West Valley City • Ultimately, it was the same officer who shot and killed Danielle Willard who dealt the death blow to the West Valley City police department’s Neighborhood Narcotics Unit.
As now-fired Detective Shaun Cowley was being interviewed by investigators following the fatal officer-involved shooting of 21-year-old Danielle Willard on November 2012, he dropped a bomb shell — allegations of corruption involving members of his unit.
That revelation came Monday during a hearing before the city’s civil service commission involving the demotion of former Lt. John Coyle, who led the discredited and now-defunct unit and was Cowley’s supervisor in 2012.
Coyle is appealing his demotion from lieutenant to officer — a demotion that his attorney Erik Strindberg says has “derailed” what had been an extraordinary career and resulted in an estimated $20,000-a-year pay cut.
“I would urge you to listen very carefully to determine what really, really happened. Not what has been published [in the media],” Strindberg said in opening remarks to the commission.
The city, however, worked to paint Coyle as an incompetent supervisor, who knowingly let his unit run amok, failed to take responsibility for his actions and had a disregard for the law and police procedures.
“John Coyle’s unit wasn’t bought off by drug dealers or any of the other things you’d hear flying around,” said West Valley City Attorney Eric Bunderson in his opening remarks. “[But his actions and those of his unit] hurt public trust in our police department. It hurt the morale in our department.”
“He could not bear to accept any of the responsibility of this failure,” Bunderson later added. “He blamed this failure on the very officers he was charged with leading.”
It was the fatal shooting of Willard during an alleged drug bust that led to a probe of all the officers in the unit.
Strindberg said Cowley started making allegations against others in the unit “to save his own skin.”
“If he was going to go down, [he was] going to take everyone else with him,” said Strindberg, as Cowley listened intently from the back row of the hearing room with his attorney by his side.
On the other side of the room, flanked by her own supporters, sat Danielle Willard’s mother, also listening intently to the proceedings.
Testimony about internal affairs investigations into some of the officers of the nine-member narcotics unit revealed that Cowley’s allegations included the failure to adequately document how often narcotics unit officers were pulling their firearms; keeping illegal immigrants’ property — like cell phones and ID cards — as leverage until they would cooperate; illegally using GPS tracking devices on suspect’s vehicles without a warrant; taking candles and shrines from suspects and displaying them on a unit member’s desk; illegally using confidential informants; and taking change from seized vehicles.
The city’s probe of the allegations resulted in state and federal prosecutors tossing more than 120 cases linked to the narcotics unit.
Bunderson said when the dust settled, Coyle was demoted for three things: allowing cash and property to be taken out of seized cars to be used by his unit to purchase drinks and snacks; failure to properly supervise the booking of evidence; and failure to supervise the proper use of force.
“Officer Coyle wasn’t singled out, everyone in the unit was disciplined,” Bunderson said.
Cowley, who fired the bullet that killed Willard during an alleged drug bust, was later dismissed from the department because drugs that should have been booked into evidence were found in the trunk of his car, the city said. Cowley, who is appealing his termination, is scheduled to go before the city’s civil service commission late next month.
On Monday afternoon, attorneys representing former narcotics unit members Chris Smith, Barbara Lund, Sean McCarthy and Kevin Salmon — “pleaded the Fifth” on behalf of each of their clients, referring to an individual’s Constitutional right not to incriminate himself.
Strindberg said the officers’ refusal to testify was going to make it hard to defend Coyle against the allegations leveled by the city because he would not be able to cross-examine the officers about internal affairs transcripts.
“I think under the circumstances, my client is not able to defend himself and this hearing has become somewhat farcical,” he said. “I think that [the claims] should be dismissed immediately [and] my client should be restored to the rank of lieutenant [until he is able to defend himself against the allegations].”
Strindberg also alleged that Deputy Chief Mike Powell advised at least one officer that he didn’t have to testify before the commission, even after receiving a subpoena requiring an appearance. He said all the detectives talked among themselves over the weekend and decided not to testify.
Powell said he told the officers that the commission mandated that they be present, but everything else was between them and their legal counsel.
The commission, however, ordered the appeal hearing to continue.
Powell, the first witness called, said Coyle allegedly acknowledged that “tools” and “cleaning supplies” were taken and some clothing donated to Deseret Industries.
Coyle was cleared of most allegations during an initial internal affairs investigation and no serious discipline — particularly not a demotion — was recommended. But a second investigation, lasting 11 days, resulted in discipline that led to his demotion, which came last August, a day after new West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo was hired, testimony revealed.
Strindberg on Monday questioned what prompted investigators to embark on a second investigation after completing the first, and why Coyle received such harsh discipline when almost none was recommended the first time around.
Strindberg also questioned why Coyle’s supervisors were never disciplined and why Sgt. Michael Johnson, who oversaw many of the day-to-day operations of the narcotics unit, received only a 40-hour suspension.
The hearing is set to continue Tuesday, with Coyle listed as a possible witness in his own defense.