Shooting victim battled drugs; Many questions unanswered by police

Published: Saturday, Nov. 3 2012 6:08 p.m. MDT

WEST VALLEY CITY — Melissa Kennedy knows her daughter wasn't perfect.

But she doesn't understand what it is that her daughter did so wrong that prompted West Valley police to shoot and kill her.

"Everything that keeps going through my mind is speculation. Did she get back on drugs? Was she really clean? Was it wrong place at the wrong time? I don't know," Kennedy said Saturday from her home in Vancouver, Wash.

Just before 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Danielle Misha Willard, 21, was shot and killed by undercover West Valley police officers in the parking lot of the Lexington Park Apartments, 2293 W. Lexington Park Drive (3710 South). An officer also suffered minor injuries during the encounter.

Many questions about the incident remained unanswered Saturday, including whether Willard was the intended target of the police investigation that brought them to the parking lot, and why the officer or officers involved fired. Police also would not comment if anyone else was in the car the Willard.

West Valley Police Sgt. Mike Powell said Saturday that the officer who was hurt had been released from the hospital. He refused to comment on how the officer was injured or offer any details on the investigation.

"We want to complete the investigation before any specific details are announced," Powell said. "It's in our best interest and everyone's best interest to collect all details before any specific statement is made."

He would not release the names of the officers involved, but confirmed that two officers were on paid administrative leave, which is protocol on any officer-involved shooting.

Family members of Willard, who have seen pictures of the incident from news websites, said the gray Subaru in the parking lot at the center of the investigation on Friday, is the car Danielle's father gave her. They said they too are not being told much about what happened.

Kayleen Willard, Danielle's younger sister, said she had heard that Danielle was in the passenger seat and someone else was in the driver's seat.

Police used white sheets Friday to cover the body of Danielle Willard, which was on the ground outside her vehicle on the passenger side. Her front windshield had what appeared to be two bullet holes. The passenger window was broken and the driver's side window also appeared to be shattered.

A red SUV that also had shattered glass around it, appeared to have T-boned the rear of Danielle's car. Powell said Saturday that the SUV was not related to the incident, but declined to say how it ended up with the passenger side door up against the rear bumper of the Subaru.

Although Danielle Willard's life ended violently, her family said she was not a violent person.

"Danielle is a sweetheart. She's got a big heart. She would give the clothes off her back for anybody. I used to get mad at her because she would use so much gas in our car because someone would want a ride home. She couldn't tell them no," Kennedy said.

But her family also knew that Danielle could not shake her demons. Willard grew up in the Vancouver, Wash. and Gresham, Ore. areas. In junior high school she was introduced to drugs. For the past three to four years of her life, she was addicted to heroin.

 In April, she moved to Utah to enter a sober house.

"She went there to a sober house to get clean. She was doing so good," her mother said.

Willard rented her own apartment in Murray. Her sister remembers when Danielle went back to Washington to visit a couple of months ago - the last time she ever saw her sister -  it was a positive meeting.

"The last time I saw her was probably the best way I could have ended it because it was when she was completely sober and she was just so happy and back to the way she normally was when we were closer together and she was not on the drugs," Kayleen Willard said.

Kayleen said her father encouraged Danielle to stay. Instead, she returned to Utah. Kayleen believes it was because of her addiction.

"She's just had such an addictive personality and the heroin has controlled her life, and I believe she didn't want to be sober. She wanted to be on the drugs. I don't think her rehab changed her mind at all.  She liked the way she was and she didn't want to change. They ultimately controlled her life," she said.

Despite her addiction, Danielle Willard's family believes when the shooting happened, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"She's never been known to be a violent person. She's 100 pounds soaking wet. She's only 21 years old. She's a tiny little thing. What could she possibly have done, other than having a gun, what could she have done to provoke them to shoot her? Even at that, they have to tell her to stop first. She would have stopped. I know she would have. I've never ever known her to keep a gun with her or anywhere around here," Kennedy said.

Her mother conceded, however, that if Danielle was back on drugs, she might have tried to fight with officers. 

Growing up, Danielle Willard was a star track runner. She also played soccer and volleyball, her mother said. Kayleen said she and her sister fought when they were younger. But she admired her older sister.

"I always wanted to be like her. She always inspired me, because she was always so happy. She always seemed to be the crowd pleaser. She always seemed to brighten up a room," Willard said. "She was an inspiration to me, she made me be the person I am today. She made me want to be a better person growing up. She will always be in my thoughts and my heart, and she's in a better place right now and I'll see her again some day."

Danielle Willard started getting into trouble in high school. She was convicted of misdemeanor theft in 2009 and 2011 in Oregon, according to records.

Kennedy said she is trying to keep a realistic perspective of what was going on with her daughter's life at the time of her death. Although she had had drug use problems, her mother did not believe she was dealing drugs.

As for the public, Kennedy hoped they wouldn't judge her daughter based on the violent and tragic ending to her life alone.

"She obviously had a lot of conflict inside her. But what people need to know is she had a very good soul. She was a giving person," her mother said. "I know that Danielle made mistakes. I know a lot people are saying, 'Another piece of (expletive deleted) off the street.' If she was doing drugs, if she was dealing, yeah, that's the bottom line.

"But that little girl had a family. All the people that do bad things out there have families who love them. It would be really, really nice if people would realize that."

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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