Death of 2 in pickup attracts scrutiny
law enforcement agencies because of the high risks associated with firing a weapon from a moving helicopter at a speeding vehicle.
The practice has been under scrutiny since Oct. 25, when a DPS trooper fired into a pickup racing along a South Texas dirt road near La Joya, killing two Guatemalan men hidden in the bed under a blanket. A third man was injured by the gunfire.
The chase began after Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game wardens spotted the truck and called the DPS for air assistance after it refused to stop. Following the incident, the DPS explained that officers may use gunfire to end a high-speed chase that threatens bystanders.
The trooper, Miguel Avila, shot as the truck was speeding toward a school more than a mile away, which the DPS said posed a potential danger to students. Alba Caceres, the Guatemalan consul in McAllen, has said the men in the truck had “no guns, no drugs.” Texas Rangers are investigating.
In practice, the airborne marksmen aim at a fleeing vehicle’s tires to disable it. But, as the deadly October incident demonstrated, they don’t always hit their target.
On Oct. 21, 2010, a DPS officer in a helicopter fired a single shot at a fleeing vehicle suspected of smuggling narcotics — but missed the car. “Round did not hit vehicle,” the agency’s summary of the incident stated.
The vehicle was eventually stopped when officers threw down spikes to puncture its tires. Although 800 pounds of marijuana was recov- ered, “two suspects abandoned vehicle and fled to Mexico,” the report concluded.
In another case, on Sept. 13 of this year, a DPS rifleman fired three rounds at a vehicle reported by Mission police to be stolen. From the report, however, it is unclear whether the bullets played a role in ending the chase; Mission police couldn’t provide additional details Friday.
“Three bullet holes were later found in the vehicle,” according to the DPS report. “Three suspects exited vehicle and fled to Mexico.” A little more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana were recovered.
In a third pursuit, it is unclear from the report why a DPS officer fired shots.
On June 2, 2011, a state helicopter joined Starr County sheriff’s deputies in pursuit of a vehicle. The report doesn’t specify why the driver was being chased; Sheriff Rene Fuentes didn’t return a call for comment Friday afternoon.
In the course of that chase, Highway Patrol officers also threw down two strips of spikes, a tactic the report describes as “successful,” deflating three of the car’s tires.
When the vehicle continued to speed away, smoking and throwing off rubber debris, according to the report, a DPS shooter in a helicopter fired five rounds “in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the vehicle.” It is unclear from the report whether any rounds hit the vehicle.
“Driver eventually came to a stop and fled on foot, after which he was quickly taken into custody,” the report concluded.
Of the five pursuits the agency has now disclosed in which DPS officers have fired from helicopters at fleeing vehicles, only one was clearly effective, according to the DPS summary of incidents.
On Sept. 23, 2010, Starr County sheriff’s deputies began chasing a vehicle after it evaded officers, the report states, adding: “During high speed pursuit, vehicle nearly struck other vehicles and began to drive toward a more populated area. From helicopter, DPS commissioned officer fired one round at vehicle’s tire, which deflated.”
According to the report, the vehicle came to a stop and the driver was taken into custody. “25 lbs marijuana, one baggie cocaine and open beer recovered from vehicle,” the DPS report concluded.