West Valley cases tossed in Utah federal court cite drugs, guns
By Janelle Stecklein
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Apr 12 2013 01:01AM
Joseph Hu had a good job. His car was paid off. But his life turned upside down following a run-in with the West Valley City narcotics squad.
Hu, who had only a few misdemeanors on his record to that point, found himself facing federal charges of possessing heroin with the intent to distribute; possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime; and being a drug user in possession of a firearm. Authorities seized his car. He lost his job.
But when his attorney, Kelly Ann Booth, contacted officials to have the drugs allegedly seized by West Valley City police Detective Shaun Cowley transferred to an independent lab for testing, the case was suddenly dismissed in early March, she said.
Hu’s case was one of eight tossed out by federal prosecutors in a widening scandal involving the beleaguered police department’s now disbanded narcotics squad.
The department is under investigation by the FBI for several things: the fatal shooting of a 21-year-old alleged drug user by Cowley and his colleague Kevin Salmon; allegations of criminal conduct by Cowley; and allegations of corruption within the narcotics squad.
Cowley and Salmon are on paid leave, and 19 state court cases reportedly connected to Cowley have been dismissed by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill because of unspecified "credibility" issues.
Gill said up to 100 cases may be in jeopardy.
A Salt Lake Tribune analysis, which was confirmed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, identified the dismissed cases as those involving Hu, Brennan Matteauer Webb, Dante Donell Ketchens, Andrew Jermaine Farley, Salvador Flores Miranda, Conan Hyrum Cook and Kevin Michael Rondas and Santiago Rodriguez-Acevedo. Court papers also show that Robbie Christen Myrick is attempting to reverse his plea because the U.S. Attorney’s Office wants to dismiss that case as well.
Nearly all the defendants, most of whom were indigent, faced allegations of possessing guns while committing drug offenses. And nearly all were caught by the narcotics unit while allegedly dealing drugs to the unit’s confidential informants.
Booth said she and her client are exploring Hu’s options to address claims he has against the city.
"As we expected my client has been exonerated," she said. "But it cost him his good job in computer sciences. His car was seized and he had to pay West Valley City Police Department $1,200 to get it back. … My client is looking forward to getting his life back, as much as he can, and wants to see that justice is served with Detective Cowley. We are both anxiously awaiting the results of the FBI investigation."
The federal court dismissals started in December with Rodriguez-Acevedo’s case and continued through last week. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said it continues to review other cases.
The analysis of federal court records indicates the federal probe may be extending beyond Cowley: His name wasn’t included in police reports filed in connection with at least half of the eight narcotics cases that were thrown out.
Former West Valley Police Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen said this week that he is confident there is no systemic problem within the narcotics unit he shut down last year prior to his March retirement for health reasons. He classified as "minor" issues with the narcotics squad — including that Cowley had stored evidence from four cases in his vehicle for up to a year.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Thursday he wouldn’t classify the issues as "minor."
"I do not think that issues that may implicate constitutional rights and due process rights are ever minor," Gill said. "[We had] no choice but to dismiss those cases. That was not a decision we took lightly or considered a minor issue."
State and federal authorities have been closed-mouthed about what specifically caused them to dismiss what now totals 27 cases.
Cowley’s attorney, Lindsay Jarvis, said Thursday that a defense attorney raised concerns with the Department of Justice about the way a case was handled, prompting an earlier FBI investigation in November.
That investigation concluded in early December and cited a lack of training and supervision of the narcotics squad, she said.
West Valley City police did not return a message seeking comment Thursday on the purported November FBI investigation.
Andrew Farley, another defendant whose federal court case was dismissed, was undergoing "a streak of very, very bad luck," said his attorney Richard Mauro, a streak that worsened when he encountered the West Valley City narcotics unit.
A detective alleged he had caught the 37-year-old dealing a small amount of cocaine. Farley also had an unloaded gun in his car that Mauro said his client forgot he was carrying.
After initially filing state charges, authorities decided to prosecute the case federally, meaning Farley, who had little prior criminal history, was facing a minimum prison sentence of five years rather than potentially less severe charges in a state court, Mauro said.
Mauro said when he began to review the case, he didn’t know the narcotics unit was under investigation. He said he simply found the case "odd."
"I had received these kind of bare-bones reports," he said, noting that records indicated just one officer was involved in the bust when it was really the entire squad. He said he discovered that Salmon and Cowley both helped arrest his client although their names were not listed in the reports.
"We found out there was a tape recording of the informant that just coincidentally never recorded the drug transaction itself," he said. "There were representations made to us of the nature of the confidential informant’s previous criminal history that weren’t accurate. They’re obligated to tell me if there are issues about their credibility. It’s a pretty material misrepresentation."
Now that his client has been cleared, Mauro said Farley can get his life back on track.
"Hopefully he can get it together and move on," Mauro said.