Above: Body-worn camera footage from RRPD Officer Anthony Benavidez
Reports and body-camera footage released by New Mexico State Police indicate that the man killed in a Rio Rancho Police officer-involved shooting in January had charged an officer with a machete.
All three officers involved are back on duty from standard administrative leave, RRPD Lt. Jacquelynn Reedy said Wednesday afternoon.
Daniel Romero, 13th Judicial District assistant district attorney, said the DA’s office hadn’t received any material from the State Police, who are in charge of the shooting investigation. If the office receives reports and information, it will go to an independent contractor, who will decide whether there’s probable cause to charge someone with a crime, to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest, he said.
He had no timeline for when that might happen.
According to RRPD, just after 10:30 p.m. Jan. 26, officers were called to a home in the 4600 block of Platinum Drive on a report that a man was attacking two women and was armed with two knives. Three officers found John Paul Romero, 42, threatening a family member with two knives and, after Tasers failed to stop him, they fatally shot him, according to the statement.
Two of Romero’s relatives were taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries they received before the officers arrived. No officers were injured.
Romero’s mother told investigators that she came home from work about 10:30 p.m. that day, and Romero was upset with her dogs barking at him. When he began to attack the dogs, his mother and aunt intervened. He battered his mother and strangled his aunt, and the women defended themselves and each other, according to reports.
Then the trio briefly separated.
Romero’s mother said he grabbed two large knives from his room, kicked down her sister’s door and attacked his aunt as his mother called 911 from her own room.
In later interviews during the State Police investigation, RRPD Officers Anthony Benavidez, 25, and Justin Gurule, 27, both with 2 ½ years of experience as certified police officers, said they arrived within a minute or two of the call and were the first ones in the house. Cpl. Anthony Tortorici, age 35 and a 7-year veteran of RRPD, followed them a few steps behind.
According to reports, the three officers announced their presence and went toward the sounds of yelling and banging. They found Romero’s aunt on the floor partly under her bedroom door, which had been beaten down, with Romero on top of the door, hammering on it with a machete and trying to get to his aunt, according to police.
“I assess the female. I saw the door. There was blood everywhere. I quickly looked at the suspect that was on top of the door that was on top of the female victim,” Gurule told investigators. “So, she was stuck under there due to his weight and the door being on top of her.”
He estimated that the machete was 2 feet long, and Romero was about 5 feet away from officers.
Benavidez told investigators Romero had the machete raised in a manner he perceived as an immediate threat, and he deployed his Taser twice in quick succession.
He said Romero made eye contact with him, jumped up and ran toward him with the machete raised. Benavidez told investigators Romero’s eyes appeared all black, as if the pupils were extremely dilated from taking hallucinogens, and he was shirtless despite the cold night.
Benavidez said he thought all four of his Taser prongs were embedded in Romero’s left side and he heard the Taser cycling.
However, he said, Romero “was absolutely not fazed by that whatsoever” and kept chasing Benavidez, who backed away down the hall. Benavidez still had his gun holstered, which he said put him in a bad situation.
“And I had voiced to Officer Gurule to shoot him,” Benavidez said.
Gurule didn’t mention hearing Benavidez tell him to shoot, but he said he knew from his training that officers were at a disadvantage because of how close Romero was.
“I was in fear for my life,” Gurule said. “I was terrified that the male was going to go toward Officer Benavidez and stab him with the machete, and I was also in fear for the woman, what she had been through. She had blood all over. I wasn’t sure what her injuries were, so I knew that something had already happened.”
Gurule fired his gun and Tortorici deployed his Taser from behind Gurule. Tortorici told investigators he believed his Taser probes hit Romero.
Romero kept coming toward Benavidez, according to officers.
“I was afraid for my life. I thought the male was going to kill me, honestly,” Benavidez told investigators. “… It appeared that the male was in a rage. It appeared that he was on a mission and he wasn’t going to stop.”
Benavidez drew his gun and fired, he said. The officers said they stopped firing when Romero fell, with the machete under his body.
Tortorici said it was clear Romero was deceased, so they didn’t attempt first aid. Gurule helped Romero’s aunt up and out of her room.
Benavidez heard Romero’s mother calling from her bedroom behind him, told her to show her hands and when he saw she was unarmed, escorted her out of her room. Gurule escorted both women outside and called for an ambulance.
Officers then checked the house to ensure no one else was there. Benavidez said he saw a second knife near Romero’s body after the check.
The ambulance crew took both women to a hospital. According to reports, both showed signs of being battered and Romero’s aunt had been stabbed in the hand, a wound that had bled significantly.
Romero’s mother said he “must have got a hold of something,” “went crazy” and was “trying to kill us,” according to the reports.
Romero’s mother said he had been violent in the past, and she and her sister had pepper spray to defend themselves from him. She told the investigator that her son hadn’t been diagnosed with any psychological disorders, but had anger-management problems.
Romero’s aunt told detectives he broke down her bedroom door “to finish me off.” She said Romero told her he’d kill her and her sister, and he would have done so if the police hadn’t come.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, because he was full of rage,” she said.
Investigators found the machete and another knife in the house after the shooting.
Below: Body-worn camera footage from RRPD Officer Justin Gurule
Below: Body-worn camera footage from RRPD Cpl. Anthony Tortorici