Was a rookie police officer’s apparent suicide really murder?
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:
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:
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.
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:
By 7:00, Steve was alone at the station and spoke with his girlfriend, Michelle Sturtevant, in nearby Bosque Farms, New Mexico:
Approximately 45 minutes later, at 7:45, Chief Carson learned that Steve had been shot:
Chief Carson also believed that if Steve’s death wasn’t a suicide, then it was a tragic accident:
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:
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:
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:
Soon after talking to his father, Steve was questioned by James Scarantino of the New Mexico Attorney General’s office:
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:
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:
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?
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.