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Drone helps find suspect hiding under cloak of darkness north of Durango

Aztec man accused of stealing pickup, leading police on chase
Law enforcement used a drone with night vision to help arrest a man suspected of vehicular theft. (Courtesy of Durango Police Department)

La Plata County Sheriff’s deputy Steven Reiter was patrolling U.S. Highway 550 near Hermosa on Monday night when he spotted a Ford F-150 with no taillights traveling southbound at 90 mph.

Reiter turned on his emergency lights and siren and gave chase in a pursuit that continued at high speeds northbound on County Road 203 and then onto Hermosa Creek Road (County Road 201). Deputy Reiter broke off pursuit along Hermosa Creek because of the danger of driving fast on a gravel road. And because the road dead ends.

During the pursuit, Durango Police Department officers learned the pickup had been stolen from the 700 block of East Third Avenue in Durango.

Reiter was joined by four other deputies about 1½ miles up Hermosa Creek, and a spike strip was deployed. It wasn’t long before the driver of the pickup, later identified as Ronnie James, 48, came back down the road and blew all four tires on the truck when he hit the strip.

James then ran from the vehicle and into thick brush where deputies lost sight of him. That’s when they called Durango police officer and drone pilot Dan Kellermeyer who arrived on scene at 8:50 p.m.

Within three minutes of liftoff the infrared camera on the drone, which detects heat, located James hiding 30 yards west of the road. Deputies closed in and arrested him without further incident.

James’ last known address was in Aztec. Whether he has any prior criminal history is not yet known, said representatives at DPD and the Sheriff’s Office. He was charged with aggravated motor vehicle theft and vehicular eluding, both felonies.

“We’ve had some good wins with the drone, as far as looking for bad guys,” Kellermeyer said. “We found the woman who escaped from the hospital who was an FBI fugitive. I don’t remember the exact dates but I believe it was in March or April that we captured some armed robbery suspects on the river trail using the drone.”

In a release issued by DPD about the arrest, the drone is praised as a “great piece of technology that serves the whole community” and that the department wants the community to know how it will be utilized.

Kellermeyer elaborated on that while talking with The Durango Herald about the incident.

“I think when people hear drone, or especially in a government use, there’s maybe some concerns that some people have,” Kellermeyer said. “And we want people to know that we are intentional about the way we are building our policies and using drones to focus on public safety. We are not doing random surveillance or looking for crime. We solely deploy the drone in response to specific incidents in progress.”

In addition to searching for suspected offenders, the DPD’s four drones can be deployed for missing persons, search and rescue, hazardous spills, disaster response, and crash investigations.

“We’ve put the drone out on three different fatal accidents that we’ve had in the city,” Kellermeyer said. “And it only takes six or seven minutes to take a bunch of photographs on that scene that we can then take back to our office and stitch together into a map and do our measurements on that model, as opposed to spending an hour-and-a-half on scene doing manual measurements of everything. So that significantly cuts down on the amount of time that we’re processing accidents.”

In the release about the incident, Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer praised the teamwork between the DPD and Sheriff’s Office.

“It’s also a reminder that residents need to lock their cars and secure keys to help prevent these types of crimes,” he said.

gjaros@durangoherald.com

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