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D.A. ruling decries feds' lack of cooperation in shooting probe

Published April 29, 2013 10:01 pm

Police shooting • JCAT officers shot and killed Ronald Ontiveros March 19.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

While Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill cleared the five officers on a U.S. Marshals squad who fatally shot an armed man in March, a report of the Salt Lake City shooting released on Monday detailed an "unfortunate" lack of cooperation from the officers, including deputy marshals who Gill said did not follow instructions from the investigating agencies.

"If someone were to ask me: was this a clean, pristine investigation, I'd have to say no, it wasn't," Gill said in an interview Friday.

Gill's report cleared Deputy U.S. Marshals Mark Thomson, Bobby Arnes and Jamie Ziegler; Unified Police Officer Aaron Lavin; and Syracuse Police Sgt. Lance Jensen in the shooting of Ronald Manuel Ontiveros.

The five officers were part of the U.S. Marshals Office's Joint Criminal Apprehension Team, a multi-agency squad tasked with arresting dangerous fugitives across the state.

Gill's report states that Ontiveros, who initially tried running away from the officers as they approached an associate's address at 1149 S. Foulger St., pointed a pistol toward the officers as he ran and fired one shot. The five officers returned multiple shots, striking Ontiveros in the foot and fatally in the head. Forty-three spent shell casings were found in the areas where the officers had fired. The bullet that killed Ontiveros entered through the back of the head and lodged into the front left side of his skull, the report states.

Gill noted that the location of Ontiveros's fatal wound was "not an issue."

"The specific position of Ontiveros' body relative to the shots fired is almost impossible to determine," Gill's report states. "Both Ontiveros and the officers were moving and turning during the shooting."

After any officer involved shooting in Salt Lake County, police are expected to begin what's known as an Officer Involved Critical Incident protocol. The protocol requires that the District Attorney's Office and the agency over the area where the shooting happened begin their own investigation. In this incident, the Salt Lake City Police Department, which is not part of JCAT, was called on to investigate along with the DA's Office.

Gill wrote that several protocols were violated after SLCPD took over the crime scene. For one, only the firearms of the officers who shot — instead of every officer's firearm — were examined, the report states, because the U.S. Marshals Office didn't follow the direction of the scene commander to take their deputies to the Salt Lake Police station to get their weapons checked. Instead, the office examined the weapons internally without the protocol team's involvement, the report states.

The five officers who fired at Ontiveros were expected to submit to questioning from the protocol team, but none of them did, according to Gill's report.

Gill wrote that Thomson, Arnes and Ziegler provided written statements but did not consent to verbal interviews. Lavin refused to be interviewed by investigators and also refused to enter a written statement. Jensen was interviewed by two Salt Lake City detectives, but those officers were not part of the protocol team, Gill reported, adding that Jensen's interview "was not critical to a determination in this case."

"The recent practice of some shooting officers refusing to make statements about their actions is unfortunate," Gill's report reads.

Despite his concerns, Gill said Friday that he felt that he was able to make an informed ruling since there were multiple witnesses to the shooting. Gill added that he cannot compel officers to be interviewed in shooting investigations.

Still,Gill said, the break in protocol "raises some concern."

"I still have to make my decision based on what information is provided — or not provided," Gill said.

Gill's report cites the written and verbal reports of some of the shooting officers and interviews from 10 other officers in the team who witnessed the shooting but did not fire shots themselves.

According to multiple accounts, Ontiveros, who had previously been identified by Unified Police as a gang member, began to run away when he saw 10 armed officers approaching in a straight line "stick" formation. The officers shouted at him to stop, but he ran north until the street met a dead end fence with a car dealership on the other side. Two other JCAT officers were waiting for him on the other side of the fence, so Ontiveros turned around and started running west along the fence. At that point, according to the report, Ontiveros pulled a silver handgun from his waist and fired at the officers behind him. Five officers fired back multiple times, and he fell to the ground.

The report states that Ontiveros was still moving while he was on the ground and that his weapon was nearby. The officers did not immediately render aid out of concern for their safety, the report states. Instead, they held Ontiveros at gunpoint until a police dog pulled him away from the gun. Ontiveros was taken to the hospital and later pronounced dead.

A standoff later ensued between the officers and James McIff, the fugitive JCAT had initially been seeking, and his girlfriend Amber Gray. Both had outstanding warrants and were inside the house. The two eventually surrendered and were taken into custody.

kbennion@sltrib.com

Twitter: @KimballBennion