Was deal in City Creek shooting plot yanked over political pressure?
SALT LAKE CITY — Attorneys for a man accused of plotting a mass shooting at City Creek Center are asking whether a broken plea deal was the result of political pressure from police and officials with the shopping center.
Defense attorneys say prosecutors revoked a plea bargain that involved treatment and dismissal of the case against Jack Harry Stiles after they received "communications" from Salt Lake police and attorneys for downtown's City Creek Center. The defense wants more information about these communications.
"This is extremely awkward, because I freely admit this might have not happened," Stiles' defense attorney, Neal Hamilton, said. "If not, it puts Salt Lake police and City Creek in an untenable situation. It was clear that those communications were the basis for the state backing out of the agreement, but if the state made up these communications to justify a change of heart or were bending to political pressure I don't know."
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said his office will not discuss plea agreements, but he reiterated that Stiles made disturbing threats that the office took seriously. In all cases handled by his office, Gill said, input is considered from all parties involved.
"In terms of anything with Salt Lake City Police Department and City Creek, it's like any other case," Gill said. "We have to take into account all other information from alleged victims and people involved and faction that out. Sometimes you can have a meeting of the minds, and sometimes you can't."
On Aug. 12, a West Valley police officer was called to Pioneer Valley Hospital by a crisis worker working with Stiles. The 43-year-old man had apparently outlined "specific, detailed plans to engage in a mass shooting" on Sept 25, the anniversary of his mother's death, according to the charging documents.
His targets included City Creek Center, where he planned to "just randomly shoot and kill people" during lunch time and Sugarhouse Movies 10 where he had already scoped out the exits in the theater and planned to "shoot people's heads off" from the back of the room, the charges state. His final target was going to be a UTA bus or TRAX train where he allegedly planned to place a bomb under the bus and have it detonate on Main Street right when it went under the pedestrian walkway at City Creek Center.
Hamilton said he understands why the crisis worker who spoke with Stiles might have been concerned and called police, but he believes the ultimate result should have been treatment, not prosecution.
"These were not threats. These were symptoms," he said. "Jack called 911. He asked for police and fire, he asked to be hospitalized. Jack did not like what was going on in his head, so he blew the whistle and sought treatment."
Hamilton noted his client didn't own a gun and said police have confirmed that "if he tried to buy a gun, he would be unable to buy a gun."
Hamilton pointed out in court documents that it took several weeks for charges to be filed. Once assigned, he said he and fellow defense attorneys put together a "dream team" of mental health professionals who determined Stiles was "low risk," and a treatment plan was prepared.
"This treatment plan quickly became a part of negotiations, and an offer was made that, once the treatment plan was finalized, the state would enter into an informal diversion agreement with Mr. Stiles," according to a motion filed in 3rd District Court.
The agreement allowed for dismissal of the criminal case "when a benchmark in treatment was reached" and the release of Stiles from jail in the interim, court documents state. But the night before the scheduled release, the state pulled the offer.
"In explaining its decision, the state explained that it had received communications (including emails) from officers with the Salt Lake City Police Department and from Kirton/McConkie, counsel for City Creek Center, regarding the anticipated resolution and dismissal of Mr. Stiles' case," defense attorneys wrote in a motion filed last week. "Defense counsel was told that in light of these communications the state would no longer be honoring the informal diversion agreement."
State prosecutors allegedly told the defense that police and City Creek officials would rather see the state lose the case at a preliminary hearing than dismiss it, the motion states. If the case was dismissed as part of the plea deal, "press conferences would be held assigning liability on the (district attorney's) office and (Salt Lake Legal Defender Association)."
"The state clearly represented that it was under pressure to not dismiss this case, and that in light of the publicity a different resolution needed to be reached," the motion states, adding that it was also suggested that police somehow threatened Stiles.
The motion requests additional, specific information from prosecutors about these communications. Hamilton said he tried to be discreet about the issue in an initial motion as they understand the potential sensitivities and tried to avoid publicly discussing plea negotiations, but eventually had to outline the defense's request to obtain the information as the case moves forward.
"If these representations are true, then this is information that is essential for my client to have a fair trial," Hamilton said. "I don't know if these representations are true or not. I have to look into that and see if the representations made by the state regarding these statements are accurate.
"We are confident about what the state told us, but, unfortunately, we can't be confident about whether that's accurate."
Gill said an informal diversion agreement is "legal fiction." Generally, it is common for there to be a number of discussions about possible plea agreements, he said, but the prosecution team handling each case makes the ultimate decision.
Defense attorneys have also filed a motion to disqualify Gill's office, alleging that "newly assigned prosecutor" Heather McGinley violated state law by obtaining confidential information about Stiles from treatment providers and then sharing that with others in her office as well as other third parties.
Gill said McGinley is on his office's mental health court team and is working on the case with the lead prosecutor, Jeff Hall. He said his office will address the motions in court filings and before a judge.
"They're entitled to make their motions and we will address them in court," Gill said.
A hearing has been set for June 6. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for the following week.
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