Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Albuquerque police say Kenneth Reiss told three officers “you’re not cops” and fired his pistol at them from behind a vehicle before they returned fire, killing the 40-year-old near his University-area home early last month.
In the minutes that followed, officers discussed whether any other suspects were at large and if the man they just shot was the same person who called them for help.
Reiss had called 911 and reported that two people broke into his home, but police say “so far” they have found no evidence of a home invasion.
In an update Friday afternoon, the Albuquerque Police Department shared lapel footage, 911 calls and their narrative of two separate fatal police shootings, of Reiss and Jose Vallejos, 48, that occurred within five hours of each other between Aug. 10 and 11.
“We are still at the very early stages of this investigation. Our understanding of this incident may change as additional evidence is collected, analyzed and reviewed,” APD Chief Michael Geier said in a recorded statement. “We also do not draw any conclusions about whether the officers acted consistent with our policies and the law until all the facts are known and the investigation is complete.”
The shootings were the fifth and sixth by Albuquerque police this year. Two of the previous shootings – that of Orlando Abeyta, who police say was waving what turned out to be a BB gun at an East Central bus stop, and Valente Acosta-Bustillos, who police say swung a shovel at them during a welfare check that turned into an arrest – were fatal.
Both of the August shootings will be reviewed by the Internal Affairs Force Division and the Force Review Board before a final review by a special prosecutor from the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
Warning: this video contains graphic content
Lt. Scott Norris identified the officers who shot Reiss as James Morehead, Jacob Smith and Maxwell Smith. They all were hired on the same date, in December 2017, and none had been in a prior police shooting.
The shooting caused an uproar in the community as those who knew Reiss, the beloved part-owner and frequent bartender of a University-area tavern, cast doubt on APD’s actions and blasted their narrative that Reiss fired a gun at officers.
The incident unfolded around 12:20 a.m. when 911 calls began rolling in of people screaming and gunfire in the 2700 block of Garfield, near Girard.
One of those callers was Reiss, who told dispatchers in a 911 call that two men broke into his home and threatened him with guns.
He told the dispatcher he fired at both men, and may have shot them, and the dispatcher told him to hide when he said someone was coming out of his house.
Reiss said he was in trouble with some “bum skinhead punks” after a fight over a woman the previous weekend and that the woman was still inside his house.
In the 911 call Reiss is heard telling someone “if they’re not cops we’re in trouble” and the dispatcher tried to get Reiss’ description, told him that officers were arriving and to put the gun down but got no response.
Norris said they believe he put his phone in his pocket at that time.
At around 12:30 a.m., he said five officers began walking west down Garfield from Girard and heard a gunshot. Police believe, “unbeknownst” to officers at the time, that gunshot was when Reiss accidentally shot himself in the thigh.
Norris said officers announced themselves at that time and did not get a response.
As police moved down Garfield, they saw Reiss’ front door open, with nobody inside, and multiple bullet holes in the house as well as shell casings on the ground. Officers Morehead, Jacob Smith and Maxwell Smith saw a man running south on Princeton and found another man, a witness, on the steps of a nearby apartment.
Norris said the witness told police the man who was running had been hurt and, when they asked, told them the injured man had a gun. The officers followed a blood trail south on Princeton, and Norris said, believed they were chasing the suspect of the home invasion.
In a lapel video released by APD, the officers find Reiss hiding behind a vehicle along Princeton and, without identifying themselves as officers, they yell, “Let me see your hands” repeatedly. The officers fan out with their weapons drawn and Reiss can be heard saying something back, Norris said it was “no, you’re not cops, no, you’re not cops.”
Norris said officer Maxwell Smith told investigators he saw Reiss peek his head up near the hood, stare at him, and lower it back down. Smith said Reiss then lifted his gun over the hood and fired one shot before all three officers opened fire.
The muzzle flash of Reiss’ gun is indistinguishable in the lapel video provided by APD but Norris said police recovered a single casing from Reiss’ gun at the scene of the shooting.
After the initial burst of gunfire, Norris said the officers saw Reiss with his hand over the handgun and told him “drop it” repeatedly before officer Maxwell Smith fired four more shots.
In the lapel video Reiss is sitting on the ground screaming, and moving his hands along the ground near the gun, but it is unclear if he grabs the pistol or was trying to before being shot again.
As the officers cuff Reiss’ motionless body – clad in a backwards cap, camouflage shorts and a Black Sabbath T-shirt – they appear to talk about the possibility of other suspects in the area.
A few minutes later, an officer asks “is this our caller?”
Another officer replies, “I don’t know.”
Norris said police have not found any evidence of a home invasion, or anyone besides Reiss in the home, prior to the shooting.
He said none of Reiss’ neighbors reported seeing anyone else in the area, nobody was checked into the hospital for gunshot wounds and officers found no woman inside the house.
However, Norris said a woman Reiss was with the previous weekend told police the pair had been drinking for “two days” and Reiss had also done cocaine. The woman said Reiss had been acting paranoid and she believed he was using meth.
Toxicology reports are still pending.
Norris said the woman was not with Reiss the night of the shooting and had been checked into the hospital the morning before, which police confirmed.
Officers found nine shell casings inside and outside the house and Norris said forensic investigators confirmed they all matched Reiss’ gun.
Additionally, police say Reiss called 911 in May 2020 to report someone with a rifle outside of his home, but officers did not locate any suspects or evidence to “substantiate the claim.”
Despite the conflicting reports, Norris said the investigation is not over.
“It’s something that we’re going to continue to explore because we believe that that’s just as important as the actual officer-involved shooting,” he said.
Rachel Higgins, an attorney for Reiss’ estate, said the briefing “raises more questions than answers.”
“Mr. Reiss’s family and friends are not at all confident that this investigation has revealed the truth of what happened the night Mr. Reiss was killed,” she said.
Higgins called the drug use allegations “speculative” as toxicology has not been released but said the briefing did clear up a few points; that Reiss was hiding because dispatch told him to and that officers did not identify themselves as police before opening fire.
“What has not changed is Mr. Reiss’ family’s utter disbelief that Mr. Reiss would or did shoot at officers before being killed,” Higgins said. “None of the information provided in today’s briefing established this allegation. Rather, what little information was provided confirms that Mr. Reiss called APD for help, followed dispatch’s instructions, and was not provided police announcements before he was shot 14 times and killed by the officers who were dispatched to assist him.”
West Side police shooting
Warning: this video contains graphic content
Several hours before Reiss was shot, on Aug. 10, Lt. Jose Sanchez shot and killed Jose Vallejos during a neighbor dispute in a West Side neighborhood near Taylor Ranch.
Norris said Sanchez was hired in 2006 and had not been involved in any prior shootings.
Around 8 p.m. officers responded to Sooner Trail NW after a man reported that Vallejos was pointing a gun at him. Norris said the caller told dispatch his daughter was also there, in his vehicle outside the house.
Norris said arriving officers identified themselves as police before telling Vallejos to put down the gun and they stopped to observe the situation at a home 75 yards away. From there, he said police repeatedly told Vallejos to put his hands up but Vallejos pointed the gun at the caller and, believing the caller would be shot, Sanchez fired and fatally struck Vallejos.
After the incident, Norris said the caller told investigators he and his daughter were leaving a party at a friend’s house when he was confronted by Vallejos. The caller, who was armed with a handgun, went inside to call police and came back out to find Vallejos had armed himself.
He said the caller drew his weapon and, along with arriving officers, told Vallejos to drop his gun. The caller told police Vallejos pointed the gun at him and officers before being fatally shot.
“The caller and his family were innocent bystanders in an ongoing dispute between Vallejos and his neighbors,” Norris said.
In the lapel footage, you see officers approach as they yell for a man to drop a gun.
Amid yells for Vallejos to drop the gun, you hear Sanchez say “he’s pointing it” before firing two shots at Vallejos.