 911 calls about the wrong-way driver, according to spokesman Carrick Cook.

According to DPS, the wrong-way driver came down state Route 51, speeding south in the northbound lanes, deliberately avoiding officers along the way.

A DPS officer tried to ram the vehicle st SR 51 and Thomas Road to get the driver to stop but was unsuccessful.

"That was the only chance we had. We were stretched thin that night. We did the best we could. We tried to intervene," Cook said. "We used every resource that we had available."

Cook said there were "at least a half a dozen officers" trying to stop the suspect.

"Unfortunately we just didn't have enough officers out there to do it," he said.

The distance from where the wrong-way driver was first reported to where he hit Mendoza is about 35 miles.

"It's by chance that he made it 35 miles," Cook said. "It is pretty amazing that he was able to make it 35 miles. If we could have, we would have stopped it as soon as we could."

The suspect's car exploded into flames on impact.

The wrong-way driver was burned beyond recognition in the fiery crash. Cook said investigators believe they have identified the man, but will not release any information until they talk to his next of kin.

At this point, DPS investigators suspect impairment was a factor in the crash.

"That will be confirmed by the medical examiner," Cook said.

Because of where the collision happened, Cook said he does not think Mendoza saw the wrong-way driver for more than a couple of seconds before he was hit.

"It's a very blind corner," Cook explained.

"My guess is that he was absolutely, completely caught off guard and surprised," Milstead agreed. "They were literally coming at each other from different directions at freeway speeds."

Emergency crews rushed Mendoza to Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix. He was in critical condition when he arrived. He went into surgery immediately, but doctors were unable to save him.

"We are saddened beyond words to report that one of our officers was hit and killed this morning by a wrong-way driver," Landato wrote in an email to media outlets.

Mendoza, 32, made a name for himself during his 13 years with the department.

"He was an iconic figure here at the Mesa Police Department. He was an officer that really epitomized what community policing is about," Milstead said, describing Mendoza's dedication to rebuilding Guerrero Rotary Park to make it a community gathering placing.

The Mesa Optimist Club awarded Mendoza won their Officer of the Year award last June.

Milstead said the Mesa Police Department family is struggling with the fact that Mendoza was killed after his shift, while on his way home.

"We all kind of think once we get in our own car and we get to head home that we're good for that day," Milstead said. "Brandon didn't make it home."

"Brandon touched so many lives and was truly an exceptional person," Landato said.

Describing Mendoza as "outgoing" and "nurturing," Milstead said the officer was popular both in the department and in the community.

"He is everything, as a police chief, you want your officers to be -- approachable, empathetic, understanding," Milstead said. "He was one of those people that you'd want to meet if you were the person that needed help."


DPS officials explain why officers could not stop wrong-way driver

Officers with the Arizona Department of Public Safety said a combination of timing and logistics prevented them from being able to stop the wrong-way driver from causing the deadly crash.

"Thirty-five miles on a freeway or highway goes by very quickly," DPS spokesman Bart Graves told 3TV.

Spike strips did not stop the driver. 

The driver, going against traffic, presented the biggest problem for officers trying to intervene. For safety reasons, they were unable to cross the median to trail him.

Officers were also unable to safely do a pit maneuver to trap him.

"It's just very difficult to stop a wrong-way driver who's determined not to have any contact with law enforcement," Graves said.

DPS and ADOT were able to coordinate and post electronic messages on the 51, warning other drivers of "oncoming traffic."

"It saved my life. I'm very thankful to the people who thought to do that," Shyam Komirishetty told 3TV.

He and his wife were driving north on the 51 and saw the warning. Komirishetty said he moved lanes just in time.

"We never came so close to death before. Just imagining what would've happened if I didn't read the electronic sign. I would not be standing here today," he said.