Deputy Joe Harris

Our Inspiration: Sheriff's Deputy Joe Harris
Posted on 07/29/2020

Once upon a time, students in Rio Rancho schools eagerly awaited the arrival on their campus of a big man with a badge and a Golden Retriever named Harley.  He was there for a serious purpose: to help students learn about the danger of drugs and the value of literacy and learning.  But he was accessible and approachable, a mentor to a generation of Rio Rancho kids who loved him and adored Harley.  One little girl with autism who was unable to speak said her first words to Harley, connecting with him in a way she never had with anyone or anything else.  The big deputy took notice and soon, with fellow officers, gave her very own Golden, a puppy named Honey.

Photos of Joe Harris

Joe Harris presents dog to girlThat was Joe Harris, Sandoval County Sheriff’s Deputy and previously one of the first dozen sworn officers in the Rio Rancho Police Department.  Joe’s special mission was the well-being of children throughout Sandoval County.  He was instrumental in implementing the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program in Rio Rancho Schools and warning students away from drugs, gangs, and violence.  He and Harley were also part of the Sandoval County S.O. Kasey Says program (later part of Watermelon Mountain Ranch) which promotes the connection between children and therapy dogs to encourage good behavior.

Joe and Harley were well-known not just in the schools but throughout the community, marching in parades, appearing at civic events, and fundraising for local causes, including the Rio Rancho Education Foundation, for which Harley “created” paw-paintings for auction benefitting schools (shown in the photo gallery).

Joe Harris headshot

But there was another side to Joe Harris – the dedicated law enforcement officer whose job sometimes requires paying the ultimate price.  On a summer night in July 2009, Joe and a fellow officer were conducting a stakeout operation in a remote cabin in the Jemez Mountains, targeting a serial burglary suspect known as the “Cookie Bandit.”  Unknown to Joe, the “Cookie Bandit” was in fact Joseph Anthony Burgess, wanted for a double murder decades earlier in Canada.  When Burgess broke into the cabin, the officers confronted him.  Burgess fatally wounded Joe, but Joe was able to return fire and take out his assailant.

Carl Leppelman, Joe Harris, & Harvey

Joe Harris was the first Sandoval County Sheriff’s Deputy to lose his life in the line of duty.  Some two thousand people, including hundreds of police officers from around the state and many friends in the Rio Rancho schools, honored Joe as he received his “last call” and was laid to rest with full honors.    

The photo at left, taken the first day of school in 2006, shows Joe and Harley on duty, with RRPS Chief Academic Officer Carl Leppelman.

 In November 2009, the Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education voted to name its next elementary school in honor of Deputy Joe Harris.  Our school also honors Harley and his fellow therapy dogs through the school's mascot, the Golden Retrievers.  To this day, many people in Rio Rancho fondly remember Joe and remain grateful for the positive impact he had on the children of this community.