• J.R. Lonsway

The Tai Chan Case

It's bad enough when a cop killer walks free, doubly so when the accused is a fellow cop.


If you're not from Las Cruces here is a quick breakdown. On October 28, 2014, deputies Jeremy Martin and Tai Chan of the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office were assigned to prisoner transport duties. They had dropped off a prisoner in Safford, AZ, and were driving back to Santa Fe when they decided to spend the night at the Hotel Encanto in Las Cruces. The hotel is arguably the nicest in Las Cruces. It is a former Hilton property.


Chan and Martin got to drinking at an Irish pub on University Avenue and were pretty well liquored up by late in the evening. They got into an argument in the pub and the staff had to come between them. The two deputies left the premises and drove back to the hotel where the verbal dispute escalated into fisticuffs. Several guests were awakened by male voices yelling on the seventh floor, which was followed by multiple gunshots.


LCPD responded. Their investigation revealed that ten shots had been fired from a semiautomatic handgun. Five of those bullets struck Martin in the back. Chan was identified by hotel guests in adjoining rooms as holding a handgun when they peeked out to see what was happening. Chan never disputed that he fired the weapon at his fellow deputy, but insisted it was in self-defense. He was found hiding in a stairwell by LCPD officers.


There are other details to the case, but basically that is it in a nutshell. The DAs office charged Chan with murder and took the case to trial. It ended in a mistrial because at least one juror was not convinced that Chan murdered Martin. A couple of years later the case was retried with the same result. To complicate matters, the trial judge in the second hearing erred and failed to give the jury certain instructions mandated by the New Mexico Supreme Court. Because of that error, Chan could not be charged with murder in his third trial, but that became a moot point because, ultimately, the DAs office announced yesterday that they would not go to trial a third time.


I'm old school. If two men get into an argument and one guy pulls a gun and the other turns and runs for his life, and the guy with the gun shoots the unarmed man in the back five times, that's murder. Apparently two juries didn't see it that way, but Las Cruces juries can be quirky.


In the 1990s an LCPD officer pulled over a motorist for having a headlight out (I wrote about this incident in TWENTY). The officer was African-American and the suspect was a white male in his sixties. The motorist was immediately uncooperative and confrontational. The officer called for backup and it came in the form of another African-American officer.


The motorist pulled a handgun and shot the officer who had initiated the stop in the neck. He tried to shoot the other officer who had grabbed him from behind but was unsuccessful, and with the help of bystanders courageous enough to jump in, the suspect was taken into custody.


The officer who was shot lived, and the case went to trial. Actually, it went to three trials. In the first two hearings, at least one juror decided that there was not enough evidence to find the motorist guilty. His defense was that he was scared and felt threatened by the officers, so he pulled his gun and fired on them in self-defense! He was convicted of the shooting in the third trial.


My point here is that the charges against Chan should not have been dropped. The DAs office could have pursued a charge of voluntary manslaughter, or at least aggravated battery. Instead, they shrug their shoulders and say oh, well.


I've been critical of the DAs office because they charged an LCPD officer with involuntary manslaughter for using a vascular neck restraint on a suspect more than three months after the suspect died, even after the Chief Deputy DA said that the officer's actions were justified. The officer was charged after George Floyd died at the hands of Derek Chauvin in Minnesota. A few weeks later the DAs office gave up the case to the New Mexico Attorney General's office, who charged the officer with 2nd degree murder. Still no explanation from the DA as to why he gave up the case, other than in the "interests of justice."


Does our DAs office just feel that they can't win a homicide case? They lost a murder case in March, in which a suspect was found not guilty in a shooting at a party on Monte Vista street where a 14 year old girl died. They lost again on a 2nd degree murder charge on Willow Street, which was a stabbing. They lost another one that was a shooting at a carwash located at Valley & Hadley. There was an acquittal of a man charged with murder in a stabbing on El Centro Boulevard on the East Mesa. That suspect was doing time for a drive-by shooting when he was acquitted. There was a 2014 acquittal on a murder charge from a 2008 case. In several of these cases the suspect was a known gang member.


To be fair, the DAs office has won some cases, but to give up on a case where a deputy is shot in the back five times? That's not right. It's not right for the victim, his wife and children, and "the interests of justice."








J.R. Lonsway served 22 years with the Las Cruces, New Mexico, police department and retired as a Deputy Chief of Police. After retirement he served with the U.S. Department of State as a police advisor in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Liberia, Haiti, Lebanon, and South Sudan. He is a former U.S. Marine.

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