Real Name: Stephen Alton Sandlin
Location: Mountainair, New Mexico
Date: May 7, 1988
Details: Twenty-one-year-old Steve Sandlin was a rookie police officer in Mountainair, New Mexico. His father Tom was a career law enforcement officer. Ever since Steve was a child, he planned on following in his father's footsteps. In March 1988, he announced to his family that he had been accepted as a member of the Mountainair police department. Early in the evening on May 7, 1988, while he was working alone in the police station, he was found shot. Police Chief David Carson and several other officer arrived at the scene soon after. They found him lying on the ground with his gun next to him. Bloodstains were found around him. David asked him what had happened, but he was unresponsive. An ambulance was called and EMTs began working to try and save his life. Sadly, he died soon after. He had been on the force for just eight weeks.
Steve's gun was found by his side. Authorities believe that the fatal bullet may have come from the weapon. The manner of death was, at first, thought to be accidental or suicide. However, his family did not believe this. They became convinced that he was murdered, possibly as a result of a conspiracy. Former Assistant Attorney General James Scarantino also believed that he was murdered, noting that there was no evidence of suicide or an accident. James was fired and another Assistant Attorney General resigned over the case. The most controversial allegation regarding the case was that the identity of his killer was deliberately covered up by law enforcement officials.
Mountainair, an isolated community located 80 miles southeast of Albuquerque, was known to be a center for the cultivation of marijuana. Despite this, the town's police department consisted of only four men. When Steve began working for the police department, he was enthusiastic about his new job and often worked during his off hours. According to Tom, he really enjoyed the job at first. However, as the weeks went by, his attitude began to change. He told Tom that things at the job were not like how he thought they would be and that something was wrong. However, he did not elaborate on what exactly was wrong.
On the afternoon of Steve's death, he returned to the empty police station after arguing with David over some tickets that he had written. David told him to slow down because he did not want him to "burn out". The last person to talk to Steve before his death was his girlfriend Michelle, who lived in nearby Bosque Farms. The two were making plans for the next day. He told her that David had yelled at him and told him to go back to the station. According to her, he was upset and felt as if that they wanted him to be a "security guard" in the station. At around 7pm, their conversation was interrupted by an unidentified female who came into the station. He put his hand over the phone, so Michelle was unable to hear what else was said. However, she felt that the two were getting loud and possibly arguing. When he came back on the phone, he told Michelle that it was "no big deal" and that he had to go. He then hung up the phone.
Approximately forty-five minutes later, at 7:45pm, David received word that Steve had been shot. When he examined the scene, he found no evidence of confrontation or of other shots fired. He believed that Steve committed suicide. However, Steve's family insisted that he loved life and was happy with his job. David suspected that if the death was not a suicide, then it was accidental. Authorities learned from a source that Steve was prone to play with his gun. He believed that Steve was playing with his gun that night and accidentally shot himself. Steve's mother Eileen, however, does not believe that he would have been playing with it.
The results of Steve's autopsy were inconclusive. Some believed that the gun may have been as much as two feet away from his head when it was fired - an unusual distance for a self-inflicted wound. Secondly, there were only insignificant traces of gunpowder found on his hand - an unusually small amount if he had fired the fatal shot. Despite this information, the Attorney General's office refused to rule out suicide. Dissatisfied, his family conducted their own investigation.
Steve's stepfather Edward believed that Steve had been murdered because he knew too much about something. Tom agreed that he was killed to keep him quiet about something nefarious that was occurring in Mountainair. The family's investigation uncovered one possible motive for his murder. After only a few weeks of active duty, he had begun to patrol alone and would sometimes wait outside local bars in order to apprehend drunk drivers. On the night of April 11, just one month before his death, he arrested a local resident and made an important discovery: a large bag of marijuana on the car floor.
The following day, a warrant was obtained and the resident's home was searched. Fifty-four pounds of marijuana was discovered, with a street value of close to $100,000. Within days of the arrest, Steve received death threats. Alarmed, he refused to sleep at his home. David claimed that there were a number of threats towards Steve, but he was unable to trace them. Several other officers received threats after arresting local drug dealers.
During this time, the New Mexico Attorney General's Office was investigating reports that the Mountainair police had carelessly handled evidence. Steve had been questioned by investigators the day before his death. He told Tom that there was something going on in Mountainair that he did not agree with. He asked Tom what he'd do in that situation, and he told him to tell the truth.
After Steve's death, his house was searched by the authorities. Three days later, his family arrived in Mountainair to collect his belongings. While Michelle and Eileen were in the kitchen, Michelle opened a drawer which contained several bags of marijuana. They could not understand how the authorities missed it during their search, as it was not well hidden. David believed that someone planted it there to make Steve and the department look bad.
Steve always recorded his traffic stops on a small cassette recorder. In Eileen's search, she discovered that all of the mini-cassettes were missing. It is not known what happened to the potentially incriminating tapes. James Scarantino spoke to several witnesses who claimed that they had seen David or his vehicle parked outside of the Mountainair Police Department between 7:15 and 7:25pm on the night of the shooting. He claimed that the witnesses were lying. According to him, he was in the company of 200 to 300 people at a public function at the Mountainair High School. He claimed that he spoke with several people who could place him there at that time.
Several questions remain in Steve's death, including: if Steve was murdered, why was he killed inside the police station? Why was marijuana discovered in his house after a thorough police search? Do his fellow officers know more than they are telling about his death?
Suspects: The Mountainair police officers are considered potential suspects in Steve's death, along with the man that Steve arrested who had marijuana with him. The charges against the man were dismissed in November 1988. He denied any involvement in the death.
Several witnesses claimed that they had seen David or his vehicle parked outside of the Mountainair Police Department between 7:15 and 7:25pm on the night of the shooting. This suggests that he may have witnessed or was involved in Steve's death. However, he denied any involvement in the case and claimed to have been at a function at the high school that evening. He agreed to take a polygraph examination with the FBI and passed. However, in one interview, he allegedly stated that he "blacked out" and could not remember where he was between 7:05 and 7:30pm that night. He later denied saying this.
When questioned by an Army investigator, the soldier who found Steve's body claimed that he would go to jail if he "told the truth." He stated that he had found Steve at 7:45pm. However, David claimed that he had received the call for help around 7:30pm. The investigator believed that he was withholding information. Interestingly, the soldier was a friend of David's son.
Investigators also learned that a police officer from another agency had allegedly confessed to killing him. The officer allegedly said that "if he had kept his nose out of things (he'd) be better off. (Sandlin) wouldn't have died." James investigated the alleged confession, but was fired soon after. It is not known if any further follow-up occurred regarding it.
Some of the marijuana confiscated during the search of the resident's home later disappeared. Although it was initially believed that it disappeared after Steve's death, investigators later learned that it may have been moved out of the county before his death. It is not known who may have moved it.
Five months after Steve's death, an Albuquerque police officer told investigators he had been tipped off that an officer was going to be killed by drug dealers. It is not known if the information was ever followed up on.
Extra Notes: This segment originally aired on the February 14, 1990 episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
Results: Unresolved. Authorities noted that evidence at the scene suggested that Steve's body had been moved. Although he had been shot on the right side of the head, fragments, blood, and other matter were found on the wall to the right of his body. In 1989, the Attorney General's Office asked the Los Alamos National Laboratory for help examining the case. Lab scientists determined that he was ducking away from his gun when he was shot. Other injuries to his face were inconsistent with suicide. In May 1995, his case was officially classified as a homicide and he was listed as "slain in the line of duty".
One of the prime suspects in the case, Melvin King, died in 2004. He was the local resident Steve arrested a few weeks before his death. Interestingly, the marijuana confiscated from his home later went missing from the police department's evidence room. He was never charged in the case, which remains unsolved.
In May 2019, Mountainair dedicated its renovated police station to Steve, naming it the "Stephen A. Sandlin Memorial Police Station".
- Steve Sandlin at Unsolved.com
- Policeman found shot dead in Mountainair - May 8, 1988
- Mountainair Officer's Death Stirs Suspicions - October 23, 1988
- AG Probes Threats Behind Death Of NM Officer - October 25, 1988
- Mountainair Tries To Unravel Officer's Still-Unsolved Death - May 14, 1989
- FBI Starts Own Probe of Mountainair Death - July 29, 1989
- County sheriff subject of probe - August 3, 1989
- Ex-Prosecutors Say Bosses Hinder Mountainair Probe - October 5, 1989
- FBI Unswayed by Claim; DA Reconsiders - October 6, 1989
- Discrepancies Tangle Mystery of Officer's Death - March 4, 1990
- Discrepancies Complicate Mountainair Mystery - March 4, 1990
- Studies May Clarify Physical Evidence in Shooting - March 4, 1990
- Grand Jury Heard Testimony On Officer's Death - March 17, 1990
- Outgoing DA Wants Sandlin Death Ruled a Homicide - January 1, 1993
- Slain Mountainair Cop Finally Gets His Day: Probe Shows Sandlin's '88 Death a Homicide - May 19, 1995
- Ceremony Honors Officer Slain in '88 - May 19, 1995
- Officer finally classified slain - May 20, 1995
- Officer’s death still a mystery after 25 years - May 21, 2013
- Mountainair dedicates station to fallen officer Stephen Sandlin - May 6, 2019
- Steve Sandlin at Find a Grave
- Steve Sandlin at Officer Down Memorial Page