The circumstances were tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving. Deadly force was a reasonable option to effectively bring this incident under control. —Roy Police Department Use of Force report
OGDEN — Roy police officer Jason Vanderwarf had good cause to fire his weapon the night of Jan. 4 when he and members of the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force arrived at the home of Matthew David Stewart and were met with gunfire, an internal review found.
The review also paints a chaotic scenario of officers trying to save each other's lives while under a barrage of gunfire.
"Agent Vanderwarf was forced to make split-second decisions," a Roy Police Department Use of Force report states. "The circumstances were tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving. Deadly force was a reasonable option to effectively bring this incident under control."
He was one of six officers shot while serving a search warrant at the Ogden home.
In the report, investigators recount Vanderwarf's experience, beginning with the arrival of the strike force at Stewart's home, 3268 Jackson Ave. Officers had apparently confirmed that Stewart was growing marijuana in the home and arrived to serve a search warrant.
As the agent-in-charge, Vanderwarf was the first to knock and announce his presence.
"Agent Vanderwarf repeatedly knocked on the south door … while loudly announcing his presence and authority to enter the residence stating 'police, search warrant' multiple times," the report states. "One other member of the team joined him in this announcement."
There was no reply, prompting officers to enter the home while continuing to announce their presence. They were clearing the basement and main floor of the home when Stewart apparently began shooting at them, at close range with a 9mm pistol.
Vanderwarf was downstairs when the shooting began and he ran upstairs to see Ogden police officer Shawn Grogan exit a hallway with a gunshot wound to his face. He then saw officer Kasey Burell fall to the ground and officer Jared Francom attempt to exit while stating that he was wounded, too.
"The suspect continued to fire upon agents Vanderwarf and (Derek) Draper as they were attempting to rescue the downed officers," the report states.
Vanderwarf was struck in the hip, causing him to fall down the basement stairs. He continued to hear gunfire.
"After assessing that he was bloody but ambulatory, he ran back up the stairs only to see agents Francom and Burrell stacked on top of one another on the floor by the back door in a futile attempt to escape," according to the report.
"Seeing these two agents in obvious distress he bent down to help them only to receive more gunfire in his direction."
Vanderwarf stepped out of the line of fire just in time to see another officer, Weber County Sheriff's Sgt. Nate Hutchinson, get hit. Vanderwarf and Draper then began dragging Francom and Burrell away from the home, but Stewart allegedly continued to fire at them from the front door of the home.
Vanderwarf fired two rounds, both missing Stewart. Investigators determined his actions were justified under the circumstances.
"Agent Vanderwarf and every other officer in that home were in imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury," the report states. "The suspect had already committed a felony involving the inflicting or threatened inflicting of serious bodily injury or death. There was an imminent or future potential risk of serious bodily injury or death to others if the suspect was not immediately apprehended. The circumstances precluded the communication of a verbal warning."
Francom died of injuries sustained in the melee and five other officers were shot and hospitalized.
The report on Vanderwarf is the first to be released and will now be turned over to the Weber County Attorney's Office, which will review the case to determine if there was any criminal negligence on the officer's part. But Roy Police Chief Greg Whinham called the man "heroic."
"The reality is, all of these officers are dedicated officers doing what they do in our community to try to help our community be a good place," the chief said. "It is a dangerous job. These officers know it. Their families know it. We lost the life of officer Francom. Other officers were injured. Communities were disrupted. But it is what we do in law enforcement, whether it's in Weber County, across the state or across the nation."
He said this incident demonstrated the compassion of the police officers, who did all they could to help their wounded comrades.
"These officers were not only trying to do their job in a professional matter, but when things changed dramatically ... they started to act in the best interest of other officers," Whinham said. "Those officers were recognizing that night that there was a huge value in trying to take care of their partners."
Stewart has been charged with aggravated murder, a capital offense; seven counts of attempted aggravated murder, a first-degree felony; and production of a controlled substance, a second-degree felony. On Thursday, the man's attorneys asked that upcoming hearings about potential expert witnesses be closed to the public and the related documents sealed.
In the motion, attorney Randall Richards stated that leaving the hearings open to the public could be "prejudicial" to his client. He also asked that his affidavit be sealed because it includes "trial strategy and attorney preparation of the case."
"The disclosure of this information to the prosecution or the public may jeopardize the defendant's ability to proceed in this matter and will violate state and federal constitutional requirements," Richards wrote.
Weber County Attorney Dee Smith said Thursday that he believes all of the agencies with officers involved, including Ogden police, Roy police and the Weber County Sheriff's Office, have completed internal reviews. His office has conducted its own review of the shootout, which is a "full criminal investigation," but he said he is seeking to keep many details from that January night "in-house" until they can come out in court proceedings.
"The appropriate place for the facts of any case to come out (is) in front of a judge and jury," Smith said. "There will be a time when we release our findings, but I'm not going to do that when the case is still pending."
Still, he said that he does not anticipate that there will be any issues with criminal misconduct involving any of the officers. "We haven't found any concerns with the officers' actions," he said.
Stewart's family has maintained that the entire incident was a "tragic misunderstanding" and that Stewart believed he was being robbed and didn't hear the officers announce their presence. They said Stewart's military training "kicked in" and he felt the need to defend himself.
But police say Stewart told a friend in 2011 that if officers ever tried to stop his marijuana cultivation, he'd "go out in a blaze of glory and shoot to kill," an arrest warrant filed in 2nd District Court states.