She thought someone passed out drunk. Then she saw a uniform

AP News
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Posted: Mar 22, 2017 3:40 PM
She thought someone passed out drunk. Then she saw a uniform

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — What sounded like someone knocking on a window late one night turned out to be gunfire erupting in a small community on the nation's largest American Indian reservation.

Police lights flashed in the distance, and as a resident approached, she thought it was just her neighbor getting stopped for driving drunk. As she got closer, she saw someone lying along the road, suspecting it was someone passed out from drinking.

But she knew something was wrong when she saw the stripe running down his pants — a police uniform.

It was Navajo Nation Officer Houston James Largo, lying face down and bleeding. He was shot in a deadly encounter that authorities say began with alcohol-fueled domestic violence.

Kirby Cleveland is charged with killing the 27-year-old decorated officer. During a court hearing Wednesday in Albuquerque, a federal judge determined there was probable cause for prosecutors to pursue their case.

Cleveland, 32, has yet to enter a plea and was ordered to stay in custody pending trial. His public defender did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

A criminal complaint outlined that March 11 night in the rural area on the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation, where dry canyons and mesa tops make up the desert landscape.

Largo was responding to a call from Cleveland's wife. She reported that Cleveland had been drinking and became angry as she and her children watched television.

Cleveland grabbed his rifle, walked outside and fired several shots after an afternoon and evening of drinking, according to the complaint. His wife called authorities and later took him to a neighbor's home.

Largo arrived as the neighbor was bringing Cleveland back in a pickup truck. After the officer handcuffed the driver to the vehicle, Cleveland bolted from the passenger side. Largo followed into the darkness.

The handcuffed man yelled for the officer to return; he never did. The man told authorities that the noise of the engine must have drowned out the gunfire.

Cleveland walked home with his .22-caliber rifle and told his wife: "I shot that police officer, you need to go help him," the complaint said.

At the time of the shooting, Cleveland was on probation for forcing his way into a home on the Navajo Nation armed with a baseball bat and assaulting a woman in 2012, court records show. That case resulted in a two-year prison sentence.

Aside from highlighting the dangers faced nationwide by tribal police officers who often must patrol vast jurisdictions alone, the shooting has Navajo leaders and community members acknowledging the scourge of alcohol and the constant reports of domestic violence.

The call for a change resonated during Largo's funeral last week as family, friends and Navajo President Russell Begaye noted that police officers on the reservation, which covers rural parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, are putting their lives on the line each day.

That night in western New Mexico, the neighbor who found Largo told authorities she had to lift the officer's head to the side so he could breathe easier. She tried to call 911 but had no cellphone service.

She went to Largo's patrol car in hopes of using the radio, but the vehicle was locked, the complaint said. She went back and got Largo's keys and then radioed for help.

The woman told investigators that Cleveland came back at one point and asked for the keys to free the man handcuffed to the truck. She refused, and Cleveland left.

The complaint says Cleveland and his wife argued after the shooting. She drove down to the scene and waited for police as he walked off into the hills.

Once dawn broke, authorities found Cleveland hiding more than a mile away.

Largo died hours after being taken to an Albuquerque hospital.

Investigators found nine .22-caliber shell casings about 80 feet from where Largo was lying. The officer's gun was between his legs with two .40-caliber casings nearby.