A Florida man wanted in connection with the disappearance of his niece has been identified as the driver who died after a high-speed pursuit on Monday.
Lt. Kyle Lincoln, of the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office in Aztec, N.M., said that Benjamin J. Edwards, III, 31, of St. Augustine, Fla., was the driver of the vehicle. He was a person of interest in the theft of a firearm and the disappearance of his 14-year-old niece, also of St. Augustine. The girl was the passenger in the police chase.
A medical investigator at the scene in Shiprock, where the near 45-minute pursuit ended, found that both subjects appeared to have died from gunshots fired into their mouths, Lincoln said.
“No officers from any involved jurisdictions fired upon the vehicle, nor were any civilians or officers injured in the pursuit or shootings,” Lincoln said.
How the pursuit began
Montezuma County Undersheriff Jim Kingery said the high-speed pursuit originated in Cortez just after 11 a.m. on Monday, May 11, after a “gas skip” at the Conoco Convenience Store at 110 N. Broadway.
Montezuma County Sheriff’s deputy Jason Williams pursued the suspects, who were reportedly driving a Toyota 4Runner, south along U.S. 491, at speeds nearing 100 mph. The deputy reported that the fleeing suspects shot several bursts of gunfire at him, striking his patrol vehicle at least once.
“The deputy’s pursuit started at 11:03 a.m.,” Kingery said. “Shots were immediately fired through the back window toward the patrol car.”
The deputy wasn’t injured.
As the pursuit continued through three congested highway construction zones south of Towaoc, the suspects also reportedly fired at a German couple driving the opposite direction. They weren’t injured.
A Cortez woman who was driving to work said she narrowly avoided construction barrels as the suspect’s vehicle and patrol cars from the sheriff’s office and the Colorado State Patrol sped past.
“Some of the highway workers literally had to jump out of the way to avoid being struck,” Kingery added.
After the suspects entered New Mexico, about 30 miles south of Cortez, officers from the New Mexico State Patrol, Navajo Nation and Bureau of Indian Affairs joined the pursuit.
The suspects also fired rounds at officers with the Shiprock Police Department, Lincoln said. The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office served as the lead agency in the investigation, in part because both suspects were non-Natives.
Dispatch records reveal the chase ended at 11:38 a.m., after the fugitives crashed their vehicle into a ditch near a residential area on Bluff Road in Shiprock.
“During the initial confusion of multiple agencies being involved, it was reported that Navajo Police Department had shot and killed the suspects, and that there was a third suspect still on the loose,” said Lincoln. “Through the detectives’ investigation, this was all found to be misinformation.”
An Albuquerque television station reported the police pursuit lasted “several hours, but dispatch records show otherwise. Also, one New Mexico newspaper reported that fleeing vehicle was a black Nissan Pathfinder. Another New Mexico newspaper reported that a Navajo Nation police officer had been shot.
According to Lincoln, Edwards, the driver of the fleeing Toyota 4Runner, was the apparent shooter during the pursuit. The suspects did fire at an officer with the Navajo Police Department, but the bullet struck a patrol car behind the driver’s side passenger door, said Lincoln.
“The Toyota continued to travel west on Bluff Road, when it lost control going around a sharp corner and high-centered on the edge of the roadway,” Lincoln said.
As officers approached the scene, they ordered the occupants out of the vehicle, but there was no response. After breaking out a passenger side window, officers discovered that both suspects were dead, Lincoln said.
A multi-state investigation continues, and final autopsy reports are pending.