Warrants in 19 tossed cases shed light on WVC narcotics squad
View The 19 dismissed West Valley City cases in a larger map
The 18-year-old woman walked to the door of the Millcreek home to buy two "eight balls" of cocaine and four balloons of heroin.
Busted recently for distributing cocaine, the young woman told West Valley City narcotics detectives she would help them catch her supplier, 21-year-old Ignacio Zepeda Guadarrama.
West Valley City narcotics detectives gave the woman, whose name The Salt Lake Tribune is withholding, $450 in cash to make the purchase.
Then, the unexpected happened.
"[She] knocked on the door and a Hispanic male opened the door and grabbed [her], causing her to scream, and drug her into the apartment, slamming the door and [locking] the dead bolt, preventing officer entry," according to a search warrant filed in 3rd District Court.
Detectives said they heard the teen screaming inside the apartment so they forced their way in, just as Guadarrama was fleeing out the back. Inside the home, they allegedly found bags of cocaine stashed in kitchen cabinets.
From drug houses near a West Valley City high school to freezers stocked with hidden heroin, nine search warrants obtained by The Tribune paint a detailed picture of the West Valley City Police Department narcotic division's ongoing battle against drugs.
Each of the nine warrants involves at least one of the 19 defendants including Guadarrama who learned in March that they had been cleared of criminal wrongdoing after their cases were thrown out by the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office. On March 20, District Attorney Sim Gill announced he no longer believed he could obtain a conviction in the cases, citing unspecified problems with an unidentified West Valley City police officer. All but one of the cases involved drug-related offenses.
Gill confirmed Friday that his office is examining a growing list of cases that eventually could be dismissed, a number that could exceed 100.
About 4 percent of WVCPD's more than 20,000 criminal cases in 2011 and 2012 involved a drug-related offense, according to analysis of crime records by The Tribune. Despite that number, city leaders said Wednesday, the narcotics squad was disbanded in December amid unspecified "concerns," and that the FBI has been called in to investigate corruption claims.
It is not clear whether the department plans to reinstate the division. Acting Chief Anita Schwemmer said patrol officers would be responsible for enforcing drug offenses, along with assistance as needed from the investigation division.
The 19 dismissed cases reportedly all involve WVCPD narcotics detective Shaun Cowley, although he did not request all the search warrants, and authorities haven't ruled out that the probe could extend to other officers.
The FBI is also investigating an officer-involved fatal shooting by Cowley and his colleague, Kevin Salmon, who remain on administrative leave. Danielle Willard, 21, was killed Nov. 2 after Cowley and Salmon approached her car, believing she had just been involved in a drug deal. When she began to back up the vehicle, the officers told investigators, they both fired their service weapons. Willard, who was not armed, was dead at the scene.
Schwemmer was named acting chief when former Chief Buzz Nielsen abruptly retired March 8, citing health reasons.
Cowley's attorney, Lindsay Jarvis, said she doesn't know why he has been targeted. Jarvis said West Valley City intends to fire her client.
"Why just Shaun's cases?" she asked. "There's no rhyme or reason to it. It's like [Gill] has targeted on Shaun Cowley, and he's going to punish him without having the evidence."
Gill said he couldn't discuss the status of the investigation because it is ongoing. He hasn't identified Cowley as the officer in the middle of the probe.
But he did say the issues discovered were serious enough that his office had to take action. He said the system operates on checks and balances, and that his office has the ethical and legal obligation to do the right thing.
"I do not write the scripts of the facts that transpire in the world out there," he said, noting that the issue has created an enormous amount of work for his office. "Who in their right mind would want to open up this ethical and legal Pandora's box [if it wasn't necessary]?"
Jarvis said she and Cowley are puzzled by what could be at issue with the dismissed cases.
"There's not a single reason that has been given," she said. "We're completely left out in the dark and have no clue what is going on."
A legal expert asked by The Tribune to review the nine search warrant affidavits the statement of facts used to obtain a warrant from a judge said there were no egregious violations of any of the defendants' constitutional rights, based on the facts sworn to under oath by WVCPD officers.
But the warrants provide a snapshot of how the unit was operating and the types of cases it was investigating, often with confidential informants hoping their cooperation would help with their own pending drug charges.
The busts involving the 19 now-exonerated defendants happened at locations all over the Salt Lake Valley, according to the warrants. WVCPD Sgt. Amy Maurer said detectives often follow where the investigation leads them, even if it's out of the initial jurisdiction.
One arrest took place in the parking of lot of a Kmart after a confidential informant agreed to set up a drug deal 4 ounces of methamphetamine for $4,000, according to one search warrant. Police found the meth tucked away in a Tupperware container in the floorboard of the suspect's vehicle, and $24,870 in cash inside his home when they searched it later.
In another case, police found heroin inside a freezer and a Beretta 9mm handgun hidden inside a cabinet.
One affidavit said dozens of families and children passed daily by a drug house allegedly associated with the Utah prison-based gang Soldiers of the Aryan Culture. The alleged drug house, which was subsequently shut down, was 1,000 feet from an LDS meetinghouse and two blocks from Granger High School.
The home was equipped with surveillance cameras that recorded audio and video of visitors, who would stream in between 10 a.m. and midnight and typically stay less than 10 minutes, police said.
Police say they found pills, methamphetamine and more than 20 swords when they raided the home in April 2012.
Antonio Avila, another defendant whose case was thrown out, first caught the attention of West Valley City police in September after deputies in Humboldt County, Nev., stopped the 22-year-old West Valley City resident with $32,000. He told deputies he was heading to California to buy marijuana with the money.
When narcotics detectives showed up at Avila's home to check on him, he invited them in and allegedly admitted he had been selling drugs for three or four months, according to the search warrant. They also found $25,001 hidden in a shoebox in a closet.
But perhaps the unluckiest defendant among the 19 was Jorge Luis Madrigal. When police responded to check on a neighbor's report that Madrigal's home was being burglarized, a patrol sergeant not Cowley went inside the unlocked home to ensure the man hadn't been injured.
As it turned out, Madrigal wasn't home, but the sergeant did find marijuana. When Madrigal arrived, police said he smelled of marijuana and they arrested him on suspicion of driving under the influence. When they searched his car, they found more drugs.
In the end, however, Madrigal's bad luck turned to good fortune when Gill dismissed his case.