By FELICIA FONSECA
A New Mexico man who was driving drunk without a valid license barreled through a parade that celebrates Native American culture in the western part of the state, injuring at least 15 people, officials said Friday.
Jeff Irving, 33, was arrested late Thursday and faces charges that include aggravated driving while intoxicated, fleeing from officers and injuring parade-goers and two Gallup police officers who tried to stop the vehicle, court documents said.
In a statement, New Mexico State Police said that investigators have no reason to suspect the crime was motivated by hate. No one was killed. The people who were hurt, including the police officers, suffered mostly minor injuries, said New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and his family were among those almost hit as the Chevrolet Tahoe drove through the parade route. The vehicle sped through downtown Gallup about 15 minutes after the nighttime parade started that served as the kick-off event for the 10-day Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial Centennial Celebration.
Irving’s blood-alcohol content was three times the legal limit for driving, according to court records. His license had been revoked or suspended for another drunken driving charge and the SUV had no registration or insurance, police said.
Court records didn’t list an attorney for Irving who could speak on his behalf. His two passengers were detained and taken to a detox center in Gallup, a city of about 22,000 people, state police said in the statement.
Many among the crowd of thousands lining the parade route in front of businesses that sell Native American jewelry, arts and crafts captured the chaotic scene on video.
As the SUV sped near the parade, videos on social media showed people yelling for others to get out of the way and some pushing parade-goers to safety. One video showed parade-goers yelling obscenities at the SUV’s driver and passengers while they were handcuffed on the ground.
Children performing traditional dances appear to have been among the first to have seen the SUV heading toward them, the videos showed. They ran to the side amid screams and others scrambling to get out of the way.
The images also showed blankets, shoes, banners and umbrellas left strewn along the street and on the sidewalks as people fled.
Lujan Grisham said Friday that the state will send additional police officers and a behavioral heath crisis team to Gallup for the rest of the ceremonial event.
Nez said the vehicle was coming at him and a group of tribal officials marching in the parade. He thanked people for taking quick action to get spectators and participants out of harm’s way.
“We just ask for your prayers for all of the participants,” Nez said in a video posted on social media. “We’re all shook up. You would see this on television, you would think it would never happen here. I’m sorry to say it happened here in Gallup, New Mexico.”
Tonya Jim said she went to the parade with her parents, grandchildren and children. Her 5-year-old granddaughter, KaRiah, was picked from the crowd to join a group of dancers. Shortly after, the vehicle barreled down the parade route, turned and hit a man across from them who was sitting on a folding chair, she said. KaRiah was helped off the road by someone and was not hurt.
“I’m glad whoever was holding her hand just kept holding her hand and ran with her to get her off the road,” Jim said. “I’m not sure who she was, but I’m thankful for her.”
Jim said the family burned cedar and prayed when they got home and did a tobacco smoke prayer Friday morning to calm down.
“I blessed my kids and thanked the creator they are still with me and (to) pray for the families who are hurt,” said Jim, who is Navajo and lives in Fort Defiance.
During the mayhem, the SUV swerved onto a side street and pulled into a parking spot before trying to pull out again. It hit a parked car and backed into a police car, state police said. Officers converged on the vehicle and detained the driver and two passengers who Irving identified as his brothers, according to court documents.
Irving initially told police he was not drinking before admitting to having at least a couple of beers, according to court documents. He is from the small community of Pinedale and faces 21 charges, the documents and police said.
City, state and tribal officials met Friday, with some urging more resources to address alcohol abuse. The state has long had a driving while impaired rate above the U.S. national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I think there’s always room for improvement,” said Gallup police Capt. Erin Toadlena-Pablo. “I don’t think anyone should ever look at it and say we’re doing all we can. There’s always other means.”
The nighttime parade is a highlight of the ceremonial celebration, which was founded in 1922 as a way for traders to showcase the culture and art of Native American tribes in the region, said Gallup Intertribal Indian Ceremonial Association board President Kyle Tom.
A daytime parade will go on as planned on Aug. 13, the day before closing events, Tom said. Other events include dances, rodeos and a juried art show.
People travel to Gallup from the vast Navajo Nation that extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah and from other tribal reservations to attend the parades and events. Nez, tribal lawmakers and others expressed anger and disbelief over what happened.
“It’s supposed to be a celebration, but today it was a difficult time for us,” Nez said.
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona. Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report.