District attorney drops 19 criminal cases linked to West Valley detective

Mom of woman killed by police believes dismissals, her case are connected

Published: Wednesday, March 20 2013 7:05 p.m. MDT

West Valley police officers

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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WEST VALLEY CITY — The Salt Lake County district attorney dismissed 19 criminal cases Wednesday because of apparent credibility issues involving a West Valley police detective who headed those investigations.

The criminal cases date back as far as four years and most of the charges are drug-related. 

Gill declined to name the officer or share details about the complaints against him. The detective may face criminal charges as the investigation continues, he said.

West Valley Police Sgt. Jason Hauer would only identify the officer as a detective in the department's narcotics division. He also would not comment about whether the detective has any connection to the controversial police shooting death of Danielle Willard more than four months ago.

But Willard's mother strongly believes there is a connection.

"I know for a fact that (the dismissed cases are) related to my daughter's case and I'm ecstatic that it's finally coming out," Melissa Kennedy told the Deseret News from her home in Vancouver, Wash., Wednesday night. "This police officer was very highly involved in Danielle's shooting."

Kennedy said she knows this from conversations with West Valley officers and her high profile Los Angeles-based attorney, Mark Geragos, whose clients have included Michael Jackson and Winona Ryder.

On Nov. 2, Willard was shot and killed in the parking lot of the Lexington Park Apartments, 2293 W. Lexington Park Drive (3710 South), by one or two undercover West Valley police officers conducting a narcotics investigation. An autopsy report showed she was shot twice in the head. West Valley police have remained very tight lipped about the circumstances surrounding the shooting and their longer-than-normal investigation.

Gill was scheduled to meet either late this week or early next week with West Valley police and other investigators for two days to discuss the Willard shooting.

Hauer said the detective at the center of the dismissed cases has been with West Valley police for "a few years," although he wasn't sure how many. An internal review is being conducted in the department, but for now the case appears to be isolated to a single detective who has been placed on paid administrative leave while the investigation is conducted.

Hauer confirmed West Valley police uncovered the issue internally before turning the investigation over to an outside agency, calling it an "evidentiary issue." He maintained that it does not appear that anyone in the 19 cases was wrongfully charged.

"The West Valley City Police Department understands that conducting these types of investigations is a necessary part of maintaining public trust and the integrity within the department," Hauer said. 

Gill said an ongoing investigation by Salt Lake police revealed that the credibility of those cases had been impacted.

"Thankfully, this is rare, and it's unfortunate, but this is also how our system is supposed to work," Gill said. "When we see those errors, we're supposed to correct them immediately. That's exactly what we're doing, because I think our citizens deserve that and expect that from us as public institutions."

The 19 distinct investigations are at various stages, Gill said. The officer in question was the lead investigator in all those cases. Gill said his office will also look into additional criminal cases in which the officer played a role.

If any of the defendants charged in the 19 cases are incarcerated, Gill said they will be released as long as they aren’t being held on any other charges.

An overwhelming majority of the cases pertained to possession of drugs and other drug-related charges, including varying levels of misdemeanors and felonies. While most of the defendants are Latino, Hauer said the case does not appear to be a discrimination issue.

Even though some information about Willard's shooting death is starting to come out, Kennedy said there was much more that still needs to be released by West Valley police.

"There's still cover up. There's still stuff out there they will not share. My attorney has filed a final report for all of rest of Danielles' belongings," she said.

Gerago, Willard said, has sent a notice to West Valley police demanding that certain documents and belongings of Danielle's be turned over, or face a possible lawsuit. Kennedy said she expects her attorneys will be traveling to Utah soon.

"They will do whatever they need to do," she said. "I just know I want justice for my daughter. I'm very happy Sim Gill is stepping forward and doing something about the police officers that are in West Valley that are doing things that are illegal and getting those people out of there."

Kennedy said she wanted to be in Utah but does not have the funds. She said a trust fund has been set up at Bank of America in Vancouver, Wash., under the name "Justice for Danielle," to help her legal fund, including travel expenses.

E-mail: mromero@deseretnews.com, preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: McKenzieRomero, DNewsCrimeTeam

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