- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 26, 2015

RIO RANCHO, N.M. (AP) - A police officer in a suburb of Albuquerque decided to make one more traffic stop before his shift finished Monday night. It ended up costing him his life.

Rio Rancho Police Chief Michael Geier detailed the last moments of Officer Gregg Benner’s shift during a news conference Tuesday in which police identified a known gang member with an extensive criminal record that included a manslaughter conviction and weapons charges as the man suspected of fatally shooting the officer.

Andrew Romero, 28, was a passenger in the vehicle that Benner attempted to stop just after 8 p.m. Monday near a fast-food restaurant, Geier said.

“It started out as, for all practical purposes, a routine traffic stop, something our officers do daily,” the chief said. “Officer Benner is a hardworking, very motivated officer, so I believe he was just following up on inquiries he was making.”

After a short chase through a shopping center parking lot, the vehicle stopped near a library and post office. As Benner approached again, Geier said the passenger shot at the officer with a handgun.

Benner was hit multiple times in the torso and didn’t have a chance to draw his weapon, Geier said.

Benner fell to the ground, and a distress call went out over the radio, according to investigators. Within minutes, residents who were nearby and an off-duty paramedic came to the officer’s aid.

He later died at a hospital.

Before the shooting, a warrant had been issued for Romero for probation violations. The chief said during the news conference that charges related to the shooting were pending and that Romero could face both state and federal charges.

Romero was taken into custody in the Albuquerque area early Tuesday after he and a group of men were seen robbing a gas station. Several agencies helped with the arrest about 20 miles from where Benner was shot, Bernalillo County sheriff’s Sgt. Aaron Williamson said.

The investigation into the shooting and the robbery is ongoing, authorities said.

Benner, 49, was a military veteran who had been with the Rio Rancho Police Department for four years. He is survived by his wife and five adult children. He was expecting two grandchildren.

“As the wife and daughter of law enforcement officers, this terrible tragedy hits close to home and I am absolutely heartbroken,” New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez said in a statement. “Sadly, this underscores the danger that our police officers face every time they walk out the door to keep our families safe. As a former prosecutor, it is my hope that justice is served quickly.”

Rio Rancho Mayor Greggory Hull said the tight-knit city was mourning Benner’s death. “Our police officers hold a special place in our hearts as they lay their lives on the line every day protecting our safety and this is a stark reminder of their sacrifice,” Hull said in a statement.

At the shooting scene Tuesday, a maze of yellow crime-scene tape cordoned off the area between the library and post office. A makeshift memorial of flowers and American flags began to take shape by midday as investigators worked to unravel the events that led to the shooting. Dozens of small cones placed throughout the crime scene marked pieces of potential evidence.

At police headquarters in the usually sleepy bedroom community, flags flew at half-staff.

“It’s been a jolt to the community,” said City Councilor Dawnn Robinson, who noted that people move to Rio Rancho because it’s quiet.

The Rio Rancho Police Department was founded in 1981, and its last officer to die in the line of duty was killed in a car crash in October 2014 while responding to a domestic violence call.

Hull ordered all flags in the city to fly at half-staff in honor of Benner. A candlelight vigil was planned for Tuesday night at one of the city’s parks.

___

Follow Russell Contreras at https://twitter.com/russcontreras.

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