A Durango man suspected of escaping from the La Plata County Jail and shooting a Farmington Police Department officer while on the lam has been sentenced to 10 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Elias Buck, 24, received the maximum penalty after signing a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque. His defense attorney argued for a downward departure from the maximum sentence – requesting seven years – but U.S. District Judge Kea W. Riggs denied the request.
Buck may face additional charges in San Juan County, New Mexico, for the Jan. 7, 2022, officer-involved shooting. Prosecutors previously charged Buck with aggravated battery upon a peace officer with a deadly weapon, but they dropped the charge to allow the federal case to be adjudicated.
The state intends to refile charges, but a final decision won’t be made until prosecutors meet with the Farmington Police Department and potential witnesses, said Dustin O’Brien, chief deputy district attorney with New Mexico’s 11th Judicial District, during an interview Wednesday.
Before the charges were dropped, Buck faced six years in prison for assault on a peace officer, three years for being in possession of a firearm and 18 months for tampering with evidence.
“Unfortunately, it’s not a very serious crime in New Mexico, which is kind of frustrating,” O’Brien said of assault on a police officer.
A six-page sentencing memorandum filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque reveals new details about the officer-involved shooting.
Events leading up to the shooting began Dec. 27, 2021, when Buck allegedly escaped from the La Plata County Jail by climbing a fence and running on foot. He was being held on suspicion of motor vehicle theft.
Eleven days later, on Jan. 7, 2022, a Starbucks employee in Farmington reported a man driving a black Cadillac who appeared to be intoxicated. Farmington police located the vehicle between 11 and 11:30 p.m. while it was still in the drive-thru lane of the coffee shop. As the vehicle exited, police activated lights and sirens, but the Cadillac sped away, according to a sentencing memorandum in the federal case.
“Officers did not know it then, but the driver was the defendant, Elias Buck, a man who had escaped from a Durango jail,” the memo says.
Farmington Police Department Officer Joseph Barreto observed the vehicle as it wove through a parking lot and traveled at a high rate of speed on a main thoroughfare. Barreto discontinued his pursuit because of the driver’s erratic driving behavior.
Officers later located the vehicle in the parking lot of a Carl’s Jr. restaurant. By that time, Buck had fled the vehicle on foot.
Barreto also exited his vehicle and was trying to establish a perimeter when he observed a man and a woman walking toward him. Barreto said both seemed to be out of breath, as if they had been running. As they drew closer, Barreto said he recognized the man as Elias Buck.
Barreto asked the man and the woman to sit on the ground, and Buck asked if they were being detained. Buck then pulled a pistol from his pocket, pointed it toward the officer’s face and pulled the trigger, according to the sentencing memorandum.
“Officer Barreto saw the muzzle flash, and then everything went white,” the memo says.
The officer said the muzzle was about a foot from his face.
“He could feel the bullet fly by and described that the pressure from the blast hit him in the face due to the close proximity,” the sentencing memo says.
Reflexively, the officer raised his arm to shield his face. Buck fired at least two more rounds before running into the dark.
Barreto returned fire but did not hit Buck or his companion. Miraculously, the officer was struck only in the right elbow.
“If it had not been for Officer Barreto’s reflex to put his arms up, the defendant would be facing life in prison for murdering a police officer,” the sentencing memo says.
Buck became the subject of an intense search by law enforcement. Seven days after the officer-involved shooting, on Jan. 14, 2022, a security guard at a QuickTrip convenience store in Phoenix recognized him, and he was arrested a short time later after attempting to flee, “earning a charge of aggravated assault on a peace officer.”
Prosecutors did not hold back in asking for the maximum penalty.
“His actions thus far have contributed nothing to society and have made his community a more dangerous place to live,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Letitia Carroll Simms wrote in the sentencing memo. “He not only causes mayhem himself but threatens the lives and security of the people whose job it is to keep his community safe. The United States sees no redeemable qualities in his background.”
In requesting leniency, defense attorney Nicole W. Moss said Buck had a “chaotic and unstable childhood.”
“In the days leading up to the underlying offense, Mr. Buck was homeless, unemployed, estranged from his family, and addicted to fentanyl, which he was using several times a day,” the defense lawyer wrote in a sentencing memo. “The fentanyl caused him to become paranoid and suffer from hallucinations.”
In a news release Wednesday, the Farmington Police Department said Officer Barreto has made significant progress since the shooting.
“FPD was very pleased with the sentence, and we very much appreciate Judge Riggs and Assistant U.S. Attorney Simms efforts on this case,” the release said.