Utah County sheriff's sergeant killed in plane crash near Spanish Fork
News of death came just before funeral for slain Draper officer
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.
"Even dealing with the angry and belligerent, he was that guy who always just had a calm confident spark and was polite — he said, 'Yes, sir' and 'No, sir,'" Patey said. "That is just the way he was, that quiet confidence."
Cannon and Tracy said Lessley was an accomplished officer and a leader admired by his colleagues. He was a sergeant assigned as a supervisor over court security at Utah County’s 4th District Court and joined Utah County's SMART — Subtance Misuse and Abuse Reduction Team, a volunteer coalition working to curb drug abuse in the county.
He spent the last nine years with the sheriff’s office, where he embraced a variety of leadership and supervisory training positions.
Lessley's expertise ran the gamut, including teaching drug recognition, field sobriety testing, and accompanying new officers as their field training officer, as well as serving as a hostage negotiator and emergency vehicle operator teacher.
Since February of 2012, he had been assigned to work for the Utah State Medical Examiner’s Office in his capacity as a law enforcement officer, investigating unattended or suspicious deaths.
His profile on LinkedIn says he’d been a certified flight instructor at the Spanish Fork-based Diamond Flight Center since March of 2009.
Lessley was a graduate of Brigham Young University, where he spent his first four years in law enforcement. He had a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in public administration. He served an LDS mission to Georgia and South Carolina and in a personal biography noted that he may have been the only police officer in Utah County to have performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at multiple venues.
According to his Facebook page, Lessley was a fan of SkyCraft planes. SkyCraft manufactures SD-1 Minisports at its Orem location. Allen Kenitzer, spokesman with the Federal Aviation Administration, said Lessley was piloting a SD-1 Minisport, a Czech Republic-designed plane that was a kit built in Orem.
Kenitzer said the FAA registry shows it was a brand new plane as of January 2013, and Tracy added that Lessley was working at the request of others to test the worthiness of the plane.
Patey noted that Lessley was an "exceptional pilot" who had more than 1,000 hours of flight time. Unlike some in the field, Lessley was an instructor beyond just to get the additional flying time and to make money, Patey said.
When an aerobatic plane needed to be flown to Texas for its new owner, Lessley was picked for the job, and Patey went up with him on a test flight.
"I went up with him in that aerobatic airplane and it was 30 seconds and that plane was his. He could make it do anything he wanted."
Tracy said some of the safety features on the plane deployed during the crash, which will be part of the investigation conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA.
A tribute to Lessley has been put up by the Heroes Memorial Foundation.
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