Colorado punishes sergeant who killed a man in Utah

Case involves a moving shootout in Utah’s portion of the Navajo Nation.

(Montezuma County Sheriff's Office) Then-Montezuma County Sgt. Edward Oxley shown after fatally shooting Fordell Hill on Feb. 15, 2018.

A former sergeant who killed a man following a moving shootout that ended in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation had his license revoked Friday. The Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, known as POST, voted unanimously to strip Edward Oxley of his ability to work as a law enforcement officer in that state.

After the February 2018 shooting, Oxley was investigated by his employer, the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, as well as the FBI and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. The federal investigation, which focused largely on the fatal shooting itself, found Oxley to be “negligent” and “reckless” but “unquestionably justified.”

Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin fired Oxley, however, and state prosecutors in the county’s judicial district ultimately filed felony charges in September 2020, accusing Oxley of illegally discharging his firearm during the moving shootout.

Both of those investigations focused on Oxley’s decision to pursue a car that had fled a traffic stop, and to return fire after Fordell Hill, a passenger in that car, shot at him during the pursuit. According to a Tribune database of police shootings, prosecutors have filed charges in just six other cases since 2004. No other case resulted in a conviction, though charges were just filed in one of them this month.

Oxley shot and killed Hill after the car Hill was a passenger in crashed just over the state line in Utah. The sergeant told investigators that Hill, whose gun was out of bullets, was trying to get up after Oxley ordered him to lie on the ground. Hill’s empty gun was found some five feet from his body. The driver and other passenger in the car — Hill’s brother and a family friend — were never arrested or charged in association with the case.

(San Juan County Sheriff's Office) The car that then-Montezuma County Sheriff's Sgt. Edward Oxley fired at on Feb. 15, 2018. Oxley eventually shot and killed Fordell HIll, one of the passengers.

Experts and family members of Hill, who was a member of the Navajo Nation, tied the case to the long, violent history of policing in largely white border towns on the outskirts of Indigenous nations, such as Cortez in Montezuma County, where Hill and the others in the car were headed.

“Law enforcement in border towns is all about containing and policing Indigenous people, because we’re considered to be out of place,” Jennifer Denetdale, chair of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, told The Tribune in March. “We’re not supposed to be in these border towns.” A data analysis by The Tribune found that Native American people are overrepresented in police shootings in the state between 2010 and 2021 when compared to their share of the population.

In March 2021, Oxley and prosecutors reached a plea deal, in which Oxley pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor of Official Misconduct for using unauthorized ammunition in his assault rifle, and the felony charges against him — which carried a potential prison sentence of one to three years — were dropped.

Prosecutor Will Furse told the judge in the case, who said he found the deal to be “quite lenient” but ultimately approved it, that he intended to ensure that Oxley lost his peace officers’ license. Furse told The Tribune in an interview that the “lifelong consequences” of likely not being able to work as a law enforcement officer was punishment enough.

(San Juan County Sheriff's Office) The vehicle of then-Montezuma County Sheriff's Sgt. Edward Oxley shown after a car chase on Feb. 15, 2018, during which he fired through his front windshield with an assault rifle. He eventually killed Fordell Hill.

Keenen Lovett, Oxley’s attorney, told the judge that Oxley no longer wanted to work in law enforcement, but told The Tribune after the hearing that he was “not saying that [Oxley] would never potentially change gears.” Lovett told The Tribune this week that, as far as he knows, Oxley still has no intent to return to policing, and is pursuing a career in retail instead.

Lovett has told The Tribune that Oxley still believes his actions were “lawful and appropriate” and that an expert report written by a former Fort Collins, Colo. detective that argued Oxley was “entirely reasonable,” “necessary,” “proportionate,” and “measured” would have been utilized had the case gone to trial.

Oxley received a deferred judgment, which came with only nominal court fees and no jail time. A deferred judgment allows Oxley to petition a court to remove his plea from the public record; the charges against him would still be publicly accessible, but anyone looking into his past through official records would only find that the case was eventually dismissed. The case’s online docket shows that there is a deferred judgment review hearing scheduled for Oct. 8.

In May, an investigator for POST issued an order for Oxley to appear at a hearing to argue why his license should not be revoked. Oxley did not respond, nor did he submit an appeal to the board after POST’s director decided to seek his revocation. Nowlin, the sheriff who fired Oxley, is a member of the POST board, but recused himself from this case.

However, the board has the ability to reinstate his license at a later date. An officer who had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor involving excessive force and whose license was revoked in 2018 was reinstated two years later after the officer appealed to POST, the Denver Post reported in July.

Because the patchwork of state regulations for police qualifications varies so much throughout the U.S., it’s possible that Oxley could become certified as a police officer in another state. While many states automatically ban officers whose licenses or certifications were revoked by another state, not all do, according to Roger Goldman, an expert in police certification and a law professor at Saint Louis University. Utah does not, though officers do have to undergo a background check.

Oxley joined the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office less than two years before he killed Hill from the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office in southern Florida, where he racked up reprimands for verbally abusing a detainee and an illegal police database search of a former coworker. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Oxley’s certification is inactive.

Multiple deputies who worked under Oxley had voiced serious concerns in the months before the shooting, documents released to The Tribune by the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office show.

Six months prior, in August 2017, as Oxley and some deputies were discussing searching the crawlspace of a house for the subject of a warrant, Oxley said, “Once you get down there, just [expletive] shoot him.”

After Deputy John Haynes asked if that was an order, Oxley replied, “He has already shown that he is not compliant, just tase his ass and drag him up here,” according to a report written by Haynes. The subject was retrieved from the crawlspace without force.

Three months before that, after apprehending a homicide suspect who was driving a stolen car, Oxley commented to Haynes and Deputy Zachary Green, “We could have shot that guy and got away with it. He was in a [be-on-the-lookout bulletin], a murder suspect, and he had guns in the vehicle.” Haynes wrote that he couldn’t remember Oxley’s words verbatim, but that he was certain Oxley “mentioned we could have shot him and we wouldn’t have suffered legal backlash.”

These incidents — along with allegations that Oxley had taken a potentially underaged girl on an official police ride along, had ordered his crew to work as little as possible and avoid all civil duties, acted aggressively toward citizens and tow truck company workers, wrote sloppy reports when he wrote them at all, and had such a bad reputation with other police agencies in the area that they refused to work with him — were actively being investigated by his department when Oxley killed Hill.

In a report dated the same day as Hill’s death, a lieutenant wrote, “Sgt. Oxley has acted unprofessionally in his role as a supervisor in-front of his subordinates ... Sgt. Oxley appears to have issues with controlling his temper when situations escalate.”

This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.