- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

RIO RANCHO, N.M. (AP) - The fatal shooting of a police officer by a suspect described as a known gang member has shaken the normally quiet bedroom community of Rio Rancho - an Albuquerque suburb where people move to escape city life and where officers patrol in vehicles alone.

Flags throughout the city flew at half-staff Wednesday in memory of Officer Gregg Benner, who was gunned down days earlier in what started as a routine traffic stop.

“Stuff like this just doesn’t happen here,” Rio Rancho City Councilor Dawnn Robinson said.

She added, “People move here because it feels like a safe, small town.”

Benner’s death marked the first time an officer was killed in Rio Rancho.

Police have accused Andrew Romero in the shooting. He was ordered held on a $5 million cash bond Wednesday, and his lawyers didn’t speak to reporters after his court appearance.

According to a criminal complaint, Romero has acknowledged shooting at Benner but says he didn’t know whether he struck the officer.

Authorities have said Benner pulled over Romero’s girlfriend, Tabitha Littles, after checking her license plate and realizing the registration didn’t match.

After Benner stopped them, Romero pushed Littles out of the car, shot her in the foot, climbed into the driver’s seat and drove off, according to the complaint. Benner gave chase, but Romero fired at least three shots, and the officer was struck in the torso, the document states.

Romero sped away after the shooting, police said. Benner, wounded, asked Littles who shot him before collapsing, they said.

An area resident and an off-duty paramedic heard the shooting and rushed over to help, but Benner died at a hospital shortly afterward.

Littles said that before the deadly encounter she had been driving Romero around because he “wanted to look for places to commit burglaries,” according to the complaint.

He was later arrested in Albuquerque’s South Valley after holding up a gas station, police have said.

Romero faces multiple charges, including murder. He also could face federal firearms charges.

A day after the shooting, hundreds of residents attended a candlelight vigil for Benner at a Rio Rancho park.

Police Chief Michael Geier said earlier Tuesday that Rio Rancho’s trusting culture and small-town feel can make the city vulnerable to criminals seeking quick robberies.

But Geier said he doesn’t want potential criminals to think Rio Rancho ripe for exploitation.

“We’re going to keep a strong stance,” he said. “This is an anomaly as far as we are concerned.”

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


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