Utah County sheriff's sergeant killed in plane crash near Spanish Fork

News of death came just before funeral for slain Draper officer

Published: Friday, Sept. 6 2013 12:30 p.m. MDT

Jay Lessley, a sergeant with the Utah County Sheriff's Department, was killed in an early morning plane crash near Spanish Fork Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. Lessley was off duty at the time of the accident.

Family Photo

SPANISH FORK — The tears had not yet dried when the unspeakable news began to ripple across Utah's law enforcement community Friday morning: another officer lost, another officer's death.

As police and others in the emergency services community in Utah and beyond prepared for the funeral marking the in-the-line-of-duty death of Draper Police Sgt. Derek Johnson, word spread that Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Jay Dee Lessley had been killed.

Lessley, 40, a 13-year veteran of law enforcement, died on impact in an 8 a.m. Friday crash of an experimental airplane that nose-dived into a field about a mile northwest of the Spanish Fork/Springville Airport.

Lessley, a flight instructor from Mapleton, was putting the aircraft through its air-worthiness paces for its certification with the Federal Aviation Administration when the crash happened. He was the only occupant in the plane.

His sudden death made an already difficult morning so much worse for the Utah County Sheriff's Office.

"We here at the sheriff's office will be trying to adjust to the loss of one of our own," said Sgt. Spencer Cannon. "No matter how the circumstances happened, it is tragic nonetheless. And he was known by many, appreciated and loved by many as well."

The sheriff's office and the Utah Law Enforcement Memorial organization struggled throughout the morning, balancing the need to alert others of the accidental death of an officer while not detracting from the funeral of one shot to death just a few days earlier.

Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy waited until partway through Johnson's funeral in West Valley City before making the announcement of Lessley's death.

"We were trying desperately to not influence anything today to take away from the funeral occurring at this time," he said Friday during a noon press conference.

The sheriff added that while Lessley's death was an accident, it makes it no less painful for his colleagues, adding that the agency lost a brother.

"He was well-liked," he said. "He was an individual who made a difference."

Lessley, a Montana native, was an experienced and "meticulous" pilot who flew for the sheriff's office in prisoner extraditions and multiple search and rescues, Tracy said. He is survived by his wife, Heather, and 13-year-old daughter, Samara, who often accompanied him on personal flights.

Cannon said he was Lessley's supervisor for four years in drug and alcohol enforcement, but beyond that, Lessley was a good personal friend. The two of them often enjoyed family activities off-duty.

Lessley's passion was to fly, he said, and it was a goal he worked hard on his own time to achieve.

"He was driven," Cannon said. "This was his passion."

Cannon, like so many others at the sheriff's office, was preparing to attend Johnson's funeral Friday when he and his colleagues got word of the crash and they soon realized the fatality was one of their own.

"It kind of compounds the tragedy," Cannon said. "As I got the first phone call on this, I was preparing myself to go to that funeral. And for myself, and so many others at the sheriff's office, our plans changed."

Mark Patey knew Lessley well, forging a friendship through their shared love of aviation.

"He was just the nicest guy. He was a soft-spoken, but confident man."

Patey went on ride-alongs with Lessley through the sheriff's office, but he said his friend's quiet demeanor didn't change.

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