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Parents of woman killed by police sue West Valley City

Daughter was shot 'assassination style' amid 'systemic corruption,' suit says

Published: Wednesday, June 12 2013 5:15 p.m. MDT

Danielle Misha Willard, 21, was shot and killed by police Nov. 2, 2012, in West Valley City. Her parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday against West Valley City and 14 of its officers. (Family photo,) Danielle Misha Willard, 21, was shot and killed by police Nov. 2, 2012, in West Valley City. Her parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday against West Valley City and 14 of its officers. (Family photo,)

WEST VALLEY CITY — The parents of a woman shot and killed by police in November filed a wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday against West Valley City and 14 police officers.

Melissa Kennedy and Frederick Willard claim in documents filed in U.S. District Court that the "brutal killing" of their daughter, 21-year-old Danielle Willard, was "untimely and unwarranted."

Willard was shot in the back of her head, "assassination style," while she was seated in her vehicle in the parking lot of an apartment complex in West Valley City on Nov. 2, the lawsuit states. Undercover narcotics officers had been casing the area and believed Willard had been involved in a drug deal, according to a statement released earlier this year by police.

Since that shooting, the West Valley Police Department disbanded its Neighborhood Narcotics Unit after several problems were uncovered, including undisclosed amounts of missing drugs and money, mishandling of evidence, officers taking items from seized vehicles and other issues.

West Valley police detective Shaun Cowley is taken to an ambulance by paramedics following the fatal shooting of Danielle Willard on Nov. 2, 2012. Willard's parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday against him, West Valley City and 13 other officers. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) West Valley police detective Shaun Cowley is taken to an ambulance by paramedics following the fatal shooting of Danielle Willard on Nov. 2, 2012. Willard's parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday against him, West Valley City and 13 other officers. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Nine officers from that unit were placed on administrative leave — including the two detectives who shot Willard, Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon — pending the outcome of several investigations.

The lawsuit says "Cowley and Salmon were engaged in a pattern and practice of illegal conduct and widespread and systemic corruption" that was sanctioned by the department.

Even though the shooting occurred more than seven months ago, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has yet to determine whether the shooting was legally justified.

Cowley's attorney, Lindsay Jarvis, said the allegations in the lawsuit are not true, particularly the "significant" claim that Willard was assassinated. “There is absolutely no evidence that is going to suggest that allegation and as such, the officers will vigorously defend themselves against all allegations as set forth in the claim,” she said.

West Valley police officers investigate the officer-involved shooting death of Danielle Willard at the Lexington Park apartments near 3715 South and 2200 West on Nov. 2, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) West Valley police officers investigate the officer-involved shooting death of Danielle Willard at the Lexington Park apartments near 3715 South and 2200 West on Nov. 2, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Since the shooting, the district attorney's office and the U.S. Attorney's Office have dismissed 124 criminal cases that were investigated by West Valley police because of credibility issues.

In April, the FBI announced its involvement in an investigation of the police department. Salt Lake police and the district attorney's office are conducting independent investigations.

The parents' suit also names the officers' supervising lieutenant, John Coyle, and former West Valley City Police Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen, who oversaw the department when the shooting incident occurred. Nielsen retired in March to recover from surgery.

Ten unnamed officers are also blamed for "misconduct and/or civil rights violations," according to the court documents.

The suit says Coyle "not only tolerated known wrongdoings by officers within his unit, but he actively participated in the rampant corruption" that ultimately led to Willard's death. It names Nielsen, saying he was ultimately responsible for his officers and refers to his alleged "lack of oversight and supervision."

Melissa Kennedy talks about her daughter, Danielle Willard, as friends, family and concerned citizens protest her death at the hands of police in West Valley City on Jan. 22, 2013. She filed a wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday against West Valley City and 14 officers. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Melissa Kennedy talks about her daughter, Danielle Willard, as friends, family and concerned citizens protest her death at the hands of police in West Valley City on Jan. 22, 2013. She filed a wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday against West Valley City and 14 officers. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Kennedy and Frederick Willard, both of Washington state, are seeking unspecified damages in the suit.

"The widespread corruption and misconduct of West Valley City officers are all factors leading to the shooting death of Danielle Willard," the suit alleges.

West Valley City officials did not immediately return a request for comment.

The suit was filed by Los Angeles attorney Mark Geragos, who has represented such high-profile clients as Michael Jackson, Winona Ryder and Scott Peterson.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com Twitter: wendyleonards

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