West Valley City • A day after prosecutors announced they were dismissing 19 cases involving a West Valley City police detective, the previously closemouthed police department released new details Thursday about the Nov. 2 officer-involved shooting death of Danielle Willard.
Police said Willard was shot after allegedly backing her car into one of two officers investigating a purported drug deal that had just taken place.
Plainclothes detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon both opened fire after approaching the 21-year-old woman, who appeared to be in the process of using drugs, according to a news release from Sgt. Jason Hauer.
Willard’s mother, Melissa Kennedy, said Thursday that Cowley is the officer whose “problems” prompted Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill to move to dismiss the 19 mostly drug-related cases in which Cowley was the lead detective. Gill, who did not identify Cowley as the officer in question, cited a lack of “sufficient credible evidence with which to obtain a conviction.”
Hauer would not confirm that Cowley — an eight-year veteran who typically investigates drug cases — is the officer responsible for the cases being dismissed, adding: “The cases that the DA’s office is referencing are all separate cases from the officer-involved shooting.”
On Wednesday, in response to a news organization publicizing Cowley’s name, the Utah Fraternal Order of Police released a statement expressing confidence that Cowley will be exonerated.
“We find it unfortunate that the officer was named and the cases were dismissed before the investigation was completed,” the police union wrote in the statement. “A more proper course is to await a full and final presentation of the facts and to reserve judgment about this officer until then.”
On Thursday, the union called for Gill to recuse himself from reviewing the shooting of Willard, as well from the 19 cases in question, and instead ask a DA from an adjoining county to investigate. The organization claimed Gill was “using the high-profile nature of the officer-involved shooting … to raise spurious unrelated allegations concerning actions of the West Valley City Narcotics Unit.”
Bret Rawson, FOP general counsel, said “there is no relationship between the events 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.”
Gill responded Thursday that his office will continue to investigate the shooting and the questioned narcotics cases.
“I have a job to do,” Gill said. “I got elected to do my job.”
Gill also stressed that he has never publicly suggested that the shooting and the drug cases are related. He emphasized that the probe that led to the dismissal of the 19 cases was brought to his office by West Valley City police for investigation.
“That is what we do,” Gill said about the investigation. “We have an ethical and legal duty to not turn a blind eye to it.”
Willard was shot after officers Cowley and Salmon observed what they believed was a drug transaction between Willard and a man who lived at the Lexington Park Apartments, 2292 Lexington Park Drive (3710 South), according to Hauer.
After the alleged drug deal, Willard pulled her car into a vacant parking stall. Hauer said Willard’s vehicle, a silver Subaru Forester, faced north into the parking stall, and was positioned parallel to another vehicle facing south.
The two detectives then observed what they believed to be Willard attempting to use illegal narcotics, police said in a news release. The officers began to approach on foot to make contact with Willard, who remained inside her vehicle. Salmon approached from the front and Cowley from the rear.
“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,” the release said.
“As this was occurring, Detective Cowley was struck by the vehicle and both Detective Cowley and Salmon fired their service weapons. Ms. Willard was struck and killed as a result of the gunfire.”
According to Hauer, Willard’s vehicle continued moving after the shots were fired. The news release said it made a complete circle, hitting the adjacent vehicle and pushing it into a perpendicular position before coming to a stop.
Hauer said he did not have information about the other vehicle, which video footage shows was a red SUV.
According to Willard’s mother, Willard was unarmed and was struck twice in the head by bullets. Cowley suffered minor injuries to his leg.
Officers later broke the passenger-side window and pulled Willard’s body out through it, Hauer said. He added that full reports on the incident are not currently being released.
“The evidence to support what happened is contained in the full report,” Hauer said.
Until now, West Valley City police had released little information about the shooting, but said Thursday their investigation would be finished by the end of the month. Then, Gill’s office will review it to determine whether the use of deadly force was legal.
Kennedy, Willard’s mother, said the police account of the shooting doesn’t add up. She doesn’t believe Willard backed into Cowley and said there are several pieces of evidence that seem to suggest something else happened.
Kennedy said she has compiled extensive evidence on the crime scene, which has left her with more questions than answers.
She has said that her daughter struggled with heroin addiction, but seemed to be doing better after moving to Murray from Vancouver, Wash., to live in a rehabilitation facility.
Attorneys representing Willard’s parents have released a March 11 letter they sent to West Valley City police demanding records pertaining to the investigation into Willard’s death.
It was the second request by Los Angeles-based attorney Mark Geragos. The first was made Jan. 22, to which no response was given, according to the letter.
“Our client … demands a copy of the complete officer involved shooting investigation reports, including ballistic and trajectory reports,” the letter states.
The letter asks police to release all personal property belonging to Danielle Willard, including her two cellphones and her vehicle. Geragos also implies there is a “department wide cover-up” of Willard’s case.
“We have already determined that relevant evidence is contained in the cell phones,” the letter states. “Any effort to destroy that evidence will only further implicate your department in what appears to be a department wide cover-up.”
Geragos’ letter also references a “mysterious” fire that destroyed surveillance video, “which would have otherwise captured the incident leading to Ms. Willard’s death.”
Hauer said Thursday that there was no fire and all evidence collected in the case is “intact and in our possession and will remain in our possession until the investigation is completed.”
Evidentiary problems with the 19 cases identified by Gill surfaced during a routine audit “a couple of months” ago, according to Hauer, prompting the department to launch an internal investigation.
“Obviously, all of these issues that have presented themselves are concerning to the police department,” Hauer said. “We will take action when we discover things that are inappropriate. Our officers are dedicated to … serving with integrity.”
Then, no more than two weeks ago, WVCPD brought its concerns about the officer to the Salt Lake City Police Department, and in the course of the outside investigation, Gill’s office found that the scope of the problem went beyond the cases that initially concerned the West Valley City department, Gill said in an interview.
Gill’s office dismissed two of the cases last week and filed motions to dismiss the remaining 17 on Wednesday.
“They were in different stages in the criminal justice system,” Gill said. “We wanted to make sure they did not go forward, which is why we acted with the kind of urgency that we did.”
The district attorney’s news release said the office is “continuing to work with the West Valley City Police Department and the West Valley City Attorney’s Office to address any other collateral issues that may trigger ongoing legal and ethical responsibilities to monitor these prosecutions consistent with our constitutional obligations.”
Cowley, 32, and Salmon remain on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of Willard investigation, Hauer said.
Before he was a police officer with West Valley City, Cowley, then 19 years old, pleaded guilty in May 2000 to a class B misdemeanor count of falsifying a government record. According to a West Jordan police report, Cowley admitted to creating two fake driver licenses using a photo program so he could buy alcohol. Police were alerted when Cowley tried to buy $10 worth of wine coolers at a West Jordan store.
Salmon was involved in another fatal shooting in August 2007, when he and another West Valley City officer killed a man who had been sleeping in his car at a West Valley City 7-Eleven. The man in the car, 22-year-old Christopher Cotton, fired a round from a .9mm pistol into the floorboards, then turned the gun on Salmon. Salmon began firing, as did another officer, Tyler Longman, according to the DA’s Office, which ruled the shooting justified.
Tribune reporter Bob Mims contributed to this story.