Problematic West Valley City criminal cases show glimpse of war on drugs
More than a dozen criminal cases that could ultimately be dismissed in 3rd District Court because of unspecified evidentiary problems provide a glimpse into the drug war being played out on Salt Lake County streets.
Most of the 19 cases involve defendants caught with varying amounts of illegal drugs, or who were suspected of dealing drugs. In at least 14 of them, West Valley City detective Shaun Cowley played an active role in the investigations.
Cowley likely is the police officer to whom Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill was referring when he moved to dismiss the 19 cases as part of an ongoing investigation into a West Valley City police officer. Gill, who didn't identify Cowley, said he took that unusual step because "we no longer believe we have sufficient credible evidence with which to obtain a conviction."
While Gill didn't identify Cowley, the veteran officer was named as central to those 19 cases by Melissa Kennedy, whose daughter, Danielle Willard, was shot and killed by Cowley and another officer after an alleged drug deal on Nov. 2, 2012.
And the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, responding to a media report identifying Cowley as the officer involved in the 19 cases, said it was confident he would be exonerated.
A review of the dismissed cases, which were filed between 2009 and 2012, shows Cowley used confidential informants and sometimes worked alone on drug cases. In some of them, evidence Cowley said he obtained during the investigations was instrumental in charges being filed.
In one case from January 2012, documents describe Cowley's pursuit of Cristian Barrera-Barron, a suspected drug dealer. The car chase ended in a dead-end street in West Valley City, where the suspect began fleeing on foot. Cowley reported he found 3.4 grams of heroin in Barrera-Barron's front seat and on the floor of his car while other officers pursued the suspect.
In another case, Cowley approached a car after suspecting that the man inside, Noe Guadalupe-Hernandez, had purchased drugs from a confidential informant. The man tried to swallow small balloons full of heroin upon seeing Cowley and began hitting the detective when Cowley tried to get Hernandez to stop, court documents state.
Another detective used a stun gun on the suspect, who spit out some of the balloons. Cowley then deployed his own stun gun on Hernandez, causing him to spit out more drugs.
A handful of the 19 cases include co-defendants who already had been adjudicated before the dismissal motions were filed.
In one case filed in 2011, police targeted suspected drug dealers Cody Butts and Ignacio Zepeda-Guadarrama. According to court documents, a West Valley City officer watched what appeared to be a drug buy between the two men in a car in September 2010. When officers tried to pull over the vehicle, a high-speed chase ensued.
When the vehicle eventually stopped in the middle of an intersection, Zapeda-Guadarrama and Butts fled on foot before police caught them. Officers reportedly found 26 balloons of heroin in the car, along with cocaine, a pellet gun and a machete. Zapeda-Guadarrama's 2011 case is among the 19 being dismissed. Butts wasn't so lucky; he took a plea bargain and spent six months in jail.
Court documents do not explain Cowley's role in that case; the arrest report was written by Officer David Jenson.
The fact that so many of the defendants in the 19 dismissed cases have Latino surnames worries community activists fearful of racial profiling. In a news conference Friday, the Utah Coalition of La Raza (UCLR) and Proyecto Latino de Utah called on the feds to also investigate the unusual mass case dismissal.
Tony Yapias, of Proyecto Latino de Utah, said he has contacted the U.S. Department of Justice in Denver and intends to contact other federal agencies, including the FBI.
"People are afraid, afraid of what's going to happen to them," Yapias said at the news conference. He said he has been in touch with at least one woman who until this week had been facing two felony-level drug charges and a misdemeanor count of providing false information to a police officer. "She says, 'I didn't do anything.' "
Yapias stressed that he does not know the facts of the cases beyond what's revealed in the charges and is not accusing anyone of racial profiling at this point. But Latinos are incarcerated at nearly double the rate of whites, according to a 2007 study.