The only officer charged in connection with a police shooting in Utah last year pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor on Monday, taking a plea deal that could potentially allow him to continue working in law enforcement.
Former Montezuma County Sheriff’s Sergeant Edward Oxley fatally shot a man who had fired at him during a February 2018 car chase that led from Colorado into the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.
Utah authorities found the fatal shooting of Fordell Hill, 26, justified. But Sheriff Steve Nowlin fired Oxley for firing his weapon during the car chase, and Oxley was charged in Colorado with two felony counts of illegal discharge of a firearm.
Oxley struck a deal with prosecutors that allowed him to plead guilty Monday to one misdemeanor count of official misconduct, which related only to ammunition that he used in his department-issued assault rifle. The ammunition had not been approved by the sheriff’s office; Oxley told investigators with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation that he had kept the ammunition from his previous job with the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office in Florida.
Colorado District Court Judge Todd Plewe, in a virtual court hearing, expressed misgivings about the plea agreement, which he called “quite lenient.”
The agreement provides for a deferred judgment in the case. If Oxley completes basic requirements — no further violations of the law for six months and paying court fees of $248.50 — the court records will be sealed. He is not required to serve any jail time.
“My primary concern is that it just seems almost like a dismissal, and I’m wondering why it’s not a dismissal,” Plewe asked Deputy District Attorney Will Furse on Monday.
Furse said that while he believes the felony charges against Oxley were “meritorious,” he was unsure whether a jury would agree with him that Oxley was acting outside the scope of what is allowed as a police officer, which would be required to find him guilty of illegally discharging his gun.
However, Furse said in a phone interview after the hearing that he would be submitting documentation of the plea agreement and court order to Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training — the agency that oversees police certification and training in the state, and has the ability to decertify police officers for findings of guilt for official misconduct. He said Oxley’s likely decertification in Colorado would be a “significant collateral consequence.”
Still, Plewe expressed concern that Oxley may still be able to continue working in law enforcement in another state.
“I’m not looking to see Mr. Oxley punished any more than the DA wants; my concern is, it’s one thing to move on in life being able to seal up the case and move on,” Plewe said. “But I’m really uncomfortable with the possibility he could go to another state or jurisdiction and be employed as a law enforcement officer after saying he was guilty to official misconduct.”
Keenen Lovett, Oxley’s lawyer, told Plewe that Oxley no longer wants to work in law enforcement. But he added in a phone interview after the hearing that he was “not saying that [Oxley] would never potentially change gears.” He said that Oxley is currently working in retail.
From traffic stop to fatal shooting
The case began in February 2018 when Oxley pulled over a car for having a broken taillight. The three men inside were traveling to Cortez, Colorado, from the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.
The other passenger later told officers that Hill convinced the driver to flee the traffic stop back in the direction they came from, and Oxley followed. Shortly thereafter, Hill began firing at Oxley with a handgun from the front passenger window, the investigation showed.
Oxley responded in turn, first with his handgun and then his department-issued assault rifle, which held the unauthorized ammunition. After shooting out the car’s tire just over the state line back into Utah, Oxley ordered the men out of the car. He shot and killed Hill as Hill attempted to get up off the ground, Oxley and the other passenger later told officers. An empty gun was found 5 feet from Hill’s body.
The FBI investigated the shooting, and then-U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber found Oxley’s conduct to be “reckless” but “unquestionably justified.” The Colorado Bureau of Investigation, at the request of Furse, then investigated the car chase that occurred within Colorado, and Furse filed charges against Oxley in September 2020, some 31 months after Hill was killed.
The statute of limitations on related misdemeanor charges also filed against Oxley — including the one he pleaded guilty to — passed during the course of the court case and they were dropped earlier this year. The felony charges had carried a potential prison sentence of one to three years.
When informed of the plea deal, Nowlin said, “We all have to be responsible for our actions,” but declined to comment further.
Oxley still believes he responded in a “lawful and appropriate manner,” Lovett said in the interview. The attorney shared a report in which an expert on police use of force found that Oxley’s actions were “entirely reasonable,” “necessary,” “proportionate,” and “measured,” and said he would have used that analysis at trial.
Debating the deal
Furse said that one of the listed victims, Averill Beletso — an unarmed passenger in the car Oxley was firing at — had agreed to the plea deal. He said he had been unable to contact the driver of the car, Fernando Hill.
But Thomasina Holly, the aunt of Fordell and Fernando Hill, said in a phone interview that she felt the plea deal constituted “another case where a Caucasian police officer is able to get away with killing a Native on the state border line.”
She added that members of the family, who did not learn of the original charges against Oxley until a call with a Salt Lake Tribune reporter, were intending to observe the trial, and that “not being informed” about the case was “really hard.”
Researchers and Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission officials had tied Hill’s death to the long history of violent interactions between Navajo people and law enforcement.
Furse said in court he believed the “lifelong consequences” of Oxley’s guilty plea would serve as an appropriate punishment. In a phone interview, he added that he believed most state POST agencies would not permit Oxley to be certified as a law enforcement officer.
“This kind of offense,” he said, referring to the count of official misconduct, “is one that is meant to demonstrate a crime that occurred while someone was a public servant.”