Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Eight days ago, on July 16, a Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office helicopter crashed in a remote area south of Las Vegas, killing all four men on board.
It was the deadliest incident to befall law enforcement in state history and among the deadliest for first responders.
The crew with the Metro Air Support Unit had been assisting firefighters on the East Mesa Fire by dropping buckets of water and helping with logistics from the air.
They were returning home when the helicopter plummeted straight down.
Undersheriff Larry Koren, Lt. Fred Beers III, deputy Michael Levison and Bernalillo County Fire Department rescue specialist Matthew King were dead or unresponsive by the time help arrived.
The cause of the crash is still being investigated.
And, while a spokeswoman said BCSO still has one helicopter, its sole pilot – Koren – is gone.
In a somber news conference held last week, Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales III said the unit “never told anybody ‘no’ ” and that he took some comfort in the fact that the men died doing what they loved.
As officials expressed their grief and condolences publicly, the Journal reached out to the men’s families, and spoke with their life partners and siblings to learn more about who they were, and the lives they led.
Koren’s family declined an interview, saying they were not yet ready to speak. Koren, 55, had been with BCSO for more than 23 years. Before his career in law enforcement, he was an aircraft mechanic and pilot.
Lt. Fred Beers, 51
On that fateful Saturday – their 14-year-old son Daniel in Colorado on a Boy Scouts backpacking trip – Fred Beers and his wife, Anita, made plans for a date night.
But, when Fred Beers, a lieutenant with BCSO’s air support unit, got called in to work to help fight the fire, they called it off. Fred Beers told his wife he loved her, but he would be home too late.
By nightfall, her husband still wasn’t home and Anita Beers said she had started to feel uneasy. A nurse who had to get up early for work the next day, she tried to go to sleep.
“I was just tossing and turning, and I can’t – I couldn’t – ever sleep until I knew he was home safe,” Anita Beers told the Journal. “I just have never been able to, I just needed to feel him there next to me. I was just tossing and turning a little, and then the Ring doorbell rang.”
It was three BCSO captains and they were there to tell her that her husband had died in a helicopter crash.
“Captain (Nicholas ) Huffmyer – he had to do the unthinkable, he’s the one that had to tell me those words. He’s the one that had to make me understand …,” Anita Beers said. “And Captain (Justin) Kimbrough, he just held me while I sobbed, while I screamed. I will forever be both haunted by the looks on their faces and forever so grateful for these men.”
The first time Anita saw Fred Beers was in 1997. He was wearing a suit and Ray-Ban sunglasses, dressed as one of the “Men in Black” – a sci-fi movie released that year. She was Belle from “Beauty and the Beast,” and was wearing a ball gown with a hoop skirt that was made by a friend.
It was a Halloween party in Los Angeles, where they were both living.
Fred Beers grew up in Honolulu, the oldest child named for his father, with two younger sisters. Then he moved to LA and was a computer video game producer when he and Anita met.
The two started dating, got married and moved to New Mexico, where Anita Beers’ father lived. First, they moved to Belen, where Fred Beers worked for the police department, but the couple found farm life wasn’t for them, so they returned to California.
In 2009, shortly after Daniel was born, they moved back to New Mexico.
Not long after that, Fred Beers – an avid runner who had competed in the Boston Marathon, a bicyclist who would ride centuries, and a rock climber and backpacker – started at the BCSO academy.
At the sheriff’s department, Fred Beers moved up from deputy to detective with crime scene investigations, the violent crimes unit and the special victims unit.
“In almost 25 years of knowing him, I’ve never heard him say a single unkind thing about another human being,” Anita Beers said. “He never saw problems, he always saw possibilities and solutions … and so, for him to be law enforcement, it was about trying to help shape the world into what he knew it could become. He had a strong belief in just the pure goodness that existed in everyone.”
Fred Beers always wanted to fly and was thrilled when he was given the chance to join the air support unit two years ago. Anita Beers said her husband got his pilot’s license and wanted to get a license to fly the helicopter, as well.
“He was always there by Larry’s side,” she said. “It was more than just their job. They would be out there on their days off making sure that everything was perfect, they’d be talking after hours about flying, they’d be figuring out things that they wanted to do. It was their passion.”
It was a passion that Fred Beers passed down to his teenage son, along with his love of backpacking, hiking and camping.
Reeling after being told of her husband’s death, Anita Beers said she knew she had to make sure that Daniel wasn’t the last to know.
BCSO officials got in touch with the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado and deputies set out on horseback looking for the Boy Scouts.
“They rode out onto the trail – all those miles where he was off – and they found him and they brought him back on horseback,” Anita Beers said. “They brought him to a spot where they had cellphone reception so I could tell him.”
Two of Fred Beers’ good friends and Anita’s father drove all day Sunday to bring Daniel back home safe by Monday morning.
Rescue Specialist Matthew King, 44
After their helicopter crashed in a remote part of San Miguel County, Matthew King, mortally wounded, pulled out his phone and dialed 911. He stayed on the line for more than a half hour trying to direct first responders to the crash site.
Brian King said he is not surprised that his brother’s last instinct was a selfless act.
“Matthew could have called anybody. … And instead he called 911, gave the coordinates as best he could to try to get rescue to save them,” Brian King told the Journal. “… At death’s doorstep and he’s still trying to help people, it makes you feel proud. It makes you feel, like, ‘There you go, you want to talk about Matt? Let’s talk about the very last thing he did.’”
Despite how agonizing it is to think of his little brother’s final moments, he said Matthew King was doing what he was born to do — help others.
King was one of three siblings raised in Albuquerque, and his brother said he wanted to be a firefighter “as long as I could recall.” The brothers, only two years apart, were inseparable, and Matthew King would often drag him to an elderly neighbor’s house to see if they needed anything.
“He’s just always wanted to help people. I think that just made the most sense to him,” Brian King said. He said his brother was a little politician who was “glad handing” from a young age and had a sharp sense of humor.
King added, with a chuckle, “I used to say, ‘When I grow up, I want to be Matt,’ even though he was my little brother.”
Matthew King graduated from Eldorado High School before training to be a paramedic, which he did for 17 years while raising two children, Aedden and Kyra, now 20 and 17, with his wife, Audrey. Brian King said his brother was a doting father and “rare parent” who knew how to discipline his kids without making them bitter.
The Bernalillo County Fire Department said King had been with them for 11 years and was also a part-time instructor in the Emergency Medical Services program at Central New Mexico Community College.
“He was in the perfect job for himself,” Brian King said. “He deeply, deeply cared about people.”
He said his brother would take patients to the hospital and return after his shift was up to check on them. He never let the darker side of his job make him jaded or “let it color his opinion of humanity.”
“Everybody was worth saving – and he never lost sight of that,” Brian King said.
Greg Bobick, a battalion chief in Sandoval County, said he and King started out as firefighters at the same time. He said King was the partner you wanted on the hard calls.
“He would help de-stress … be humorous and make people smile,” Bobick said, calling King “probably the smartest medic” he ever worked with and “full of integrity.”
“At the end of the day, first responders are people with a servant’s heart, someone who is willing to serve. And that was definitely Matt – it didn’t matter who it was, he was there to serve them and that’s truly who he was,” he said.
Brian King said some family expressed concern after his brother joined the Metro Air Support unit, taking on such assignments as rappelling from a helicopter to save lost hikers. He said King took a break at one point, but, eventually, went back to the team.
“I think he was drawn to that … he was very courageous – it’s another thing that he knew he was good at,” Brian King said. “He would rather see himself … in high-risk situations than other people.”
He said his knowledge of his brother’s job was from movies or television and the questions he would ask him, like what was it like flying on the helicopter, being hoisted down from the air, saving a life? Brian King said he has “cried a million tears” since his parents broke the news to him Saturday night.
“We’re all so incredibly proud of Matthew, we’re sad and we wish that it didn’t happen, but there aren’t really any regrets. There’s no ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda,’” he said.
King said he will miss calling his brother, when he would have a crappy day and ask him to make him laugh or get something off his chest. He said he had a knee-jerk reaction to make such a call after hearing what happened. To talk to his brother again.
“Man, he was born to do what he did. And I think we’ve all found relief in knowing he died doing what he loved. You know, we all wish he wasn’t on that helicopter,” he said. “He loved being a part of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County – I couldn’t wait to get out of Albuquerque. He couldn’t wait to spend his life in Albuquerque.”
Deputy Michael Levison, 30
Noelle Ashoo has run out of tears.
She sits beside framed photos of Michael Levison, the love of her life and longtime partner. Ashoo wears every piece of jewelry Levison ever gave her, even the cheesy ones, like the handcuff key “to his heart.”
Levison’s Air National Guard dog tags jingle on her neck, his ruby red class ring adorns her finger and his BCSO name tape is pinned to her shirt. Ashoo said she found it all in his room “in this little box perfectly laid out.”
“For me, they’re just everything,” she said, clutching the dog tags.
When she opened his “in the event of” paperwork, there was a sticky note attached. It said, “See, I told you I would take care of you.” In recent months, the couple had talked about having kids, but decided they weren’t quite ready yet.
“It just never occurred to us that we wouldn’t get to,” Ashoo said.
“This is rough, but, because of him, I actually feel loved and I’m not afraid. I’m angry and it’s going to be lonely … not having him,” she said. “But – if that’s anything – he made sure that I was loved. And I knew it.”
The couple, who have been together for 13 years, met in middle school when they were both in band. He played the bassoon and she was on percussion.
They became friends and began dating at Volcano Vista High School. He bought her a Dr. Pepper, perfume and a necklace for her 16th birthday.
She said Levison wanted to join the Air National Guard to become a pilot and follow in his brother’s footsteps, but he couldn’t fly due to his eyesight and height. Levison joined regardless in 2011 and deployed in 2015 to such places as Jordan and the Dominican Republic.
While in far-flung locales over nine months, Ashoo said Levison would wake up extra early, pretending not to be tired, just to talk to her every day.
When he got back, she said he did an internship with the U.S. Marshals and met some BCSO deputies along the way. From there, he was determined to serve.
“He just walked in one day and was like, ‘I’m doing this,’” Ashoo said.
Levison would sometimes come home and tell her “not to touch him” because he had been spit on. Ashoo said she questioned why he did such a job for “people who don’t care about you” as he worked five days a week from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“He was like, ‘No, this is my job. This is my calling,’ ” Ashoo said. “And when he started with the county, I had never seen him so happy. It was everything he wanted to do.”
She said Levison had a big heart and always “went to bat for the little guy.” At home, he was relaxed and funny – often telling “god-awful” corny jokes.
Ashoo said he would spoil her rotten with “grand gestures,” such as when she was struggling financially during the pandemic and he paid all of her bills. She said they would often just stay in on days off, side by side, her reading as he played video games.
“It was just being together, we didn’t have to go spend money, we didn’t have to go do things, we could just exist,” Ashoo said. “We didn’t have to do a lot or have a major hobby, it was just that time together is what mattered.”
Something in the way he said her name would create a spark, she said, “literally, hearts popping out of my head.” Since Levison’s death, his friends told her he had steeled himself to propose three times, but “it wasn’t perfect enough.”
“I told him he could have pulled a Cracker Jack prize out and I would have been totally fine. I didn’t care. I was just happy with him,” Ashoo said. “I don’t know what ‘perfect’ was, but, whatever it was, I’m sure it was going to be absolutely out of this world.”
She said July 16 started as “a normal day” for the Metro Air Support unit.
Ashoo said Levison texted her that he was headed back home around 6:30 p.m. She knew something was wrong as the hours passed with no response.
“He was really good about sending an ‘I love you’ or ‘doing OK’ – like clockwork,” she said. Then she began to get messages from people asking where she was, exactly.
Around 11 p.m., Ashoo said a truck pulled up and a BCSO captain got out. When he told her what happened, she cursed at him, accusing him of lying or telling “a sick joke.”
“He was like, ‘I would give anything to tell you it’s unconfirmed. I would give anything to tell you it’s a joke. I would give anything to not be here right now doing this because this isn’t right,’ ” she said.
Ashoo added, “Of all people, these four guys. They all served a purpose. They were all doing great things … to just go out like that.”
People have since asked her if she wants to hear the facts.
“I don’t want to know, I have an image in my head that he passed without pain and that’s what I’m going to hold on to,” Ashoo said.
She said Levison’s fellow deputies came and stayed with her in rotating shifts. They cried together and shared stories of him – stories she hadn’t heard, of the good he did.
“He did all this great stuff,” Ashoo said. “These people, they really liked him. He was a good guy. Not that I questioned any of that. I was just like, ‘This is so wonderful to hear.’”
She said it reinforced the man he was and the difference between them. That, despite her “piss poor” attitude on the human race, he never batted an eye.
“I’m going to miss the fact that he actually wanted to make the world a better place, and, for me, I couldn’t care less,” Ashoo said. “Like people don’t care about people and no matter how much you try, very few people care.
“For him, you could have spit on him, beat him up and he still would have offered you the shirt off his back. Something I wish I would have grasped and learned from him.”