They took away a huge part of my life. She was one of my best friends, she was one of my idols and I looked up to her more than anything in the entire world and with her being just gone within a flash, it was so wrong and I just believe they need to go to jail. —Kayleen Willard
WEST VALLEY CITY — Kayleen Willard on Sunday said the police officers who shot and killed her sister last November need to be held criminally accountable for their actions.
"They took away a huge part of my life," she said. "She was one of my best friends, she was one of my idols and I looked up to her more than anything in the entire world and with her being just gone within a flash, it was so wrong and I just believe they need to go to jail."
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced Thursday that his office had concluded that the shooting death of Danielle Willard by two West Valley City police officers was not legally justified. County prosecutors are now investigating whether to bring criminal charges against the officers.
Danielle Willard was shot inside her car at the Lexington Park Apartments on Nov. 2, 2012. She was 21.
The two officers, Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon, claim that they witnessed what they believed to be a drug deal and were moved to use deadly force after Danielle Willard backed toward Cowley with her car.
But after a nine-month investigation into the incident, including review of more than 3,800 pages of reports and interviews, the District Attorney's office reported that the officers' statements were inconsistent with the evidence and their lives were not in imminent danger.
"Ms. Willard's reversing vehicle was not traveling at detective Cowley and did not present any threat to either detective," Gill's report states. "Accordingly, detective Cowley and detective Salmon's contention that they believed Ms. Willard was going to reverse over detective Cowley was not reasonable."
Kayleen Willard said that her sister, who had struggled with drug addiction in the past, had been working to put her life together before the shooting and had made signficant progress.
She said she did not know why her sister was at the Lexington Park Apartments that night.
"When I saw her last, she was back to the way she was before," Kayleen Willard said. "She was bubbly and energetic and so excited that she was sober."
Since the shooting, Willard's family has maintained that the woman's death was not legally justified and in June Willard's mother, Melissa Kennedy, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against West Valley City and 14 police officers in federal court.
The case gained further notoriety after evidence from a separate drug case was found in the trunk of Cowley's car, which led to a departmental investigation, the disbanding of the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, the dismissal of 124 state and federal cases investigated by West Valley Police and an addition seven officers from the former drug unit being placed on paid administrative leave.
Kayleen Willard said the report by the County District Attorney's Office provides some vindication for the family. She said by shedding light on corruption in law enforcement her sister's death was not in vain and hopefully will lead to justice for other families.
"This can’t just be pushed to the side. This needs to be out so everybody knows what had happened," she said. "I feel like it’s a huge, huge loss and I feel like a piece of my heart has been always gone and I’m always constantly thinking about it, but I do believe this is a stepping stone in the right direction."
Both Cowley and Salmon remain on paid administrative leave, as do the seven former drug unit officers. On Thursday, Cowley's attorney Lindsay Jarvis said she disagrees with the County District Attorney's report and would fight any criminal charges brought against her client.
"I have the same 3,811 pages on my computer here," she said. "I don't understand this. My investigator doesn't understand this. The experts are on our side. The experts believe exactly what we say happened is what happened."
Contributing: Sandra Yi