TEMPE, Ariz. — An off-duty Mesa police officer driving home from work and a wrong-way driver were killed early Monday morning in a head-on collision on a Phoenix-area freeway ramp.
The wrong-way driver’s SUV had traveled 35 miles on parts of three freeways for a half-hour before the collision on a ramp connecting Intestate 10 and the U.S. 60 freeway, said Officer Carrick Cook, a state Department of Public Safety spokesman.
An Arizona DPS officer tried unsuccessfully to ram the SUV to stop it as it drove through Phoenix, before the SUV reached the ramp in Tempe where the collision occurred.
The wrong-way driver’s identity was not immediately released. Cook said the driver was a Phoenix man in his early 40s.
Mesa Police Chief Frank Milstead identified the officer who was killed as Brandon Mendoza, 32, and said he was approachable, empathetic and dedicated to his community, working to rehabilitate a park as a community gathering spot.
“Brandon would not be stopped,” Milstead said of the park project. “He was everything that a police chief would want an officer to be.”
Both Milstead and Cook said Mendoza, who was driving home in his personal car, likely only had seconds of warning before the crash.
“My guess is he was absolutely caught off-guard ... because it is a blind curve and they were coming from different directions at freeway speed,” Milstead said.
Cook said the incident started in far north Phoenix when the wrong-way driver was first spotted going west in eastbound lanes of the Loop 101 freeway.
The SUV then went south in northbound lanes of the Arizona 51 freeway where a DPS officer first used his vehicle to divert other traffic and then tried to ram the SUV, Cook said.
“He was basically trying to hit him at a 45-degree angle,” Cook said. “That suspect essentially drove around our officer and continued going the wrong way.”
Milstead said preliminary information received from DPS indicated the wrong-way driver was likely impaired. But Cook said it wasn’t immediately known whether that’s the case or whether the driver was purposely going the wrong way.
An autopsy and toxicology tests will be conducted, the DPS spokesman said.
At least a half-dozen DPS officers were involving in trying to stop the wrong-way driver, Cook said.
“We were scrambling,” Cook said. “Nobody was really pursuing. We were just trying to intercept.”