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Records detail Army's failures that preceded GI's police shootout

Published April 24, 2011 8:31 pm

Shooting • Army never warned Utah police and didn't tell family he was AWOL.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Army Spc. Brandon Barrett was dead, and Salt Lake City detectives were scouring his Nissan Pathfinder looking for why he had fired at a police officer outside the city's marquee hotel.

A GPS device showed the gun shops Barrett visited in Arizona and the motel where he had stayed in Salt Lake City. The detectives also found a ticket stub from a movie theater and an Army notebook turned to a page with an entry reading: "Never take a man from his family. Lessons must be learned from this event."

More than half a year later, investigators still don't know why Barrett — who had no known ties to Utah — chose this place to make his last stand.

But lessons have been learned.

Documents from police in Salt Lake City, Tucson, Ariz., and from the Army's own investigation show Barrett's movements in his final days and illuminate a systemic failure by the Army to locate Barrett or properly warn law enforcement agents of the threat he posed before his death in a shootout outside the Grand America Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City.

Although Barrett had been absent without leave for weeks, there was no warrant for his arrest. Although he'd made threatening statements, there was no alert in any national law enforcement database. And although he'd given specific indications that he would be in Utah the Army had not bothered to alert law enforcement authorities here.

Hands tied in Tucson • On the afternoon of Aug. 18, an alarming MySpace message came from Barrett: The battle-tested sharpshooter had purchased 500 rounds of ammunition for his privately owned machine gun, was en route to Utah and was "about to show the world they shouldn't f—- with soldiers back from a deployment."

Barrett, 28, apparently upset over a senior sergeant's threat to take away his post-deployment leave, had been gone from his Fort Lewis, Wash., unit for nearly a month. Although they knew he was troubled by his combat experiences in Afghanistan, reports show Army officials had done little to try to locate the soldier.

Army officials never contacted Utah law enforcement and first spoke with police in Barrett's hometown of Tucson just after 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 19. An Army official told a Tucson dispatcher about the MySpace message and a subsequent series of disturbing text messages Barrett had exchanged with a fellow soldier.

By that time, an Army chaplain had reached Barrett by phone and "reported that he had calmed down after their conversation," according to Tucson police records.

But Barrett's location was still unknown. There was little police could do: A miscommunication in Fort Lewis coupled with a backlog of hundreds of cases at the Army's AWOL processing office meant no warrant had been issued for Barrett's arrest. That left police without cause to obtain a warrant to search Barrett's phone records to locate him and officers only able to check on Barrett's welfare. Records show Tucson police had a plan to meet Barrett at an abandoned building but scrapped the plan when Army officials told them they believed Barrett was headed back to Fort Lewis.

Army records show Barrett engaged in frequent telephone and text message conversations over the next few days but wouldn't respond to requests about his whereabouts.

The Army notified Barrett's family of the disturbing messages, but it had failed to follow its own policy by contacting them when he went missing — something military investigators blamed on a communications oversight. Family members have said that prevented them from being able to help the distraught soldier, whom they had assumed was home on leave.

First visit to hotel • It's unclear when Barrett arrived in Salt Lake City, but police records obtained under Utah open records laws show Barrett may have been casing the Grand America Hotel three days before the shooting.

On Aug. 24, according to the records, Barrett went to the downtown hotel, spoke to a desk clerk and walked outside and around the hotel. Hotel security staff members reviewing surveillance footage found video of Barrett arriving in the hotel parking garage at 1:52 p.m. in a white Chevrolet passenger car. Barrett then went to the lobby where the video appears to show him speaking to a desk clerk and trying to check in, according to the report. Then Barrett walked away and stood outside the Grand America's west door for four minutes, apparently talking on a cellphone. Army records from the same date show Barrett exchanged a text message that afternoon with someone at Fort Lewis in which he indicated he would be turning himself into the Army in a few days but again declined to identify his location.

After leaving the hotel's west entrance, Barrett walked out of camera view and then returned to the hotel through another door on the same side of the building. He was then seen going back to the parking garage.

The report shows Barrett spent 33 minutes in and around the hotel before driving onto 600 South, which runs east-to-west along the massive hotel's south side.

Early warnings • Long before Barrett's threatening messages, the Army knew he needed help.

In an Army post-deployment health assessment, Barrett had told a counselor he was having a "somewhat difficult" time emotionally dealing with work, home and getting along with others after his combat service, in which he had killed people, seen other people killed and taken enemy fire on repeated occasions. On some days, Barrett reported, he felt "down, depressed or hopeless" and on other days he had "little interest or pleasure in doing things." He was "constantly on guard, watchful and easily startled."

And when he wasn't working, he was drunk — consuming 10 or more drinks at a time every evening after work, according to the assessment.

A day after returning home from Afghanistan, Barrett had been arrested by base police for driving under the influence. A week later, a sergeant threatened Barrett that he would not be permitted to go home on leave, according to Army records indicating the threat played a key role in Barrett's decision to abscond.

Army spokeswoman Jennifer Willis later told The Salt Lake Tribune that, "We've never been more aware of the need to proactively get help for soldiers and families as early as possible."

The Army ordered Barrett to get substance abuse counseling after his arrest, but it does not appear anyone ensured Barrett actually received the care.

Movie also ends in police shootout • Although Army officials appear to have concluded Barrett did not intend to act on his threats, his brother, Shane, was not so confident. The police detective called Fort Lewis to tell Barrett's platoon commander he had not heard from his brother in several days.

"I am concerned for your safety," Shane Barrett told the commander, according to Army records.

Also worried was the Army chaplain, who had agreed to an Aug. 26 phone conversation with Barrett and called three times that day. Barrett never picked up.

On that day, Salt Lake City police records show, Barrett stayed at a Motel 6 on North Temple. Back in Washington state, military police finally issued a "Be on the Lookout" alert for the missing soldier – including a warning that he was armed with several weapons, had body armor and may be "en route Utah" — though it appears to have only been distributed to other military police agencies.

The next morning, according the reports, Barrett went to The Gateway shopping complex and attended a 12:15 p.m. showing of the crime drama "Takers," a movie that ends with a climactic shootout with police.

Back to the hotel • Just over an hour and a half after the movie ended, Barrett was back at the Grand America Hotel, dressed in full battle uniform, boots, a helmet and body armor — and carrying an AR-15 assault rifle and two handguns.

In the parking garage, two people in a car thanked Barrett for his service and asked to take his photograph.

"No problem," Barrett replied, according to statements the well-wishers later gave police.

After being confronted by a hotel security officer in a lower elevator lobby, Barrett walked to a parking lot in the southeast corner of the hotel campus, where he paced alongside a long hedge separating the parking lot from traffic on State Street.

Four minutes later, Barrett opened fire at Salt Lake City police Officer Uppsen Downes, who had been waiting for the light to change on State Street at 600 South when someone knocked on his window to alert him to the soldier's presence on the hotel corner.

Barrett's opening salvo struck Downes in the leg and sprayed the officer's cruiser with bullets. One bullet struck a truck parked on State Street, another glanced off of an SUV heading down the same street. Downes returned fire, sending two shots toward the hotel — one hit a column near the parking entrance, another hit a wall near a first-story window. The third shot struck Barrett in the head, killing him instantly.

More than a half a year later, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank still doesn't understand why Barrett chose the city to make his final stand.

"The question that died with him is, 'Why us?' " Burbank said earlier this month.

Burbank has spoken with Army officials about their failure to warn anyone in Utah of Barrett's threats. He declined to disclose what was said — and records from his department and the Army do not indicate the subject of the conversations — but Burbank said he hopes some good can come from the tragedy.

"My hope," he said, "is we've corrected all these problems."

ncarlisle@sltrib.comTwitter: @natecarlisle