This is the final installment in a three-part series looking into the April 2 fatal shooting of Joel Inbody, 32, of West Seneca, by border patrol agents in New Mexico. Make sure to catch Part 1 and Part 2.
Joel Inbody spent 12 nights sightseeing the East Coast and clearing his head, but it remains a mystery how the West Seneca man ended up in New Mexico on April 2, where federal border agents fatally shot him in a dark desert with no one around but them.
Kim Lewis, Inbody’s mother, and her attorney, Tom Casey, have spent the past five months piecing together bits of information to make sense of what happened to her son, whom she described as a smart, compassionate man, who advocated for the underprivileged and everyday underdogs.
Information released by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, including some body-cam footage, showed Inbody failed to pull over for a checkpoint on Interstate 10 in New Mexico. He traveled at slow speeds, but CBP said he refused to comply with orders.
He stopped briefly, but agents were not able to get him to comply or break his window, before he pulled away.
When agents immobilized Inbody’s vehicle with a spike strip, Inbody exited with an 18-inch wooden tire knocker and walked in the opposite direction of border agents. He swung the wooden club multiple times at an agent when he got too close.
“Hey, we’re U.S. Border Patrol. We’re not trying to hurt you,” yelled one agent.
“You obviously are,” Inbody said.
The foot pursuit lasted over four minutes, with agents yelling different orders at Inbody, who kept walking away. One agent twice fired an electronic control device at Inbody, but neither of the prongs stuck.
“Get on the ground! I will f***ing shoot you,” an agent yelled.
“I got him with the rifle,” another agent yelled. “Take him down now.”
The din of gunfire filled the air after an agent tripped as he approached Inbody, who swung the club at the agent as he fell backwards. Three agents fired at least 16 shots, fatally striking Inbody multiple times.
According to the official statement from CBP, Inbody “continued advancing toward the agent, who was now on the ground, swung the wooden club a third time and struck the agent. The driver struck the agent a second time as he stood over him and was preparing to do so again when three other agents fired their service weapons, striking the driver.”
But to Lewis and her attorney, the footage released by CBP showed a man in mental distress being shot and killed by border agents that exhibited little evidence of training that may have helped them recognize and better respond to the situation.
“As I understand it, there were six border patrol agents out there,” Casey said. “One Joel. Why didn’t they just bum rush the guy? Distract him and have a couple of guys come in from behind. These are all ‘why’ questions that I have. These are all ‘why’ questions which mom has, and my heart goes out to her.”
Both Lewis and Casey said the CBP body-cam footage raised more questions than it answered. To them, it was clear Inbody was in a mental health crisis that impacted his ability to make sound decisions.
“Yes, if he stopped and done what they said, would he have ended up dead? I hope not,” Lewis said. “I don’t think so. But he’d end up in the hospital, and he was scared to death of going back to the hospital. And so we’re back to mental health and how to deal with mental health in our country.”
Jerry Rodriguez, a national expert on law enforcement use of force, agrees that the border agents had enough time to craft a different strategy to gain compliance.
“I saw an individual who wanted to walk away,” Rodriguez said. “And what was the crime? What was the crime that caused him to lose his life? I think all of that sets bad in our stomach.”
CBP said it is conducting an internal investigation, and its Office of Professional Responsibility has “referred initial investigative information to the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of New Mexico.
‘I believe this could have been avoided’
According to the radio transmissions on the body-cam footage, at 8:36 p.m. April 2, an agent noticed a slow-moving SUV approaching the Interstate 10 checkpoint, almost 30 miles away from the border with Mexico.
Border agents can lawfully set up checkpoints up to 100 miles from any border.
“Just circumvented,” the agent calls over the radio. “Uh, the New York Tags…[redacted audio by CBP]. “Nissan Rogue. It just drove around the cones.”
“He’s only going 40 miles per hour,” the agent said.
CBP agents pursued Inbody at slow speeds until 9:01 p.m., when Inbody stopped his vehicle at a gate ranch.
Up until that point, Rodriguez, who spent almost 30 years with the LAPD, thought the pursuit was well managed by the agents.
But when the agents used their vehicles to surround Inbody’s vehicle, Rodriguez said “they weren’t too concerned with the individual, or at least it doesn’t appear to be that he had a weapon, a firearm, otherwise that’s not a tactic you use to stop a potentially armed vehicle.”
Several agents swarmed the area, screaming different orders at Inbody, who remained inside his SUV with the seatbelt on and the windows and doors closed. One agent failed to break the window glass on Inbody’s vehicle, before Inbody drove away.
“I don’t believe that it was tactically sound to approach the vehicle as they did,” Rodriguez said. “Even though their weapons were drawn, arguably, they didn’t know what they had.”
Inbody did not exit his vehicle until 9:26 p.m., after a spike strip punctured three of his wheels. . He was holding a wooden tire knocker and immediately stepped in the opposite direction of the border agents, who continued to scream different orders at him.
“Hey, get on the ground! Get on the ground! Get on the f***ing ground!” one agent yelled at Inbody, who was maybe 20 yards away on a dirt road.
Inbody on a few occasions swung the club at agents if they got too close. The only non-lethal force the agents attempted was the electronic control device, but the prongs failed to stick.
Rodriguez said the foot pursuit lacked control and coordination, and agents had plenty of time to come up with a different strategy. And while the wooden club could have caused injury, Rodriguez does not think it warranted lethal force.
“I would have preferred that they had an arrest team designated to go up with their weapons holstered and either push him, kick him from behind to get him on the ground, and use the ground as a controlling force where you put pressure on top of him, put weight on top of him, at least until you handcuff him,” he said.
Both Casey and Lewis questioned why CBP did not attempt other non-lethal strategies to get compliance.
“If they had knocked him down and arrested him, handcuffed him and taken him to jail or to the hospital, that would be horrible, it would be awful, it would be a big hassle to take care of, but that’s not what they did,” Lewis said. “They shot him. You can’t come back from that, so there’s no reason why 4 minutes and 30 seconds after he gets out of the car, they needed to confront him in such a way that they had to know that this is how it would end.”
At one point, an agent warned he saw Inbody with a knife. Two closed knives were found in Inbody’s pants pocket, according to the information released by CBP. But the agency’s official statement does not mention that Inbody had a knife in his hand.
Both Casey and Rodriguez said they did not see Inbody holding a knife.
But Rodriguez said the agents should have never gotten close to Inbody if they even suspected Inbody could have been holding a knife, which is a deadly weapon.
“Is this an attempt to escalate this to deadly force without a visual?” Rodriguez said. “Or was it truly a perception that he may have been armed with a knife? That’s big to me because that changes things. If you have an individual with a knife, that’s deadly force and you would not approach him or her with a knife at hand because it could be very dangerous.”
Bottomline, Rodriguez said after watching the body-cam footage, he had a strong sense that Inbody was in a mental health crisis that required a much different strategy than the one used by border agents that night in New Mexico.
“I believe this could have been avoided,” Rodriguez said, after viewing the CBP body-cam footage and other documents provided to him by News 4 Investigates. “And we in this profession, in 2023, are expected to recognize when a situation is stemming from a mental incapacity – a person who is not necessarily evil.”
Not getting answers
Almost six months have passed since representatives of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection visited Inbody’s mother in Alden to inform her that her son was shot and killed by agents.
Yet, neither Lewis nor Casey, her attorney, have gotten many answers from CBP.
“It’s terrifying, horrible, an emotional disability type of situation where three border patrol agents show up at your house and say your son was shot and killed in New Mexico the night before, but that’s all we can tell you,” Casey said.
Lewis said her son started to disconnect from family in January. She got worried enough in February to file a missing persons report with the West Seneca Police Department.
Lewis said Inbody was located the next day in Pennsylvania. His car was impounded, he had his bank card cut off, and his cell phone was turned off.
“He said then he was just on vacation,” Lewis said. “I remember he told me he wanted to see the ocean. I was concerned about his mental health at that point, but he is a 32-year-old man, so there wasn’t a lot I could do.”
Lewis said Inbody stopped at her parents’ home a week later, where he interacted with her and other family members, but he was gone again by the end of March.
After her son was killed, Lewis said she traced his steps based off of his credit card statements, and learned he was traveling the East Coast. She assumed he slept in his car because there were no hotel receipts.
Lewis said she spoke with his therapist, who told her that personal journeys are common for people suffering with the same mental conditions as her son.
But she still does not know why Inbody detoured west to New Mexico, or what exactly he was thinking when he led agents on the vehicle and foot pursuit.
Still, Lewis believes the border agents could have handled the situation differently, and she questioned how much training they get to understand how to deal with people exhibiting signs of mental distress.
“They have done things that are not okay, and if in fact the protocols and the rules that are in this agency allow this to happen, then there needs to be some change in those rules and those protocols, because this should never happen to another person,” Lewis said. “Nobody should be shot because they are not compliant.”
Luke Moretti is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2002. See more of his work here.