ALBUQUERQUE – A procession for a police officer fatally shot during a traffic stop in a small New Mexico village crossed the state Monday as the officer’s body was transported along a 225-mile route, and dozens lined stretches of a major highway to pay their respects.
The body of Jose Chavez, 33, was being transported south to his hometown of Las Cruces. The procession began in Albuquerque, where the fallen officer’s body was taken over the weekend for an autopsy at the state Office of the Medical Examiner.
Near a stretch of the highway that runs close to the Albuquerque airport, cars pulled over to the shoulder of the road, and people waved American flags.
The motorcade was expected to travel through several towns along Interstate 25, including Hatch, where Chavez was gunned down on Friday. The village, famous for growing green chile, is home to fewer than 2,000 people, according to most recent U.S. Census figures. It lies 190 miles south of Albuquerque.
“It’s hard to believe it happened in such a small, little town,” said Oscar Muñoz, 36, as he stood at a highway overpass in Albuquerque awaiting the motorcade to approach. “I guess violence is spreading all over.”
Muñoz, who grew up in Hatch and lives in Albuquerque, said he was shocked by the shooting. Victor Lovato, who works as a security guard and also lined the overpass, called it senseless.
Funeral services for Chavez are scheduled for Sunday in Las Cruces at New Mexico State University’s Pan American Center.
Chavez, a two-year veteran of the Hatch Police Department, was shot in the neck after pulling over two Ohio murder suspects. He was airlifted to University Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, where he later died.
It remains unclear whether the officer, a father of two children, knew the men were wanted in Ohio, where Ross County Sheriff’s officials said the men, Jesse Hanes and James Nelson, are accused in the July 25 shooting death of a 62-year-old man just outside Chillicothe. The town is about 60 miles south of Columbus.
The Ohio sheriff’s office announced three days after the killing that warrants had been issued for the men’s arrest.
On Friday, New Mexico authorities said Hanes, who is 38, reached through a window and shot Chavez as the officer stood outside the front passenger’s window.
Nelson and hitchhiker Tony Jones were in the vehicle when Hanes opened fire, authorities said. Both Nelson and Jones are facing drug charges after they were taken into custody Friday.
Nelson, who a Doña Ana County Sheriff’s spokeswoman says was arrested on a charge of being a fugitive on an outstanding warrant, was ordered held on a no-bond hold during a court hearing Monday. The bond for Jones, who authorities say had a suitcase Friday with methamphetamine in it, was set at $75,000.
Jones and Nelson are not charged in Chavez’s death. It was not known Monday, whether they or Hanes, had retained attorneys.
A fellow officer who arrived to assist Chavez just as he was shot reported seeing him with paperwork and appearing to draw his service weapon before smoke filled the air and Chavez fell to the ground.
The suspects fled, with Hanes shooting and wounding another man at a rest stop as he stole his car, authorities said. Sheriff’s deputies eventually were able to stop Hanes by using a tire-deflating device.
He was hospitalized for a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the thigh, authorities said, and he has not yet been booked on charges stemming from Friday’s shooting.
A spokesman for Doña Ana County District Attorney Mark D’Antonio confirmed Monday that Hanes would be charged with first-degree murder.
D’Antonio called the attack cowardly and one of the worst he has seen in his career. He said his office is coordinating with the state attorney general and federal authorities on the case.