GALLUP, NM — A New Mexico man who was driving drunk without a valid driver’s license drove through a parade celebrating 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 is charged with heavy drink-driving, fleeing from officers and injuring parade-goers and two Gallup police officers who attempted to stop the vehicle, court documents said.
In a statement, the New Mexico state police said investigators have no reason to suspect the crime was motivated by hate. No one was killed. The people injured, including the police officers, mostly suffered minor injuries, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and his family were among those nearly hit as the Chevrolet Tahoe drove down the parade route. The vehicle sped through downtown Gallup about 15 minutes after the nighttime parade kicked off the 10-day Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial Centennial Celebration.
According to court records, Irving’s blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit for driving. His driver’s license had been revoked or suspended on another drink-driving charge, and the SUV had no registration or insurance, police said.
The court records did not mention a lawyer for Irving who could speak on his behalf. His two passengers were detained and taken to a rehab center in Gallup, a city of about 22,000, the state police said in the statement.
Many of the thousands lined the parade route in front of businesses selling Native American jewelry, arts and crafts captured the chaotic scene on video.
As the SUV roared 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. A video showed parade-goers yelling obscenities at the SUV’s driver and passengers as they lay handcuffed on the ground.
Children performing traditional dances appear to be among the first to see the SUV coming toward them, the videos show. They ran to the side amid screams and others scrambled to get out of the way.
The footage also showed blankets, shoes, banners and umbrellas littering the streets and sidewalks as people fled.
Lujan Grisham said Friday that the state will send additional police officers and a behavioral crisis team to Gallup for the remainder of the ceremonial event.
Nez said the vehicle was approaching him and a group of tribal officials marching in the parade. He thanked people for the quick action to clear spectators and participants.
“We only ask your prayers for all participants,” Nez said in a video posted on social media. “We’ve all been shaken up. You’d see this on television, you’d 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 chosen from the crowd to join a group of dancers. Shortly after, the vehicle rolled down the parade route, turned and hit a man sitting opposite them who was sitting on a folding chair, she said. KaRiah was helped off the road by someone and was unharmed.
“I’m glad whoever held her hand kept holding her hand and riding with her to get her off the road,” Jim said. “I’m not sure who she was, but I’m grateful to her.”
Jim said the family burned cedar wood and prayed when they got home and said a tobacco smoke prayer Friday morning to calm them down.
“I have blessed my children and thanked the creator for still being with me and (for) praying for the families who are injured,” said Jim, who is a Navajo and lives in Fort Defiance.
During the chaos, the SUV veered into a side street and into a parking lot before attempting to back out. It collided with a parked car and backed into a police car, state police said. Officers converged on the vehicle and detained the driver and two passengers whom Irving identified as his brothers, according to court documents.
Irving initially told police he didn’t drink until admitting he’d had at least a few 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 pushing for more resources to tackle alcohol abuse. The state has long had a driving interruption rate above the US national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I think there’s always room for improvement,” said Gallup police captain Erin Toadlena-Pablo. “I don’t think anyone should ever look at it and say we’re doing everything we can. There are always other means.”
The nighttime parade is a highlight of the ceremonial celebration, which was established in 1922 as a way for merchants to showcase the culture and art of Native American tribes in the region, said Kyle Tom, board president of the Gallup Intertribal Indian Ceremonial Association.
A daytime parade will continue as scheduled on Aug. 13, the day before events close, Tom said. Other events include dances, rodeos and a judged art show.
People travel to Gallup from the vast Navajo Nation that stretches 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 at what happened.
“It was supposed to be a party, but today was a tough time for us,” Nez said.
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona. The Bharat Express News writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report.