*Correction: KRQE News 13 originally reported that Judge Stan Whitaker sentenced Andrew Romero in his most recent case. That is incorrect. Judge Cristina Jaramillo was the judge who handed down the sentence in that case.
RIO RANCHO, N.M. (KRQE) – Rio Rancho police say 49-year-old Officer Gregg ‘Nigel’ Benner was shot and killed in front of the Esther Bone library Monday night after a traffic stop.
Police say just after 8:00 p.m. Monday an officer was trying to pull over a Dodge Durango at a nearby Arby’s for a traffic stop.
“We know officer Benner approached the car, the male passenger opened fire, striking and fatally wounding our officer,” Chief Michael Geier said.
Police say a female driver stayed on the scene, but the passenger and trigger man 28-year-old Andrew Romero took off with the SUV.
They caught up with Romero at a gas station in the south valley, at Broadway and Rio Bravo in a different car.
Police say Romero robbed that station, but officers were able to arrest him on scene before 4 a.m.
Romero was taken to Sandoval County Jail Tuesday afternoon. He would not respond when police asked why he shot and killed Officer Benner.
Romero faces life without parole for killing an officer. He also faces federal charges since he had a gun and robbed a store.
As of Tuesday, Romero is their only suspect.
The woman he was with is being questioned. She was also shot in the foot during the incident. Police say Romero pushed the woman out of the way to shoot at Officer Benner at least three times.
Witnesses, including an off-duty paramedic, tried to help him within seconds of being shot. They gave him CPR, but Benner died at UNM Hospital.
“Those people are definitely heroes in our eyes. The efforts at the scene were amazing. It was just unfortunate that the injuries were so severe,” said Geier.
Police say Benner likely didn’t know the danger he was in.
“It appears he was maybe making an attempt to draw the weapon as he was hit, he did not have him weapon out,” Geier said.
Police say there is no dash camera video of the shooting because Officer Benner wasn’t recording when the shooting happened. Officials are not sure why Officer Benner pulled the suspect over.
Crews are expected to collect evidence through the end of the day.
That suspect accused of shooting and killing Rio Rancho Officer Gregg Shepard is a career criminal and was wanted for serious crimes.
Andrew Romero, 28, has been in and out of jail on different charges.
There was a warrant out for his arrest Monday night when Officer Benner pulled over the car he was in.
Romero’s rap sheet starts in 2005. 10 years ago, Romero was charged with murder for a gang-related shooting at a South Valley apartment. He pled to a lesser charge and was ordered to spend three and a half years behind bars.
In 2010, Romero was shoplifting at an Albuquerque Walmart. There he struggled with an employee and that employee died of a heart attack.
Romero got three years for that crime.
In January of last year, he was picked up on aggravated assault armed robbery, drug and felon with a firearm charges. This January, a judge sentenced him to nine years in prison but suspended all but a year of that and let him out.
A few months ago, Romero went on an armed robbery spree hitting eight stores, including a Walgreens and gas stations all around Albuquerque.
In April, he was highlighted in a Crime Stoppers YouTube video.
His criminal history affected his family life as well. Romero’s grandfather told KRQE News 13 that he took Romero in after his mother died when Romero was a teen because no one wanted him. However, Romero’s run-ins with the law forced his grandfather to kick him out. He says Romero even broke into his home last year.
A warrant was issued for Romero’s arrest just four days ago after detectives linked him to those crimes. Police believe that may be why he opened fire and fled Monday night.
“We’re working with both the district attorney in this district, 13th district, as well as possible federal charges that may be related,” Chief Michael Geier said.
The chief wondered Tuesday why Romero wasn’t given a longer sentence last year for armed robbery, aggravated assault and felon with a firearm, saying he never should have been on the streets.
Police say the woman who was with him Monday night stayed at the scene and is cooperating.
The murder of Officer Benner has also hit the community hard.
The chief says he was well liked not only at the police department but by citizens.
The Rio Rancho Police and Communications Association has set up a memorial fund. Members of the public can drop off donations to any Wells Fargo Bank under “Officer Gregg Benner Memorial Fund.”
The city has ordered flags to fly at half staff in his honor.
Rio Rancho police have taken shifts staying at Benner’s home to support his wife and family.
“Well liked by everybody on the department and of course, losing him is going to have a great impact with the officers on the department, the civilian employees on the department and I’m sure, once we are able to identify the officer, the community will feel the loss as well,” said Captain Paul Rogers.
Rio Rancho Mayor Greggory D. Hull released this statement:
“Officer Gregg “Nigel” Benner was killed while in the line of duty. Officer Benner was a dedicated military veteran and law enforcement officer and his tragic death is deeply saddening to the tight-knit community of Rio Rancho. The City of Rio Rancho mourns his untimely death and I urge community members to keep Officer Benner’s family in their thoughts and prayers. Our police officers hold a special place in our hearts as they lay their lives on the line every day protecting our safety and this is a stark reminder of their sacrifice.”
Mayor R.J. Berry released the following statment:
“I join the community of Rio Rancho as they grieve the loss of an officer in the line of duty. We are grateful to Officer Gregg Benner for his years of service in the military and for serving his community with honor and courage. We will hold him and his family in our thoughts and prayers.”
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas released this statement:
“Everyone at the Office of the Attorney General offers their heartfelt condolences to Officer Benner’s wife and children, as well as to his fellow officers in Rio Rancho. We are eternally grateful for his selfless and honorable service to his community and his country.”
A candlelight vigil honored Officer Benner at the Rotary BBQ Pavilion at Haynes Park at 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday.
Hundreds came together at Haynes Park lighting candles in memory of Officer Gregg ‘Nigel’ Benner. After a 20-plus year serving in the US Air Force, Benner started a new career with Rio Rancho Police four years ago.
From neighbors, family, friends, co-workers, people say Benner made a lasting impact on the community. A local gas station clerk says she’ll miss his smile.
Law enforcement from around the nation paid their respects. The Officer Down Memorial Page has posts from New York to Los Angeles with comments including “your sacrifice won’t be forgotten”.
Previous Police Shootings
New Mexico police have had several other tragedies in the line of duty in recent history.
Last year, Officer Anthony Haase was killed in a crash on a desolate road heading to a call. No one knows what caused him to roll his car.
In 2009, Joe Harris and his partner were working undercover in the Jemez Mountains trying to catch the so called cookie bandit, a thief who had been breaking into cabins. That man, Joseph Burgess, then shot and killed Harris during a struggle.
Three years earlier Bernalillo County Deputy James McGrane junior was ambushed during a traffic stop in Tijeras by Michael Astorga, a wanted felon.
In 2005, Officers Richard Smith and Michael King were ambushed by a mentally ill man by the name of John Hyde. They were among five people murdered by Hyde that day.
Eight years ago, Officer Germain Casey was killed in a crash at the Sunport when he hit a tree. Casey was serving in President Bush’s motorcade during a fundraising visit by the president.