While searching for a suspect last year near Navajo Lake in Southwest Colorado, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office quickly realized it would be much easier if it had a law enforcement helicopter.
Fortunately, its neighbor to the south, the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, just so happens to have such a helicopter, or, rather, two helicopters.
From the air, the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office surveyed the vast and remote land around Lake Navajo and quickly located the suspect at his campsite. The helicopter crew directed deputies on the ground to the suspect’s location, where he was arrested before being able to pack up and leave.
It is one of several examples of how the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office has assisted in the capture of criminal suspects in the Four Corners using its helicopter program.
The Sheriff’s Office has two military surplus Bell OH58 A+ Kiowa helicopters. The program, which has been in place since 1998, is based in San Juan County but is considered a regional asset, meaning pilots and the helicopters can assist missions throughout the area.
The aviation program employs two pilots and two tactical flight officers. TFOs run the mission equipment, like operating radios to speak with ground teams and working high-tech cameras to find addresses and specific latitudinal and longitudinal points. For example, in the search at Navajo Lake, TFOs worked to locate the suspect while the pilots flew the helicopter.
Pilots are cross-trained as TFOs and one of the TFOs is training to become a pilot.
The aviation program is responsible for a number of tasks, both within and outside San Juan County. Each week, a pilot and TFO take three scheduled patrol flights around a tri-city area: Aztec, Farmington and Bloomfield. The patrol flights are scheduled when air support is most typically needed, based on data from past incidents.
“We check all of our call logs, and we see when is the highest probability of the helicopter being utilized, and we schedule our patrol flights during that time,” said Detective Gary Mauldin, aviation unit supervisor.
On the patrol flights, the aviation team helps monitor drunken driving calls, violent crimes and armed robberies, Mauldin said. On the patrol flights, the aviation unit mostly serves as the eyes of the response team. The helicopter has advanced mapping systems and can help direct ground units. It has also ferried detectives to and from crime scenes.
Besides the regularly scheduled patrol flights, the aviation unit is on call 24/7 for other calls within the region where the helicopter is needed. Mauldin said most of the calls are related to search and rescue, including lost hikers, campers, hunters and crashed four-wheelers.
“We land more often than not if we find lost hikers and campers,” Mauldin said. “We generally land and render aid.”
The helicopters are also able to transport people who have been lost and found by the search crew.
The aviation unit also assists firefighters. For example, when a fire broke out a couple of years ago near Bloomfield, the aviation unit was able to help.
“We actually took spotters from the fire department up and they directed ground teams to control the fire,” Mauldin said. “We don’t have firefighting capabilities, but we are a platform for their spotters and some of their chiefs so they can direct their ground team.”
One of the helicopters in the fleet is equipped with night vision goggles, augmented reality mapping systems, a long-range loudhailer, SX5 search light and an infrared camera. The other is equipped with a search light and is mostly used for transporting people. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the unit had plans to acquire a new helicopter, but because of budget shortages related to the pandemic, those plans are on hold.
“Our plan is to continue using the two here until – when and if – things turn around,” Mauldin said.
Because the aviation unit is used across the region, it receives federal funding. Mauldin said the unit has responded to incidents in Colorado, Arizona, Utah and the Navajo Nation. The unit is available to any surrounding area that needs support.
The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office has requested assistance from the helicopter in the past, said Chris Burke, spokesman for the agency.
“Our agency will request assistance for an escapee from the jail or pursuit from one county to the next,” Burke wrote in an email to The Durango Herald.
In a search and rescue mission, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office will first call Flight For Life, and if that helicopter is in the middle of responding to a critical situation, the Sheriff’s Office will call San Juan County’s Aviation Unit.
“Oftentimes, a lost child or hunter can wind up in very rugged terrain that cannot be accessed by horseback or four-wheeler,” Burke said. “The helicopter can often save time and manpower and be on scene before a team can be assembled.”
Burke said La Plata County does not have its own aviation program because of the high costs associated with it. Part of the funding that San Juan County receives is because of its regional capacity.
“The San Juan County asset is greatly appreciated, and adds in efforts when time is a crucial factor in determining a location of an individual in a life or death situation,” Burke said.