69 more West Valley cases dismissed in 'criminal justice nightmare'

Published: Monday, April 15 2013 3:35 p.m. MDT

West Valley police detective Shaun Cowley sits on the ground as he is checked out by paramedics following the shooting death of Danielle Willard on Nov. 2, 2012. Nearly 100 criminal cases investigated by the department have now been dismissed because of credibility issues connected to allegations of corruption.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY CITY — The embattled West Valley Police Department received yet another blow Monday.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill filed motions to dismiss 69 more cases investigated by West Valley police. That brings the total number of criminal cases from the department that won't be prosecuted to 96.

And that could just be the beginning.

"If you want to know what my criminal justice nightmare here is, we're just going through the first tier (of cases)," Gill said Monday, explaining that those investigations came directly from officers within the narcotics unit. He will later examine second, third and fourth tier cases where those officers had less involvement.

"We're just trying to get our arms around this issue right now."

He said the 69 cases are being dismissed "based upon issues of credibility as well as the interest of justice." The issues involving West Valley police have compromised the integrity of the evidence and his ability to obtain convictions, he said.

The district attorney said his office has so many cases to review that the investigation could keep him busy for years.

Gill previously dismissed 19 drug-related cases involving West Valley police because of credibility issues connected to allegations of corruption within the department. Those cases had all been investigated by detective Shaun Cowley. Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office have also dismissed eight federal drug-related cases from West Valley City.

The cases dismissed Monday extend beyond a single officer and involve multiple investigators from the former Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, which was disbanded in December. And while the majority of the 69 cases involved felony drug distribution charges, some of the dismissed cases now extend to gang-related and violent crime cases. One case was filed back in 2009. The majority of the dismissed cases were from 2010 to 2013.

Among the dismissed cases that will no longer be prosecuted:

• Terry Christiansen, 41, was charged in 2012 with aggravated assault and possession of of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person in addition to drug possession, after prosecutors say he got into a fight with police trying to arrest him, and cut one of the officers with a knife. The officer sustained minor injuries.

• Andrew Lee Jackson, 21, was facing felony drug distribution charges for allegedly selling marijuana, hashish and psychedelic mushrooms out of his house, located within 1,000 feet of West Valley Elementary School, in 2012. Twelve pounds of marijuana were found in Jackson's house, according to charging documents.

• When prosecutors charged Timothy Raymond Jensen, 53, last year with drug distribution, police said they found methamphetamine and more than $15,000 cash in his house.

• Herberto Martinez, 28, was charged was drug possession and DUI in 2011 after he allegedly drove over his mailbox, onto the sidewalk and into his fence. West Valley police said his blood-alcohol level was .215, or nearly three times the legal limit. He also allegedly told officers he had recently taken cocaine before driving.

• Jacob Edward Mascaro, 21, was charged with drug distribution in January. He told police he had been selling psychedelic mushrooms and ecstasy "for several months" to "pay for school."

• Margarita Soledad-Pina, 32, was charged with possession or use of a controlled substance after police said they found 307 pounds of marijuana and packaging materials concealed in the floorboards of a trailer in her garage.

• Uriel Mendoza-Hermosillo, 28, and Saul Gonzalez-Perez, 27, were charged with possession with the intent to distribute and possession of a firearm by a restricted person after police said they discovered more than 85 grams of heroin, small amounts of marijuana, a scale, packaging materials and a handgun in their home with another 752 grams of heroin located in a vehicle.

• Kevin Michael Rondas, 26, was charged with two counts of possession of a firearm by a restricted person after police said they discovered "several boxes" of .45 caliber ammunition on his porch as well two rifles, more ammunition, and more than a dozen Xanax in his home.

Many of the dismissed cases seemed to be in limbo in court. In many cases, the defendant went on the run after his or her pre-trial release and then failed to show up for a subsequent court hearing.

Some of the newly-dismissed cases had already been dropped. One case was dismissed on March 20, according to court records. Gill filed a motion in court saying: "The plaintiff no longer has sufficient credible evidence to support a conviction."

Monday's announcement came on the heels of West Valley's dramatic press conference on Friday when city officials announced that an internal investigation had uncovered six potential problem areas with the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit. Those problems ranged from undisclosed amounts of missing drugs and money, to officers taking "trophies, trinkets or souvenirs" from drug-related crime scenes, to using GPS trackers without first securing a warrant.

That investigation also uncovered the improper use of confidential informants and improper handling of evidence within the drug unit, as well as officers taking small amounts of cash and other items from seized vehicles.

The drug unit has been at the center of several investigations and controversy ever since 21-year-old Danielle Willard was shot and killed on Nov. 2 by two undercover drug detectives — Cowley and Kevin Salmon. Both have been on administrative leave since the incident.

Acting West Valley Police Chief Anita Schwemmer said evidence from a separate drug investigation was found in the trunk of Cowley's car when detectives conducted a routine search immediately following the Willard shooting. That led the department to launch an internal investigation and disband the narcotics unit in December.

Cowley's attorney has said she believes her client is being set up as the fall guy in the department's public relations crisis and believes the department intends to fire him.

Gill said Monday that dismissing the cases wasn't easy. And at this point, it was too early to tell if any officers will face potential criminal charges.

"Regardless of whether somebody is criminally charged or not, the concern for us has been that the conduct that has been alleged is so specific and so concerning ... it still is going to warrant this kind of response from us because it implicated very important constitutional protections as well as due-process rights of individuals who were involved. We have no choice but to dismiss these charges, as much as I don't want to," he said.

"The review is necessary to restore public trust, which is at risk of deteriorating."

Gill stressed, as he has in the past, that the problems are not widespread throughout the West Valley Police Department, but only rooted in a few officers.

"I think the average citizen is certainly frustrated, and I think the average citizen is rightfully concerned about what this means to the integrity of the system," he said. "I'm certainly hearing that when I go to the grocery store. But I think they also recognize not everyone is involved in it."

Calls placed to West Valley City officials for comment Monday were not returned.

Contributed: Emiley Morgan

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

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam, McKenzieRomero

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