On Dec. 13, Moab resident Saxon Sharpe was on her way home from a shopping trip in Grand Junction when she noticed an unmarked police car behaving oddly. As she recalls, the driver activated the red and blue dashboard lights and passed her, only to pull over behind her again—then repeated the maneuver. Sharpe wasn’t aware of breaking any traffic rules.
The unmarked car pulled over again, joining two more marked police cars with lights flashing. Confused, Sharpe slowed down and moved over to give the officers space. Then she registered that there was something in the road ahead of her—something long, black, and around 5 inches tall. She pulled into the slow lane to avoid hitting it—but the object moved into the left lane in front of her. She didn’t have time to understand what was happening.
“I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ And just as I hit it, I saw there was a rope on one side,” Sharpe recalled. It was a spike strip, and the officers had dragged it in front of her. They’d mistaken her car for one driven by a dangerous suspect, also driving west on Interstate 70 at that time. Sharpe hit the strip and immediately pulled over as three of her tires went flat—the meter on her dashboard reported 2 pounds of air pressure in each.
“I was so mad!” Sharpe said, and she waited for the officers to approach and explain—but they got into their vehicles and drove away. Sharpe called a tow truck and her husband. While she waited, she saw a large group of police cars zoom by on the interstate, presumably also in pursuit of the suspect.
A Utah Highway Patrol officer eventually came to check on her, and she was put in touch with a sergeant from the Mesa County Sheriff Department who apologized for the mistake—it was two officers from his agency who mistook her car for the one they were after—and helped her arrange for a rental car to get home while the damaged vehicle got new tires and rims. The Mesa County Sheriff’s Department is paying for the rental car and repairs to the damaged vehicle. Sharpe described the sergeant as very professional and a “good, honest, decent human being.”
Mesa County Public Information Officer Wendy Likes was able to give more information on the incident. The suspect was Jesse Budenholzer, wanted for felony warrants and believed to be armed. Mesa County deputies were told Budenholzer was driving a dark blue Audi sedan with a Nebraska license plate, and he was known to be westbound on Interstate 70 near the Utah/Colorado border.
“What happened was an honest mistake,” Likes said in an email to the Moab Sun News. “The approaching vehicle was in the correct area and matched the description of the suspect vehicle, and [they] recognized the car had a license plate other than a Colorado plate.”
Sharpe noted that there seemed to have been opportunities for the officer in the unmarked police car to see that she had a Utah license plate; it’s not clear whether those officers knew they were looking for a Nebraska plate, or only knew that it was an out-of-state plate.
Likes said Mesa County officers attempted to pull Budenholzer over and also to spike strip his vehicle; Budenholzer sped away from the traffic stop and drove around the spike strips. He was finally apprehended later that day by Utah Highway Patrol in Emery County, Utah.
UHP Officer Dakota Adams wrote in a statement of probable cause that two UHP officers spiked Budenholzers’s vehicle at mile marker 167, but he continued driving on spiked wheels at over 100 miles an hour. Budenholzer engaged in other reckless behavior such as blowing through stop signs and driving in the wrong lane toward oncoming traffic; at one point, an object was thrown from the vehicle and was later identified as a stolen gun. Officers deployed spikes again, but Budenholzer continued driving, now with four flat tires; he was eventually stopped using a “pursuit intervention technique” at milepost 285.
Budenholzer had been awaiting trial on a previous felony charge and had cut off an ankle monitor in Nebraska before fleeing west. He was charged in Utah with 12 offenses, including reckless driving, possession of a firearm by a restricted person, theft of a vehicle, possession of a controlled substance (there was what appeared to be methamphetamine all over the interior of the car), and identity fraud (there were also ID cards in the car, fake or belonging to other people).
Regarding the mistaken spike strip deployment in front of Sharpe’s vehicle, Likes said that the Mesa County deputies had “made a good-faith decision based on the information they were given and their concern for public safety. They were focused on getting to this fugitive who was armed and traveling at extremely excessive rates of speed and endangering the welfare of others.”
Sharpe hopes that law enforcement and members of the public may be able to learn something from this experience: perhaps law enforcement may be able to streamline communication or improve training ahead of the next high intensity situation; perhaps the public will gain some insight into the world of law enforcement, and be cautious when there are signs of intense police activity.
Likes reiterated Mesa County’s apology to Sharpe.
“It was our mistake; we own it and hope to remedy it,” Likes wrote. We are truly sorry she was involved at all in this incident.”