SALT LAKE CITY — Shortly after 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 27, Salt Lake police officer Uppsen Downes pulled up to the light at 600 S. State. Pedestrians started tapping on the windows of his patrol car, pointing across the street to The Grand America Hotel, where an armed man in military combat gear was pacing.
Robyn Salmon, a security employee at the hotel and former longtime police department secretary, had just shown that man out of the lobby into an underground parking garage and called the police. Downes started to hear requests for officers over his radio.
The two quiet, unassuming heroes were honored Monday for their roles in defusing what could have been a much deadlier incident. Downes, 34, received a Purple Heart and the Medal of Valor, the department's highest honor. Salmon, 59, was awarded a public service medal.
Thanks to them, the only life lost was that of the gunman, a troubled veteran.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker paid tribute to their bravery and quick thinking Monday in a brief ceremony at the Salt Lake City-County Building. Their actions "averted what could have been an absolute disaster situation," Becker said.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller on Friday sent a letter to the police department stating that Downes' use of deadly force against Army Spec. Brandon S. Barrett, 28, was "legally justified."
Police Chief Chris Burbank said Barrett had posted online his intent to do something in Salt Lake City that would make him famous. The Army veteran told friends he was going to make a name for himself, Burbank said.
Eight days before the shooting, Barrett had been classified as a deserter from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, in Tacoma, Wash. He served in Afghanistan with a NATO security task force from July 2009 to June 2010.
Burbank said it's not clear how long Barrett had been in the city when he showed up at the Grand America carrying a .223-caliber assault rifle, two handguns, a bipod and almost 1,000 rounds of ammunition. He was wearing a bulletproof vest, shoulder pads and a helmet.
Salmon, whose father was an assistant Salt Lake police chief, worked for the department for 37 years before going to work at the hotel five years ago. She was supposed to leave work at 3 p.m. that day but stayed late to help someone with a problem at a parking booth.
She came back into the lobby right behind Barrett and noticed the rifle slung over his shoulder, his hand on the pistol grip. He walked to an elevator. Salmon asked if she could help him.
"I need to go up," he told Salmon. To what floor? "Just up," he said.
Barrett then asked instead where the stairwell was. Salmon said there wasn't one and that he needed to leave.
"OK," he replied, according to Salmon. "Then you better call the police." She did just that as he walked out.
Salmon said Barrett seemed determined but not aggressive.
"I just did what I did. I wasn't afraid," she said. "I just felt like he was on a mission."
Burbank speculated that Barrett wanted to go to an upper floor to set up a sniper position. "I don't know what else you use a scope and a bipod for," the chief said.
Barrett passed two men, who thanked him for his military service, and started pacing between 500 South and 600 South. Downes, also an Army veteran with six years of military police experience, and who joined the Salt Lake police force a little over a year ago, was the first officer to confront him.
"I was hoping it was just a training exercise, that it was not a big deal, that there was a reason for him to be out there," Downes said.
But when Downes asked him to drop the rifle, Barrett opened fire, spraying bullets that hit several vehicles. Downes was struck in the left calf as he herded an unarmed hotel security guard behind his patrol car. He fired back three times from 75 feet away, one fatal shot hitting Barrett in the side of the head.
The only other officers to receive a Medal of Valor in recent memory were those involved in the Trolley Square shooting in February 2007, Burbank said.
"There's no question in my mind the acts of these two individuals saved lives," he said.
Salmon downplayed her award. "I'm surprised and very honored to have it come from the department I love," she said.
"I didn't really do that much. These guys do more every day."5 comments on this story
Burbank said his department will continue to work with the military to investigate what caused Barrett to leave his post and come to Utah.
Downes is recovering from his leg wound and expects to return to work in the coming days. He feels compassion for the man he was forced to kill.
"It hit home because I feel maybe he got let down by the service," Downes said.
To others who suffer the way Barrett apparently did, Downes would say, "Don't be afraid to get help. You don't know how bad it is until it gets to that point, and then it's probably too late."