Was a rookie police officer’s apparent suicide really murder?

Steve Sandlin

Steve was pronounced dead at the scene

CASE DETAILS

He staked out bars, and busted drunk drivers

Everybody who knew Steve Sandlin said he was born to be a policeman.  His father was a career law enforcement officer and Steve planned to follow in his footsteps.  In March of 1988, when he was 21-years-old, Steve announced to his family that he had been accepted as a member of the Mountainair Police Department.  But in the early evening of May 7, 1988, while Steve was working alone in the police station, his dream came to a violent end.  David Carson was the Police Chief:

“I can’t recall the exact wording by the individual that notified us, but when we arrived, he mentioned something about Steve upstairs, a gun and blood and didn’t know if it was a joke or real or what.  We had our weapons drawn.  We weren’t sure what we were walking into.  And I went to Steve.  And asked him what happened.  He was unresponsive, he was breathing but he never did say anything.  We immediately called emergency services and ambulance personnel and they started their life saving operation to try and save the officer’s life.  He was still alive at that time.  They were in the process of trying to start an IV and shortly thereafter Officer Sandlin expired.  He was pronounced dead by the doctor here at the scene.”

Steve’s work led to a $100,000 drug bust

Steve Sandlin had only been on the force for eight weeks.  His gun was found by his side.  Police believed the fatal bullet had been fired from his own weapon.  Most concluded that Steve’s death was either accidental or a suicide.  However, Steve’s mother Eileen disagreed with the theory that her son took his own life:

“Those who knew Steve know that there is no way that it could’ve been a suicide or even accidental shooting.  We believe Steve was murdered and we believe there was a conspiracy to do so.”

The death of Steve Sandlin has ignited a controversy that has reached beyond his grieving family.  There are those who believe that not only was Steve murdered, but that his killer’s identity has been deliberately covered up by law enforcement officials.

“… someone killed Sandlin intentionally”

The afternoon of Steve’s death, May 7th, he returned to an empty police station after arguing with Chief Carson over some traffic tickets Steve had written:

“What I told Steve was, Steve, slow down some, you can’t catch everybody.  That’s not your role.  Just take it easy.  And he seemed a little down about that.  He wasn’t chewed out.  It was just a conversation.”

By 7:00, Steve was alone at the station and spoke with his girlfriend, Michelle Sturtevant, in nearby Bosque Farms, New Mexico:

“We were making plans for the next day.  She said that Chief Carson yelled at him, told him to go back into the station.  And so he was kind of mad about that.  And he said if they want him to be a security guard that he would sit up in the station and be a security guard.  And while I was talking to him, a lady’s voice come in.  He muffled the phone.  I couldn’t hear what was said.  But it sounded like he was getting loud and like she was yelling at him.  And he said it was no big deal and he said he had to go.”

Approximately 45 minutes later, at 7:45, Chief Carson learned that Steve had been shot:

“I saw no evidence of any confrontation, no shots fired, nothing.  And from an average person’s point of view, it was apparently a suicide.”

Chief Carson also believed that if Steve’s death wasn’t a suicide, then it was a tragic accident:

“There was information that came to us that he was prone to play with his gun.  I can see the possibility that perhaps he was playing with his gun and I think that that probably is the strongest possibility in Steve Sandlin’s death. The possibility of it going off is tremendous.”

Steve Sandlin was given an autopsy, but the results were inconclusive.  Some believe that the gun may have been as much as two feet away from Steve’s head when it was fired—an unusual distance for a self-inflicted wound.  Secondly, there were only insignificant traces of gunpowder found on Steve’s hand—an unusually small amount if Steve had fired the fatal shot.  Despite this evidence, the state Attorney General refused to rule out suicide.  Frustrated with the finding, Steve’s father Tom, and the rest of the family began their own investigation:

“Steve’s death was a homicide.  I think they killed him to keep him quiet of something he may have known that was going on down in Mountainair.”

The family’s investigation uncovered a strong motive for Steve’s murder.  After only a few weeks on the job, Steve had begun to go out on patrol alone, sometimes waiting outside a local bar for drunk drivers.  On the night of April 11th, just one month before his death, Steve pulled over a drunk driver and found that he was also in possession of marijuana.  The man was arrested and the following day his home was searched.   Police seized fifty-four pounds of marijuana worth more than $100,000.  According to Chief Carson, within days of the arrest, Steve received death threats:

“It wasn’t possible to trace these threats, mysterious phone calls, these kinds of things.  We were all familiar with these types of threats, especially after we started arresting drug dealers and so forth.  They became amplified.”

At the time Steve was killed, the Mountainair Police Department was being investigated for mishandling evidence.  According to his father, Tom, Steve was frustrated with the department:

“The last time I spoke to Steven, he indicated that there was something going on that he did not agree with down in Mountainair.  He asked me what I would do in that situation. And I basically told him to tell the truth.”

Soon after talking to his father, Steve was questioned by James Scarantino of the New Mexico Attorney General’s office:

“I think someone killed Steve Sandlin intentionally.  I say that because there’s no evidence of a suicide.  There’s no evidence it was accidental. And there’s very strong persuasive evidence that he was murdered and that his murder was planned.”

Shortly after his death, Steve’s house was searched by police.  Three days later, his family arrived to pack up his belongings.  In a kitchen drawer, Steve’s mother found several bags of marijuana:

“And Ed looked at us and said, they’ve already searched the house, what’s this stuff doing here.  He said they couldn’t possibly have missed this.  And they couldn’t have.  You just opened the drawer and there it was.  It wasn’t hidden.  It wasn’t disguised in any way.  It was just there.”

Steve always recorded information about his traffic stops on a small tape recorder.  In her search, Steve’s mother discovered that all of his taped cassettes were missing:

“This whole case is like a big spider web.  And it has tentacles, you go one direction and there are five more places to look.”

There are many disturbing questions in the case.  If Steve was murdered, who pulled the trigger?  Who planted the marijuana found in his house?  And finally, are members of the Mountainair Police Department hiding information about Steve’s death?

Update:

Authorities have learned that five months before Steve Sandlin was killed, law enforcement received a tip that a police officer was going to be shot by drug dealers.  Lacking specifics, police were unable to take action.  Steve’s death has been officially reclassified as a homicide.  Recently, his name was added to a memorial to New Mexico police officers killed in the line of duty.  The case remains unsolved.


Watch this case now on Amazon Prime in season two with Robert Stack and season seven with Dennis Farina. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina. Various seasons available now on Hulu

SUBMIT A TIP

 

12 Comments

  1. Rudy Gregory

    Does anyone have a link to the episode? I can’t find it anywhere.

    Reply

    • Unsolved Mysteries

      Unsolved Mysteries Post author

      You can find this case in S2:E16 with Robert Stack on Amazon Prime, Hulu & Roku. Also in S7:E5 with Dennis Farina on YouTube, Amazon Prime, Hulu & Roku.

      Reply

  2. Bill blaski

    Just watched this one and it screams cover up.

    Reply

  3. Anonymous

    I know what has happened to poor Stephen. I don’t know who to talk to because the officer involved are dirty. I never knew who to go to. I now know what the deal was between the cops and dealers. It includes five agencies in the area. An Stephen was an example comply or die.

    Reply

  4. Anonymous

    I know something about this case but it’s difficult to know WHO to talk to. So many of the LEOs were dirty. I know what was going on in Mountainair, Estancia and Santa Rosa. This involved a lot of money and dirty cops along with dealers. I kept this to my self for so long and now I’m sick and my mind drifts to Stephen and is it safe yet? This is a heavy guilt.

    Reply

  5. anonymous

    Does anyone know Dave Carson?

    Reply

  6. YOUfindem

    I’m not a cop but I do have a criminal justice background. The Mary jane they found in the kitchen drawer was a signature from the drug dealers letting everyone know that they were the ones that did it. Giving them street cred and power. They weren’t trying to set anybody up.

    Reply

    • brad wright

      yes he is my grandpaw on my dads side and he lives in lake Charles Louisiana and the reason my last name is different is because my dad canged his name

      Reply

  7. Dennis Schwab

    David Carson should be in jail. I am a step child of his and he has a abusive behavior. I feel bad for the family that Steve left behind. He left new Mexico and worked in lake charles louisiana as a jailer. Sad officials let Dave go. My prayers are with the family.

    Reply