Lessons learned from the Matthew Stewart shootout
Hindsight is always 20/20, and for prosecutors involved in the Matthew David Stewart case, one thing became clear after the Jan. 4, 2012, shootout in Ogden that killed one police officer and injured five others: You can never let your guard down.
Weber Morgan Narcotics Strike Force agents who served a knock-and-announce warrant at Stewart's Jackson Avenue home on that winter evening were not expecting to be met with gunfire, Deputy Weber County Attorney Branden Miles said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune this week.
The warrant service was classified as "low-risk," in part because agents believed no one was living in the home where they suspected marijuana was being grown, according to agent interviews.
As a result, four of the 10 strike force members who entered the home were not wearing bullet-proof vests, Miles said, including 30-year-old Jared Francom, who was fatally wounded in the shootout.
"Matthew Stewart showed us there are no low-risk search warrants anymore," Miles said. "You can't assume theperson[s] on the other side of the door are peace-loving potheads."
Though the warrant was classified as low-risk, there were several unknowns in the initial investigation into a marijuana grow operation in Stewart's basement.
A slide show presented to the agents before the warrant was executed just one document in a large case file the Weber County Attorney's Office turned over to The Salt Lake Tribune as part of an open records request included a "threat alert" chart listing: surveillance, dogs, weapons and "other" threats. In each case, the status of the threats was marked as "unknown."
Case agent Jason VanderWarf said in his interview with investigators that Stewart's ex-girlfriend, Stacey Wilson, had called the Tip-a-Cop line, reporting that Stewart was growing marijuana. But VanderWarf could never interview Wilson thoroughly, because she would not return his phone calls, he told the investigator.
"She kinda fell off the face of the earth," VanderWarf told the investigator.
During one of three unsuccessful attempts to contact Stewart at his home, VanderWarf said he saw a number of items that he felt indicated that Stewart may be growing marijuana, including humidifiers, bright lights and extension cords.
VanderWarf then wrote a search warrant, which was signed by a 2nd District Court judge.
Stewart's family and supporters have been critical of the investigation, saying it should have been more thorough before the knock-and-announce search warrant was served. Miles said there are always unknown elements in a case, but he insisted the officers did every standard check available to them, such as investigating Stewart's minimal criminal history.
"It's hard to say what they could have done to show Matthew Stewart was capable of this," Miles said, referring to the fatal gun battle.
When Stewart, 39, committed suicide in the Weber County Jail in May, the criminal case abruptly ended. Despite that there was still work to do on the case, mostly concerning scientific evidence and the completion of ballistic reports, Miles said he was "very" confident that Stewart would have been convicted of aggravated murder at his 2014 trial.
"It was all coming together," Miles said. "This case was a very strong case. There's no doubt in my mind Matthew Stewart would have been convicted."
Though Stewart has always maintained that he thought the men inside his home were there to rob him and that he shot at them to defend himself, Miles pointed to several instances where he believes Stewart must have been aware he was firing on cops.
When Agent Derek Draper made a panicked initial call to dispatch "Weber Whiskey 7, Weber Whiskey 7, we've got shots fired, we've got officers hit, I need medical!" he did so inside of Stewart's kitchen, Miles said. He yelled loud enough, Miles believes, that Stewart would have heard him inside the small two-bedroom home.
Miles also pointed to footage from a South Ogden police cruiser's dashboard camera, which showed the chaotic scene of officers dragging injured agents from the house onto Jackson Avenue, which was bathed in blue and red police lights. Suddenly, a burst of gunfire erupts and the officers, who were lying in front of headlights of an Ogden police car, scatter. Miles believes Stewart, who was allegedly shooting out the front door of the home, would have clearly seen that law enforcement officers were in the area, and likely would have seen the officers' police identifiers while they were illuminated by headlights.
Stewart's attorney, Randy Richards, along with members of his family, have expressed doubt that Stewart ever shot out the front door, as agents testified during Stewart's preliminary hearing. But Miles said drops of blood and three .9mm casings found in the area place Stewart at the front door.
Stewart fired his 9 mm Beretta 31 times during the gun battle, while the officers, carrying .40-caliber Glocks and a .233-caliber rifle, fired a total of 104 times, according to Miles. Richards has estimated police fired about 250 rounds.
In a May interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Richards questioned Stewart's ability to readily understand that the men who had broken into his home were police officers. He pointed to photos taken by crime scene investigators, which showed several of the uninjured officers wearing no police identifiers one officer was wearing a Cheech and Chong shirt.
But Miles said the hospital photos are not an accurate picture of how the agents looked inside Stewart's home. He said the agents took off their jackets and bullet proof vests some covered in fellow officers' blood while waiting for updates on the injured. Hospital surveillance cameras show the agent in the Cheech and Chong shirt entering the hospital wearing a bulletproof vest marked "police."
However, neither of the sergeants who served the warrant with the agents at Stewart's home was wearing a protective vest: Sgt. Steve Zaccardi was on light-duty and never entered the home, and the straps on Sgt. Nate Hutchinson's vest broke just before the warrant was served, according to their testimony during the preliminary hearing. Agents Shawn Grogan and Francom, also went into the home without protective vests, which Miles said was due to a "complacency problem," because the group expected to serve the warrant without incident.
"Now, they'll never treat it that way," Miles said of future search warrant operations.
Ogden Police Chief Mike Ashment, who could not be reached this week for comment, said in January on the first anniversary of the shootout that it is now Ogden police policy that all officers must wear ballistic vests while on duty.
Stewart had pleaded not guilty to a charge of aggravated murder, in the death of Francom, and seven first-degree felony counts of attempted aggravated murder for allegedly trying to kill other officers, as well as one second-degree felony count related to alleged marijuana cultivation. According to court documents, 16 pot plants were found in the home after the raid.