Investigation

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection mobile unit is parked in a cordoned-off area of the Walmart parking lot in Nogales on Monday night as troopers from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, which is leading the investigation, stand nearby. 

Law enforcement agencies are keeping a tight lid on information related to Monday's pursuit of an 18-wheeler that ended with police shooting and killing the driver in Nogales.

“We are not planning to put out a narrative,” said spokesman Bart Graves of the Arizona Department of Pubic Safety, the agency that’s leading the investigation.

Referring to the Nogales Police Department and Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, Graves said that “for specifics, you would need to contact the two law enforcement agencies involved in the incident."

But apart from providing a few brief responses, NPD and Sheriff’s Office officials have referred most questions back to DPS as the agency leading the investigation. That even includes internal administrative questions, such as whether any officers involved in the shooting have been put on leave.

D. Brian Burghart, a former newspaper editor who runs a nonprofit organization called Fatal Encounters that tracks police-involved deaths, called it “a new police protocol” to withhold information that should be made public.

“Some agencies have chosen to be more open with the data, which I can tell you has diminished community anger about certain killings and diminishes anger toward police in general,” Burghart wrote in an email, adding: “Fear fills the vacuum created by secrecy and ignorance about the facts of a police-related killing.”

The lack of information from official sources regarding Monday's incident has made it difficult to confirm or dispel some of the rumors that have swirled around it – including one that was apparently fueled by a online photo from a 2018 incident in Michigan involving a semi-truck hauling circus tigers.

And while a multitude of cellphone videos, along with eyewitness accounts and the limited comments made by police officials in the midst of the incident, have helped piece together a story of what happened, the absence of key information from law enforcement has made it more difficult to understand why it happened.

Here’s a rundown of what the NI has been able to learn so far, and what remains unclear:

Where and how did the pursuit start?

Both Nogales Police Chief Roy Bermudez and Sheriff David Hathaway told the NI on Monday afternoon that they weren’t sure how the pursuit of the semi-truck began. But a Sheriff’s Office dispatch report shows a call received at 12:37 p.m. from someone at a produce warehouse in Rio Rico reporting that a semi-truck was parked on the property without authorization. The vehicle was blocking the dock area and the driver was refusing to move, the caller said.

It’s not clear what happened when deputies responded, or if there might have been other issues with the semi-truck prior to the 911 call. But video footage circulating on social media shows a semi-truck rolling away from a warehouse area in the vicinity of where the complaint call was made. Two police officers in uniforms matching those worn by sheriff’s deputies backpedal in front of it, their weapons drawn and one pointing a gun at the truck. A Border Patrol pickup is stopped nearby and an agent is standing and watching from the open passenger-side door.

The rig stops briefly, then pulls onto East Frontage Road heading south as the deputies dash toward their SUV.

5 Rio Rico screengrab.jpg

This cellphone video screengrab shows the semi-truck, at far right, starting to pull out of a warehouse area in Rio Rico, observed by two sheriff’s deputies with their weapons drawn and a Border Patrol agent standing by his vehicle.

Asked on Tuesday if the truck driver had produced a weapon, which might explain why the deputies had their guns drawn, Lt. Raoul Rodriguez of the Sheriff’s Office said he was unable to provide further details and cited the ongoing criminal investigation that’s being handled by an outside agency, referring to DPS.

After leaving Rio Rico, the semi-truck apparently headed north on Interstate 19.

In a brief statement issued Tuesday, the Border Patrol said its agents had “assisted” the Sheriff’s Office as deputies pursued the vehicle northbound on the interstate, “but terminated their involvement when the vehicle changed direction and headed south on I-19.”

The statement did not specify where the rig changed direction and headed back south. However, community members reported traffic delays and a possible crime scene investigation on Monday afternoon on the south side of the Border Patrol checkpoint north of Tubac. The Border Patrol did not respond to a follow-up request to confirm if the semi-truck turned around at the checkpoint.

Who was driving the semi-truck?

After initially declining to identify the driver of the truck, DPS said Wednesday that he was 39-year-old Glen Ray Cockrum, and that his hometown was unavailable.

Radio station KTLO in north-central Arkansas reported that Cockrum had ties to that area, and that his last known address was in Clinton, Ark. Loved ones said he had recently moved to Florida.

The truck he was driving on Monday bore the logo of a logistics company based in the Midwest. The NI reached the owner of the company on Tuesday, who said he was aware of the incident in Nogales and knew the driver personally. However, he did not want to provide any information or comment for this story.

Police have not said if any cargo was in the trailer, though family members said they believed it was empty because Cockrum had just dropped off one load in Rio Rico and was waiting to pick up another.

What happened when the semi reached Nogales?

By the time the southbound semi-truck reached Nogales city limits, officers from the Nogales Police Department were waiting at the interstate off-ramps and took over the pursuit from the Sheriff’s Office and DPS troopers, who had joined in as well.

Bermudez told the NI shortly after the incident that he thought the truck had left the interstate at Exit 4 and headed toward Grand Avenue. However, video and eyewitness accounts suggest it took Exit 8 and drove straight down Grand before turning into the busy Walmart parking lot and coming to a stop near the western entrance to the store.

One video on social media showed the vehicle driving south on Grand past the intersection with Mariposa Road, traveling at a speed that appeared to be above the posted limit. An eyewitness at Walmart said the rig entered the lot driving recklessly.

It was now approximately 1:40 p.m., and at this point, a reporter from the NI had arrived at the scene and witnessed law enforcement officers swarming the parking lot and directing shoppers out of the way as they drew their weapons. 

Why did the police start shooting? 

Minutes after the driver made a full stop, he slowly began to accelerate over a spike strip the police had laid in front of the truck's tires. That’s when the officers opened fire as shoppers rushed for cover, some leaving their groceries behind. 

“At that time he was putting our community in danger and deadly force was used,” Bermudez said when reached by phone later that afternoon.

The gunfire began with the truck moving at a crawl in a parking lot with many civilians around. How might those circumstances play into an investigation into whether the shooting was justified?

“This is where department policy is important,” said Michael S. Scott, a former police officer and current professor at the school of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University.

“Usually, police department policies do instruct officers to be mindful of the risks posed to innocent bystanders by their use of deadly force. Also, some department policies require officers to use the least amount of force reasonably necessary to effect the arrest; other agencies have no such language,” Scott wrote in an email. “Also, some agencies prohibit officers from shooting at or from moving vehicles (because it is very hard to be accurate and because, if the driver is struck by a gunshot and incapacitated, the vehicle becomes an out-of-control lethal threat to others); but some agencies do not have such restrictions.”

“In all cases, all circumstances surrounding the use of force are taken into consideration when determining whether, under either the law or department policy, the use of force was reasonable and justified,” he said.

The first round of shooting did not stop the truck or its driver, nor did the spike strips. The rig drove past the front of the store and hit an NPD vehicle while moving at a slow rate of speed, continuing towards the traffic light on Mastick Way as some officers followed by foot. The truck’s windshield was pockmarked with bullet holes.

Truck

The semi-truck heads for the exit of the Walmart parking lot, with bullet holes visible in its windshield.

Another video shows the tractor-trailer skidding down White Park Drive with police vehicles in pursuit, sirens wailing. A little more than 30 seconds after the semi-truck turns right on Grand Avenue, the sound of dozens of shots fills the air.

Still another video recorded by someone who was stopped in a vehicle on Grand Avenue with a straight-on view of the damaged semi-truck shows it moving south at a slow speed. As it crawls past a line of police vehicles stationed along the center of the roadway – though not blocking the truck's path – the police open fire, with bullets striking the truck and the dirt cliff on the side of the road. 

When the firing stops, police swarm the cab of the vehicle.

In his comments to the NI on Monday afternoon, Bermudez, who was present at the scene of the second shooting, said that “the driver stopped in the middle of the road ... he could not go on anymore." He did not mention that police had fired on the truck at that location as well as the Walmart lot.

The driver, now known to be Cockrum, was taken from the scene to Holy Cross Hospital, where he was reportedly declared dead on arrival.

Shooting

A screengrab from a cellphone video showing the moment at which police opened fire on the semi-truck as it slowly rolled along Grand Avenue.

Was the second shooting on Grand Avenue justified?

Up to the point at which the shooting on Grand Avenue took place, Cockrum had run into a police vehicle at Walmart, but there is no confirmation so far that he was responsible for directly causing any injuries.

Rumors have circulated that an NPD officer was struck in the leg at some point by the truck and required medical attention. However, NPD Assistant Chief Carlos Jimenez said that while an officer did sustain a muscle injury as he was running to this vehicle to assist with the incident, “It has nothing to do with the semi … it was indirectly related.”

Still, could any previous threats from Cockrum – perhaps at the warehouse in Rio Rico – or his previous refusal to come to a stop and surrender, be justifiable cause for police to have opened fire on Grand Avenue? The truck was badly hobbled by that point as it putted slowly down the road.

Scott, the police shooting expert at ASU, said the driver's previous actions “can and should be considered for the purpose of judging what level of threat the driver and the vehicle posed to the police and the public.”

“Driving at high speeds, refusing to stop, driving recklessly, driving through barricades or other devices, firing a gun from the vehicle, etc., all can inform the judgment of the police as to whether deadly force is necessary,” he continued.

Videos of the final confrontation do not provide a clear view of Cockrum and what he was doing at the time. Police have not said if any weapons were found in his possession.

Walmart

The NPD vehicle on the right was struck by the semi as it left the Walmart parking lot. A piece of debris from the vehicle can be seen on the ground next to the SUV.

How many officers fired their weapons during the pursuit?

A brief DPS narrative released Wednesday said that officers from NPD and the Sheriff’s Office fired at and struck the driver in Nogales, but authorities have not provided the number of officers who fired their weapons during the course of the confrontation, and have declined to clarify if there was gunfire at any locations other than the Walmart parking lot and Grand Avenue.

Lt. Rodriguez of the Sheriff’s Office said on Tuesday that one deputy had been put on administrative leave following the incident – a common practice in the case of police shootings – but officials at NPD said that same day that none of their officers had been put on leave “as of yet.”

After the NI reached out again to Jimenez on Thursday with a series of questions about the case, including queries about the number of officers who fired their guns and if any had been put on leave to that point, he responded with a text message saying that he could not provide answers.

How long will the investigation take?

Fatal shootings by local law enforcement in Santa Cruz County are rare, so there’s not much precedent. But a recent incident – the first of its kind in more than a decade – gives some indication of how these investigations proceed.

In that case, a Sheriff’s Office deputy shot and killed a 32-year-old man on Dec. 25, 2020 after responding to a call that the man was attacking people at a home Rio Rico. Then-Sheriff Antonio Estrada offered a limited narrative of the incident in the immediate aftermath, but the Sheriff’s Office quickly stopped releasing information and deferred to the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, which led the subsequent investigation. Pima County officials referred questions back to the Sheriff’s Office.

Eleven days after the shooting, the Sheriff’s Office identified the man who was killed, and also named the officer who shot him. But no other significant information was released until after County Attorney George Silva sent Sheriff David Hathaway a letter on April 9 saying that the investigation had concluded and Silva had determined that the shooting was justified.

In that case, the investigation took three-and-a-half months to reach its conclusion. But that shooting involved a single officer firing his gun at a single location, and with a limited number of witnesses to interview. There was also no body-camera video, since local law enforcement officers don’t wear body cameras.

Scene

A police officer talks on the phone inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection trailer at the Walmart parking lot on Monday night.

The shooting on Monday in Nogales involved multiple crime scenes, numerous officers who fired their weapons and many witnesses to interview. There are also a significant number of cellphone videos of the various stages of the incident on social media that the investigators can review.

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