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Officer cleared in shooting

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DA: Wrong-way driver not competent to stand trial

By Martin Salazar

The state police officer who shot a disoriented New York man who was driving the wrong way on Interstate 25 the night of Jan. 4 has been cleared of any wrongdoing.

District Attorney Richard Flores announced Wednesday that he has determined that officer Jonathan Wright was justified in his actions.

“After reviewing all the investigation materials, especially the video, it is the opinion of this office that officer Wright conducted himself in a justified manner,” Flores said in a news release. “His actions, as well as the actions of the other New Mexico police officers that night saved the lives of many.”

The wrong-way driver, 72-year-old Albert J. Urban of Hamburg, N.Y., was initially charged with two counts of aggravated assault upon a peace officer, third-degree felonies, and with one count of aggravated fleeing a law enforcement officer, a fourth-degree felony.

Flores has dismissed those charges after determining that Urban is not competent to stand trial and will not become competent to stand trial. A forensic evaluation conducted by the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute found that Urban was suffering from a cognitive disorder that may have been caused by Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia.

“We were obviously concerned about Mr. Urban’s safety and welfare and also determined to assure that his family firmly understood that his driving days were over,” Flores said. “The alternative which presented itself was to release Mr. Urban to his family, who agreed to closely supervise him and return him home to New York and find him a proper residential placement.”

Urban was driving north in the southbound lanes of Interstate 25 on the night of Jan. 4. State police dispatchers received a call from a motorist about a wrong-way driver near Villanueva.

Four state police units responded to that initial call, and Wright, who had another officer with him, was the first to catch up to  the white minivan.

Wright , who had his lights and sirens on, continually ordered the driver to pull over through his speaker, but the driver continued the wrong way on the interstate, Flores said, noting that he reviewed police reports, video, interviews conducted and the crash reconstruction analysis.

Flores said the video shows Urban passing about 30 vehicles, and many of those vehicles swerved to another lane or to the shoulder in order to avoid a crash with the wrong-way driver. Among the vehicles that encountered Urban was a large passenger bus and a large semi that was hauling a trailer, Flores said. Urban traveled the wrong way on the interstate for about 17 miles.

In the course of the pursuit, other state police officers twice tried to use spike strips to stop the minivan. Those efforts failed.

Wright then received authorization to conduct a Pursuit Intervention Technique maneuver to stop the minivan and get it off the highway.

He executed that stop near mile marker 340, just before the blind curve at Romeroville, Flores said.

“Had the maneuver not been done when it was done, there is a strong likelihood that Mr. Urban would have placed many other drivers at immediate peril inasmuch as they would not have seen Mr. Urban coming around the bend,” Flores said.

The PIT maneuver succeeded in getting the minivan off the interstate.

Days after the shooting, a Romeroville woman came forward, saying she witnessed the incident. Helen Vargas told the Optic that Urban did nothing to provoke being shot. She disputed the allegation that he drove aggressively toward an officer.

But Flores said the video clearly shows Urban driving toward the officers and in the direction of the interstate.

“Once the vehicle came to a rest, Urban continued to press forward in an apparent attempt to return to the highway,” Flores said. In doing so, he said, the minivan struck a police unit.

“It was at this time that officers Wright and Raymond Montoya were exiting their unit and were placed in danger as Urban continued to make attempts to get back onto the highway,” Flores said. “Officer Wright drew his weapon and fired multiple shots into the vehicle. Mr. Urban was struck in the arm, bringing an end to the car chase.”

It wasn’t until Urban was removed from the vehicle that officers realized that he was showing signs of confusion and disorientation.

Urban was initially transported to Alta Vista Regional Hospital and then airlifted to the University of New Mexico Hospital trauma center.

A court document filed in the case states that Urban believed he was in Buffalo, New York, when police interviewed him at the hospital. He was not lucid and could not explain why he had been driving on the wrong side of the interstate.

Flores said that while there are times when defendants raise competency issues to avoid charges, in this case there is no doubt that Urban was suffering from mental issues.

Urban was transferred to the forensic unit at the Behavioral Health Institute for an evaluation.

According to Flores, staff at the Behavioral Health Institute concluded that Urban’s cognitive disorder ordinarily doesn’t improve.

“One option was to commit Mr. Urban to BHI on a civil commitment of 30 days for further evaluation and treatment; however, Mr. Urban was found to be needing treatment more in the nature of a nursing home placement rather than for a mental illness which may respond to medication,” Flores said.

“The Behavioral Health Institute was not an option and the law is clear at this point — we had to release Mr. Urban and dismiss his charges, which is what we did.” Flores said Urban wasn’t under the influence of alcohol and didn’t intend to harm anyone.