Two members of the local hot-air ballooning community died of apparent gunshot wounds Monday, after one shot the other and barricaded himself in a camping trailer after an officer fired at him, according to New Mexico State Police.
The incident happened in the KOA Campground in Bernalillo.
State Police Lt. Elizabeth Armijo said in a news release that preliminary information indicates two Bernalillo Police officers were dispatched to a shots-fired call at the campground at 555 South Hill Road about 6:30 p.m. on Labor Day. Callers to 911 said Fernand “Fred” Lété, 70, of Rio Rancho, had shot another man inside a trailer.
Armijo wrote that when officers announced their presence at the camper, Lété opened the door armed with a revolver. One Bernalillo officer fired multiple shots, and Lété retreated into the trailer and barricaded himself inside.
Surrounding law enforcement agencies were called, and responders blocked off the area around the camper. Armijo wrote that State Police officers used equipment to check the interior of the trailer and saw what appeared to be two deceased men.
Officers entered and found Lété unresponsive with apparent gunshot wounds. Although emergency medical personnel were contacted, he died on scene, Armijo said.
Michael LaPlante, 55, also of Rio Rancho, was dead of apparent gunshot wounds when police found him, she wrote.
Armijo said they discovered a .38-caliber revolver near Lété’s body.
State Police are investigating the officer-involved shooting as well as LaPlante’s homicide. They weren’t releasing any more information.
Kim Vesely, a Rio Rancho hot-air balloonist, said she knew both men.
“I knew Mike LaPlante slightly, and have known Fred Lété for more than 30 years and counted him as a friend,” she wrote in an email. “I am stunned and saddened by the news of their deaths. Balloonists are a small, tight-knit community, and this is a devastating loss for all of us. My heart and prayers go out to Fred's and Mike's families and friends.”
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity said Lété and LaPlante had been involved respectably in the fiesta for many years.
Over the last 15 years, LaPlante worked his way up from a zebra in training to a chief launch official overseeing other launch directors at the fiesta, Garrity said. Launch directors are also known as “zebras” because of the black-and-white striped shirts they wear.
“Mike helped Balloon Fiesta to be successful and will be missed by our community,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those impacted by Monday night’s events.”
Garrity said LaPlante was an avid barbecue enthusiast who was a fan of Traeger brand grills. He was very involved in scouting and had worked as a crew member at Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron.
“He’s just generally likeable and is someone you would want to have as a friend,” Garrity said.
Lété was a pilot who flew at the balloon fiesta and other events. The website for the Colorado Springs Labor Day Lift Off listed him as a pilot in the balloon rally last weekend.
A 2015 Observer article shows he piloted a balloon that lifted off from Eagle Ridge Middle School that October as part of the Albuquerque Aloft program. According to the article, his wife taught him to fly and he in turn taught a long-time ERMS educator to be a pilot.