A desert shootout spills into Utah, leaving one man dead and a sergeant facing charges
The only officer charged in connection with a police shooting in Utah last year — when the numbers reached a record high — wasn’t from the state. The shooting didn’t happen last year. And the officer wasn’t charged with killing the man.
This 2018 case involves a Colorado deputy, who now faces charges for firing through his windshield during a rolling shootout with men in an old Ford Tempo.
While no video footage exists of the chase or shooting, a Salt Lake Tribune review of police reports and interviews investigators conducted with the officer and a person in the other car offer an unusually detailed look at this chaotic case.
The chase ended less than a mile into Utah, when Sgt. Edward Oxley of the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office blew out the Tempo’s tire and it crashed.
Inside the vehicle, Fordell Hill had just one bullet left. A passenger, Averill Beletso, said in his interview with investigators that Hill contemplated using it on himself, but instead fired one last shot at Oxley. It missed.
Then the two got out of the car and on the ground, as ordered, but Hill moved as if to get up.
“Get down before I shoot,” Oxley warned. Hill reportedly responded, “You going to shoot me, shoot me.” Oxley fired twice with “no hesitation,” hitting Hill once, Beletso said. Hill’s empty gun was found 5 feet away from his body.
Hill died in Utah within the Navajo Nation. John Huber, the U.S. attorney for Utah, reviewed the case and found Oxley’s actions “negligent, even reckless.” He also decided the shooting was “unquestionably justified.” He declined to file charges.
But the shootout also took place in Colorado and that’s why the Colorado Bureau of Investigation got involved. In September 2020, prosecutors there charged Oxley, who has since been fired, with two felonies — an act that, as in Colorado, is exceedingly rare in Utah.
A Salt Lake Tribune database of police shootings shows that over the past decade, only three other officers were charged in connection with shooting at someone here, and none was convicted.
That database also shows that since 2004, at least seven police shootings involved Indigenous people. This represents 2% of the people police shot at, while Native Americans constitute 1% of the state’s population. Those seven encounters were fatal, and three were within Indigenous nations. That includes the Hill shooting.
Oxley’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment, and the person who answered a call to a listed number for Beletso said he was not available. Neither Beletso nor Fernando Hill, Fordell’s brother who was driving the car, was ever charged.
It was a cloudy, chilly day in February 2018 when the Hill brothers and Beletso drove from their home in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation into Montezuma County.
They were heading to Cortez, a border town to the Navajo Nation and Ute Mountain Reservation, so Beletso could check in with his probation officer. As they drove their off-white sedan east, Oxley was driving west on patrol.
The cars passed each other near the Battle Rock Elementary School, and Oxley said he noticed the Tempo was missing a taillight and had a seemingly altered license plate.
He swung around and pulled the car over. The sergeant asked Fernando Hill for his license and registration, but all he had was an ID card. Fordell Hill, in the front passenger seat, gave Oxley a fake name and other phony information. Beletso gave his own name.
When Oxley asked if they had any outstanding warrants, Hill said he did, according to Beletso. Oxley went back to his car.
Oxley told Colorado Bureau of Investigation agents in an interview nine months later that he saw Fordell Hill “protecting” a black backpack between his legs and got “a pretty good feeling these are bad guys.”
When he returned to his car with Fernando’s ID, he left his door “cocked open, because I got a feeling something’s going to go down,” he said.
In the Tempo, the friends were despairing. Hill pulled out a gun, said, “The only way is this,” and told his brother Fernando to “go, go, go. I’m wanted,” Beletso said.
Beletso said he didn’t know what charge Hill was wanted on, but court records show that on Jan. 25, 2018 he was released from the Salt Lake County jail, where he’d been held on a stabbing at the downtown Salt Lake City Library. He had reached a plea deal and was released until sentencing, but by the time he was pulled over, he had already missed an appointment with Utah Adult Probation & Parole.
Fernando peeled out and headed back toward the state line. Oxley decided to follow.
After two cars passed the school again, Hill leaned out of the passenger side window and shot at Oxley.
“My immediate reaction was to draw my gun, go out the window, and fire a few rounds at him, which is obviously ineffective,” the sergeant told CBI investigators.
Next, Oxley fired through his own windshield. He said he saw Beletso looking back at him during the chase and “having a good time.”
Beletso, by contrast, told CBI agents he was curled in a ball in the backseat. “I was just lying there, praying, praying, praying don’t let me get shot,” he said. At one point, he glanced back, and thought they had lost Oxley.
The sergeant had switched from his handgun to his department-issued AR-15 mid-chase. He had pulled over to reload his rifle and then raced to catch up. When he did, he “punched a hole” through his broken windshield for better aim.
“The bullets kept hitting the car,” Belesto recalled. As the chase approached the state line, demarcated by the abandoned Ismay Trading Post, Oxley shot out one of the Tempo’s tires. The car slid, and Hill said he had been shot in the shoulder.
Hill’s brother Fernando, whom CBI agents tried to reach for an interview but were never able to, pulled the car over and jumped out as it was still coming to a stop. It hit a fence, and a small brush fire started.
Beletso said after the crash, while they were still in the car, Hill put the gun, which held his last bullet, underneath his chin. He said he didn’t want to go back to jail. “This is for me,” he said.
But then Oxley pulled up and took cover behind his vehicle. When Oxley “peeked” around the side, Hill fired his last bullet at him through the shot-out rear window.
“To this day, I don’t know why that round didn’t hit me,” Oxley told investigators.
Beletso and Hill then got out of the car and followed Oxley’s order to lay on the ground. According to Beletso, Hill began urging him to get up and run. “There’s nowhere to go,” Beletso responded.
Moments later, Oxley shot Hill in the chest, killing him.
It was 10 days before his 27th birthday.
When Oxley told the story to CBI investigators, he said after Hill and Beletso got out of the car, he couldn’t see them and left his cover behind his car. He saw Hill try to get up, and fired twice.
A report from another Montezuma County Sheriff’s deputy shows that an empty gun was found some 5 feet away from where Hill was shot.
Another deputy reported that Oxley was “visibly feeling the effects of the incident” shortly after officers arrived, and kept repeating that Hill “was trying to kill me.”
Investigating the shooting
Because the shooting occurred over state lines and in the Navajo Nation, the FBI conducted the criminal investigation. In August 2018, Huber, the U.S. attorney for Utah, reviewed the agents’ findings. He found it concerning, but “unquestionably justified under the circumstances,” he wrote in a findings letter, a copy of which Oxley provided to the Journal newspaper in Cortez.
A month later, however, the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office fired Oxley. The office’s internal investigation only focused on the car chase — but found that that, too, was reckless.
The Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office policy manual only permits the use of deadly force in response to an imminent threat, and bans firing from a moving vehicle.
“This decision by you put yourself in unnecessary danger and began further poor decisions and actions by you that put innocent persons and the public in danger,” reads the termination letter, which Oxley provided to the Journal.
Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin said in an interview, “What happened, happened, and it was dealt with the way that it should have been… . I did my job: protecting our community. Even if it has to be protecting our community from one of our own.”
After the firing, Will Furse, then the district attorney for Montezuma and Dolores counties, wrote to the CBI to request a criminal investigation into the car chase.
“We believe there are significant gaps in the federal investigation that apply to incidents occurring in Colorado,” he wrote in an email.
The CBI closed its investigation in February 2019 and turned it over to Furse, but he didn’t take any action until last September, a delay he attributed in a phone interview to routine analysis extended by the pandemic.
That month, he filed felony charges against Oxley, accusing him of illegally discharging his firearm. He also charged Oxley with some misdemeanors that have since been dropped due to the statute of limitations.
Furse, a Republican who was first elected in 2012, was prevented by term limits from running again and was sworn in as an assistant district attorney in January. He’s still prosecuting this case.
“I knew they were bad guys”
In his CBI interview, Oxley said he was trying to save lives.
“From the beginning, I knew they were bad guys, just from my experience,” he told a CBI agent when she asked why he continued the pursuit after pulling over to reload.
“I know that doesn’t go very far in court,” he said, “but my hair is standing up on the back of my neck and I know there’s something bad going on.”
“I’m probably headed toward my death,” he continued. “You know, what’s three against one? If I break it off, I’ll be alright, and they’ll still go on. But what are they going to do? They’ve already tried to kill me. Obviously, they’re going to pull in somebody’s driveway, they’re going to kill them… . Without a doubt in my mind, they’re going to kill somebody, get a car, or they’re going to run into another cop who’s out there by himself, and they’re going to kill him.”
Oxley took issue with part of his termination proceeding, in which the sheriff said he didn’t have probable cause to use deadly force against everyone in the car, since only Hill was shooting.
“The guy in the backseat” — Belesto — “was participating. He wasn’t shooting a gun, but,” Oxley said, “he wasn’t trying to stop the shooter… . As far as I’m concerned, he’s an active participant in my attempted murder.”
Oxley’s attorney, Keenen Lovett, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
An investigator later asked if, once Oxley caught up with the Tempo after he stopped to reload, if Hill was still shooting or if Oxley just began firing. Oxley didn’t directly answer, but said he’d made up his mind to keep using deadly force.
“Once I got back within shooting range, I continued to shoot,” he replied. “And that came up with the sheriff, that they stopped shooting. I’m like, ‘Where are you from? You don’t get to, ‘oh, time out, we’re not shooting at you any more.’ You tried to kill me. You’re going to get stopped and my deadly force doesn’t get cut off.”
Investigators asked Oxley if he, at any point, thought his use of force was unnecessary.
Oxley’s answer was quick and unequivocal: “No. Like I said, I knew they were going to kill somebody if I let them go.”
Oxley, who had been hired by the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office less than two years before, was adamant that firing through his windshield was a technique he’d been taught at the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office in southern Florida, where he’d spent more than two decades.
A Tribune analysis of training materials Oxley gave to investigators does not support that.
Oxley, who was arraigned in December, has pleaded not guilty and a trial is planned for April. If convicted, he could face one to three years in prison.
[Read more: The tension between border town police and Navajos is real. And these people are trying to change that.]
Hill had three young children, who, along with their mothers, are traumatized from losing him, said Thomasina Holly, his aunt. She said Hill’s grandmother, who raised him, is also devastated.
“He was very kind and cared about his grandma, and he was always wanting to be there for” her, Holly said. He took her out for dinner in Cortez a week before his death. When his children visit her house, Holly said, his oldest daughter, who is now 5, goes to a picture and says, “He’s my daddy.”
The family, she said, didn’t know about the charges against Oxley until receiving a call from a Tribune reporter. She said members of the family intend to observe the court proceedings, but haven’t talked much about the shooting or charges.
Hill loved his family and children very much, Holly said — some cherished memories include regular trips to the zoo in Albuquerque — but he had a “hard time making good choices.”
Whenever they see each other, he and Fernando reminisce over Hill, Beletso told investigators. “It’s hitting him hard,” he said of Fernando. And every time he sees his nephew — Fordell’s son with his sister — Beletso cries. “He looks just like him,” he said.
Editor’s note • This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.