Police: Man beat wife, mother before killing Navajo officer

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Officer Alex Yazzie Officer Alex Yazzie
Justin Fowler Justin Fowler
FLAGSTAFF, AZ (AP) -

In the hours before a deadly shootout on the Navajo Nation, authorities say the gunman hit his wife and mother with a pistol, taunted police by making a U-turn in front of a command station, and disabled a police vehicle that was chasing him.

The pursuit ended 40 miles away in a community near the Arizona-New Mexico border when 24-year-old Justin Fowler crashed his own vehicle, Deswood Tome, chief of staff for Navajo President Ben Shelly said Friday.

Fowler then opened fire on officers, killing one and wounding two others, before he was killed by police in the shootout Thursday night in Red Valley, authorities said.

The incident highlights the danger that tribal officers can face when patrolling the huge reservation - sometimes alone. The tribe has a policy on domestic violence calls that requires two officers to respond.

Police were initially called by Fowler's brother, who reported that Justin Fowler was assaulting family members and had fired a gun toward his mother at a home near Shiprock, New Mexico.

The first officer to reach the scene was immediately shot at and took cover.

"The suspect went on the offense and shot his AR-15," Tome said.

Fowler then fled, and police had a full description of his silver Ford Flex when he pulled up to a police command center about six hours later and made a U-turn "as a taunt," Tome said.

Officers were called in from around the reservation to pursue Fowler. At one point, he pulled off to the side of a road and fired at a police lieutenant's vehicle, stopping it in its tracks, Tome said. Fowler then drove another 11 miles, crossing the New Mexico border into Arizona before he crashed and began shooting at police, Tome said.

Officer Alex Yazzie was killed on scene. He had worked for the tribe's Shiprock police district since 2012. Officers James Hale and Herbert Frazier, also with the Shiprock district, were hospitalized and expected to survive, Tome said.

News of the deaths prompted prayers from tribal officials and the Navajo Nation's representative in Congress.

"We send our condolences to the family of the Navajo police officer who gave his life in the line of duty," Shelly said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick said she is heartbroken by the news.

"This tragedy is a reminder that the men and women who work in law enforcement risk their lives every day to protect our communities," she said.

The FBI sent investigators to process the crime scene and talk with family members and witnesses.

In all, 30 of the Navajo Nation's 234 commissioned peace officers responded Thursday from five police districts across the reservation. Police on the reservation get roughly 250,000 calls a year for service, with alcohol and domestic violence factoring into many crimes.

In October, Officer Joseph Gregg was seriously wounded in the face with a shotgun and survived after responding to a domestic violence call in Kaibeto. Raymond Herder was indicted on charges of assault with intent to commit murder and discharging a firearm during a violent crime. He's set to go on trial in June.

Three years earlier in the same town, Navajo Officer Sgt. Darrell Curley was shot and killed while responding to a domestic dispute. Curley, who showed up at a home where two brothers were fighting to back up another officer, was killed by the brothers' father who was upset that Curley was arresting them, according to court documents.

The officer's wife, Pauline Curley, said Friday that her husband always was concerned about Navajo Nation officers responding alone.

"I know it is ongoing and then when it's addressed to the high commanders, it always falls back down to funding," she said. "It's just a lack of manpower."

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