Nevada Highway Patrol Sgt. Ben Jenkins was fatally shot because the suspect wanted “to avoid or prevent” his arrest in connection with a series of earlier shootings in Wells and Ely, according to prosecutors.
Court documents filed this week by White Pine County prosecutors and obtained Thursday by the Las Vegas Review-Journal reveal for the first time a motive in the March 27 shooting, which took place on U.S. Highway 93 after Jenkins pulled over to assist a motorist. Jenkins, 47, was an 11-year veteran of the Highway Patrol, and his death marked the first fatal shooting of a trooper in the line of duty in nearly three decades.
Ruth resident John Dabritz is charged with murder, third-degree arson, grand larceny of a motor vehicle and grand larceny of a firearm. Proceedings in the criminal case are on hold while Dabritz, who turned 66 last week, undergoes a competency evaluation. His ex-wife, Haydee, previously told the Review-Journal that he has long suffered from bipolar disorder and alcoholism.
During the series of shootings prior to the killing, the suspect shot at a propane tank and tanker trucks in Wells, and then, once entering the Ely area, fired at an electrical box and a transformer box at the base of a wind turbine. Prosecutors described the earlier shootings as “an act of terrorism.”
“The murder was committed to avoid or prevent a lawful arrest,” the documents state.
White Pine County District Attorney Michael Wheable filed a formal notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Dabritz this week, records show. The killing involved the “mutilation” of Jenkins’ body, which was set on fire — an aggravating circumstance, according to Wheable’s notice, that justifies capital punishment.
The court documents also offer a clearer picture of how the shooting unfolded.
That morning, sometime before 6 a.m., Jenkins was driving on U.S. 93, en route to assist with a wide-load truck transport, when he encountered the suspect north of Ely, pulled over in a rented Dodge Ram 1500 pickup. The documents suggest that the suspect, who had been driving toward Ely from Wells after the earlier shootings, was pulled over on the remote highway because his truck was “disabled.”
Just prior to the shooting, Jenkins and the driver were “cordially non-confrontational with each other.”
“Benjamin Jenkins was not detaining or investigating the defendant for any crime,” the documents state, and “there was no prior negative contact between the defendant and Benjamin Jenkins.”
After speaking with the driver, the trooper walked back to his patrol truck “for several minutes,” according to the documents. Jenkins was shot multiple times as he returned to the motorist’s pickup truck.
The suspect then dragged Jenkins’ body along the highway to his rental truck, poured an accelerant on the body and the vehicle, and then ignited the accelerant, according to the documents.
Authorities have said the motorist also stripped Jenkins of his uniform and duty belt, which included the trooper’s firearm, before taking off from the scene in Jenkins’ patrol truck, leading to an hourslong manhunt that drew the help of at least five state law enforcement agencies and the Utah Highway Patrol.
Dabritz was arrested about four hours later in the small town of Cherry Creek, where the trooper’s patrol truck had crashed in a ravine.
Mental health hold
The Review-Journal previously reported that Dabritz had spent the weeks leading up to the fatal shooting on a paranoid journey to warn people in White Pine County of his theory that COVID-19 was spreading through the water and sewer systems, eventually landing him at William Bee Ririe Hospital in Ely on a legal mental health hold.
A hospital employee, who spoke to the Review-Journal on the condition of anonymity, said the man was initially hospitalized for issues unrelated to his mental health but soon was placed on the legal hold after he brought a “concerning” note to the nurses’ station regarding COVID-19.
He was transferred from the hospital around March 14, according to the employee. Court records show he then spent a week at an undisclosed mental health facility in Clark County before he was released on March 20.
Jenkins was killed a week later.
Dabritz will undergo his evaluation at Lake’s Crossing Center, a maximum-security psychiatric facility in Sparks, according to an April 20 court order. Booking records indicate he remained in custody Thursday at the White Pine County jail.