WEST VALLEY CITY — West Valley police broke their nearly 20-week silence Thursday regarding the fatal officer-involved shooting of Danielle Willard.
But their comments sparked frustration and anger from Willard's mother and her high-profile attorney, and leave many unanswered questions about whether information collected from the shooting investigation led to the dismissal of 19 criminal cases by the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office.
The lead investigator in those 19 dismissed cases appears to be one of the officers who shot and killed Willard. The charges were dropped because of credibility questions involving that investigator.
West Valley police detective Shaun Cowley is the focus of both investigations, according to the Utah State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. The group expressed anger Thursday at District Attorney Sim Gill for letting "the cat out of the bag." The union called Gill's timing "inappropriate" and asked him to recuse himself from both the Willard shooting investigation and the investigation involving the 19 cases.
The uproar over the cases comes as the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office is preparing to begin its review of the Nov. 2, 2012, shooting in which two West Valley undercover narcotics officers shot and killed Willard, 21, during a drug investigation. A two-day meeting between the district attorney and West Valley police was scheduled for March 28-29.
Search warrants related to the fatal officer-involved shooting death of Willard were scheduled to be unsealed Thursday in 3rd District Court, but the warrants weren't available and are expected to be released on Friday. In anticipation of their release, West Valley police on Thursday confirmed that detectives Cowley and Kevin Salmon were the two officers involved in the fatal shooting.
But the department maintains that the shooting and Gill's decision to dismiss the 19 West Valley police cases — most of them drug-related — are separate investigations. West Valley also declined to say whether information gathered from one case led to the other.
"We are not prepared to draw any connections or parallels to any of those investigations," said West Valley Police Sgt. Jason Hauer.
Gill and West Valley police declined to verify whether Cowley is the detective with alleged credibility issues. Cowley's name, however, appears in most of the charging documents from the 19 dismissed cases. Other than Cowley, however, the cases don't appear to have anything to do with the shooting.
On Nov. 2, Cowley and Salmon were conducting a drug investigation at 3644 S. 2200 West. The officers witnessed what they believed to be a drug deal between David Gines and Willard, who was driving a Subaru Forester, said Hauer.
Willard then drove into the parking lot of the Lexington Park Apartments, 2293 W. Lexington Park Drive (3710 South). The two detectives believed they saw Willard trying to use drugs.
"Detective Salmon approached the vehicle from the front and detective Cowley approached from the rear of the vehicle. When the detectives reached the vehicle and identified themselves as police officers, Ms. Willard put the vehicle in reverse and backed out of the parking stall," Hauer said. "As this was occurring, detective Cowley was struck by the vehicle and both detectives Cowley and Salmon fired their service weapons. Ms. Willard was struck and killed as a result of the gunfire."
Cowley was treated at a local hospital for a minor leg injury.
Willard's mother, Melissa Kennedy, said Thursday from her home in Vancouver, Wash., that she does not believe the events of that day occurred as police described them.
"I knew that's what they would try to come up with, because that's what they have alluded to," she said. "I do not believe she was trying to get away from the officers. I've seen too many pictures and I have had too many witnesses that have proven otherwise."
Because Willard herself had recently been seeking help from police and had been contacting them frequently, Kennedy believes her daughter may have even known the plain-clothed detectives.
Is there a coverup?
Kennedy's Los Angeles-based attorney, Mark Geragos, whose clients have included Michael Jackson and Winona Ryder, had even stronger words in reaction to the police department's explanation.
"This has the earmarks of a police coverup," he said. "Enough is enough. I am coming to Salt Lake City myself. (The West Valley police description) is riddled with falsehoods that are not true. The West Valley City police should be ashamed of themselves."
On March 11, Geragos sent a letter to the department requesting some of Willard's personal items as well as information about the case. It was the second letter he sent to West Valley police. The first, sent in January, went unanswered, Geragos said.
The March letter requests Willard's cellphones and indicates there may still be evidence on them.
"Any effort to destroy that evidence will only further implicate your department in what appears to be a department-wide coverup," Geragos wrote. He also made reference to a "mysterious fire" that destroyed video that allegedly recorded the shooting.
"Being that this crucial evidence has inexplicably been destroyed, we demand you preserve all evidence relating to investigations conducted by your agency by releasing and/or making available for inspection all personal property and other evidence relating" to the Willard investigation, Geragos wrote.
Hauer said Thursday he had no information about a fire.
After the shooting, investigators say Willard's car continued to move.
"The two cars were parked parallel to each other. As she reversed out of the stall, it did a circular motion, hitting into the other vehicle," Hauer said.
The internal investigation into the shooting is still ongoing after more than four months.
"The investigation into the shooting is nearly completed and will be presented to the D.A.'s office," the sergeant said. "Thorough investigations take as much time as is required to complete every task necessary and to provide a detailed and accurate account as to what occurred during an incident. It is unrealistic to predict how long examinations and other processing of evidence will take. It sometimes takes more time than the public we serve may expect."
Salmon was also involved in a fatal officer-involved shooting in 2007. Christoper Cotton, 22, was shot and killed in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven on the corner of 3500 South and 4800 West when Cotton opened fire on police officers without warning. The actions of Salmon and another officer were determined by the district attorney's office to be justified.
Kennedy said she still has faith that the investigation about to be conducted by the district attorney's office will unveil the truth.
"Yes, I believe Sim Gill will come out with the truth," she said. "The truth will come out in the end, and I truly believe it. My faith tells me that."
But Bret Rawson, attorney for the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, issued a statement Thursday saying he is confident that both Cowley and Salmon would be cleared in the shooting investigation.
"We are confident that these officers acted appropriately to defend themselves. The investigation is ongoing, and we expect all facts will be made public. These types of incidents require officers to make split-second decisions to defend themselves and the public at large. This incident was no different. In response to actions by the decedent, these officers feared for their lives and the safety of others," the FOP said in a prepared statement.
"We expect a full and complete exoneration for these officers once the district attorney is able to review and assess the facts in this tragic matter."
Salt Lake police investigators were asked by West Valley investigators to look at four of their criminal cases in order to avoid a potential conflict of interest. During the course of that investigation, it became evident to Gill and his prosecutors that they could no longer prove 19 other cases beyond a reasonable doubt because they no longer felt they had sufficient credible evidence.
Rawson said it was "unfortunate" that the 19 cases were dismissed and he strongly criticized Gill's decision.
"There is no relationship between the events (the shooting and the 19 dismissed cases), but the fact that Mr. Gill is seeking to co-join the two can only be explained by political considerations. The timing is inappropriate. The action is inappropriate. The motivation is suspect," he said, claiming Gill was putting the "cart before the horse" in his investigation.
Although Gill did not release Cowley's name, Rawson said it was easy for the media to figure out. Gill's decision to dismiss those cases now, he said, casts a shadow over Cowley as the district attorney's officer-involved shooting review begins. Those two cases have a separate standard of review and should be investigated separately, he said, adding that West Valley investigations into Cowley's actions are still ongoing.
The majority of the 19 dismissed cases appear to involve low-level drug dealers who were arrested for selling balloons filled with heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. At least three of the defendants have long criminal records, including one who was still in the Salt Lake County Jail awaiting trial on separate charges. At least one other man has a pending court case unrelated to the dismissed case.
The majority of the cases in question involve Hispanic defendants. In several cases, the defendant was arrested and released prior to trial, and then disappeared. Those defendants still had active warrants for their arrests when their cases were dismissed, according to Utah state court records.
The man whom West Valley police say Willard was allegedly with just before she was shot is David Brandon Gines, 30. Since the shooting, Gines was charged March 6 with burglary and theft by receiving stolen property, both second-degree felonies; possession of a forgery device, a third-degree felony; and four other misdemeanors. According to court documents, Gines and another man, also named Gines, were attempted to burglarize a house and were caught with counterfeit $50 bills, drugs and drug paraphernalia when they were arrested.
In February, Gines was charged in 3rd District Court with six felony counts related to forgery and misdemeanor drug paraphernalia possession. According to charging documents, Gines was printing counterfeit money in his bedroom.
None of his charges are connected to the November shooting incident.
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