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Danielle Willard's parents file lawsuit against West Valley City

Published June 12, 2013 9:21 pm

Federal court • Lawsuit calls woman's Nov. 2 death "unjustified and senseless … murder."
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Danielle Willard's parents on Wednesday filed a wrongful death suit against West Valley City and the officers who shot and killed their daughter, a shooting that ignited a chain of events that has roiled the police in Utah's second-largest city.

Melissa Kennedy and Frederick Willard filed the lawsuit in federal court in Salt Lake City. The complaint, which also alleges various civil rights violations, does not specify how much they're seeking in damages.

The suit described Willard's death "unjustified and senseless," and that the shooting was "unrelated to any legitimate law enforcement purpose."

"In my mind that was murder," Kennedy said in an interview Wednesday.

West Valley City Deputy Police Chief Mike Powell declined comment, saying the department does not discuss pending litigation.

Kennedy said she doesn't believe West Valley police have been honest about what happened that day, when police say the undercover detectives shot at Willard, 21, after she backed her car into Cowley and knocked him to the ground. Part of the reason for the suit is so all the evidence can be presented in a court for a jury to decide, she said. Seven months after the shooting, the public — including Kennedy and the rest of her family — still don't have a complete picture, she said.

"It's the only way that people are going to know what happened to her and why," Kennedy said.

Kennedy said she also hopes her daughter's death will spark changes in how West Valley and other police forces in Utah handle officer-involved shootings.

"My hope is to change the way they do business," she said. "I want to see a big change."

West Valley City police narcotics detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon shot 21-year-old Willard on Nov. 2 outside an apartment complex. In March, the police department issued a news release saying the detectives believed they saw Willard buying drugs. When they approached her Subaru Forester, she put it in reverse, striking Cowley. Both detectives fired.

The department's routine investigation of the shooting led to the discovery that the narcotics unit as a whole had a number of problems, including mishandling of evidence, booking evidence without proper documentation — as well as the possibility of missing drugs and money. The city disbanded the unit in December. The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office and federal prosecutors have dismissed more than 100 cases associated with the unit.

Besides the detectives, both of whom are on leave, the lawsuit also names Lt. John Coyle, who was Cowley and Salmon's supervisor, and former police chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen as defendants.

Coyle is also on leave as an investigation of the narcotics unit continues. Neilsen retired earlier this year due to health problems.

"West Valley City continued the employment of Cowley and Salmon and allowed little to no supervision of these officers in spite of the fact that these officers had prior citizen complaints for misconduct," the lawsuit reads. "[Coyle] was a lieutenant... and allowed the rampant corruption, as well as participated in the corruption within the department, which all led to the death of Danielle Willard."

Willard's family and friends have protested outside West Valley City Hall and the Capitol demanding answers as the district attorney's office continues to investigate whether the shooting was justified. Some held signs implying a cover up — an allegation police have strongly denied.

But in early April, the FBI confirmed it was formally joining investigations into that narcotics unit to determine whether detectives broke any laws and if there was a cover-up after the Willard shooting.

Attorneys representing Kennedy have argued before the Salt Lake County Council that documents related to the shooting should be released under Utah's public record's laws. District Attorney Sim Gill's office had denied the request on the grounds that the information is protected because of the ongoing investigation and that, in any case, the records belong to West Valley City and Kennedy's attorneys are asking the wrong entity for them.

Gill does not expect to wrap their probe into the shooting until at least July. His office usually turns an officer-involved shooting case in 10 days, but he's noted the plethora of side issues linked to the complicated case as cause for delay.

kbennion@sltrib.com

mmcfall@sltrib.com