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Cops and DA give differing accounts of Danielle Willard shooting
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

On Nov. 2, 2012, Danielle Willard was parked at the Lexington Park Apartments when two plainclothes police detectives approached her vehicle, suspecting that she had just bought drugs — the Salt Lake District Attorney and the West Valley City police detectives can agree on that.

But from there, Detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon's version of events that led to the fatal shooting of Willard greatly differ from that of Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill.

On Thursday, Gill announced that Cowley and Salmon were not legally justified in shooting the 21-year-old woman that November day.

On the day of the shooting, the two detectives, driving unmarked cars, were near the apartment building, located at 2293 W. Lexington Park Drive, conducting surveillance on several nearby homes suspected of drug sales.

The detectives noticed a Subaru Forester — driven by Willard — arrive at the Lexington Park Apartments parking lot and park near Salmon's vehicle. Both officers saw a man approach Willard's vehicle, get inside and then leave the Subaru, entering his nearby home a short time later.

Thinking they had just witnessed a drug transaction, Cowley and Salmon approached Willard's vehicle, which she had moved from the original parking spot to another within the complex, parking next to a Dodge Nitro that had reverse parked into a stall.

Cowley approached the driver's side of Willard's car, while Salmon went to the passenger's side. Cowley told investigators that he thought he saw her put a black substance in her mouth, and he knocked on the window, told her he was a police officer and demanded that she spit out what was in her mouth and open her car door.

Both detectives attempted to open her doors, but they were locked. Cowley told investigators he then took out his gun and pointed it at her, demanding again that she open her door and spit out the substance. Salmon told detectives he also pulled out his gun, but kept it at a 45-degree angle to the ground. This was done as "a show of force," the detectives told investigators.

When Willard still did not open her door, Cowley decided to return to his vehicle to get a halogen light that he would use to break out the Subaru's window, he told investigators.

"[Cowley] explained that he thought the situation was 'ridiculous' that Ms. Willard would not open her vehicle since it was only a drug issue," Gill wrote in his report to acting West Valley City Police Chief Anita Schwemmer.

Detectives' version of the shooting • Cowley explained to investigators that as he was walking back to his vehicle, he heard the tires on Willard's vehicle "screech," and he turned and saw her reversing directly toward him.

Lindsay Jarvis and Bret Rawson, the attorneys representing Cowley and Salmon, respectively, said Thursday they have 39 witnesses who can corroborate that the tires did screech.

"As I turned around, the back of her car was coming towards me at what I felt was an extremely high rate of speed," Cowley told investigators. "I had my gun in my hand and I fired a round at her, right as I was being hit [by Willard's vehicle] and I fired a second … either as I was hitting the ground or on my way to the ground."

Cowley's first shot fatally struck Willard in the left top of her head. The second bullet hit the side of her car between the windows on the driver side.

Cowley told the investigators that the back corner or the fender of the vehicle struck his right knee, knocking him down.

"I've had people drive at me before, but nothing like, like that," Cowley told investigators. "She was trying to kill me."

Cowley also told the investigators that when he turned and saw Willard reversing, he did not see Salmon and feared that his partner had been run over.

While Cowley spoke to investigators only once about the incident, Salmon spoke to officials twice, according to Gill's letter to Schwemmer. Initially, Salmon told investigators that he saw Willard's car hit Cowley, and he opened fire after Cowley shot twice. Salmon fired his gun four times: The first shot hit the hood of the Subaru, while the second went through the windshield and struck Willard's chin. A third shot went through the windshield, hitting the steering wheel, while the last shot hit the vehicle door.

But during his second interview, Salmon told investigators that he didn't actually see Willard's car hit Cowley.

"I don't see any other way that vehicle could have not have hit him, and coinciding with him falling to the ground, I concluded he's been struck by the car … [but] I don't think I actually s[aw] it physically impact him," he said.

District Attorney's Office version of the shooting • On Thursday, Gill said there was no evidence that Cowley was ever hit by Willard's vehicle or was even in danger of being struck.

In his letter to Schwemmer, Gill wrote that forensics, including the bullet trajectory from Cowley's gun and where shattered glass was located, place Cowley directly in front of the Nitro parked next to Willard — and out of harm's way.

Detectives were able to determine through tire marks left by Willard's vehicle that she reversed out of the parking spot at a slight clockwise angle.

"It moved out rapidly, but not fast enough to screech tires," Gill said during a Thursday press conference.

After shots were fired, Willard's vehicle continued to move in a circular path — still in reverse. The rear of her vehicle eventually collided with the Dodge Nitro, pushing the Nitro sideways.

Other officers soon arrived at the scene and attempted CPR, but Willard died in the parking lot.

Gill said detectives inspected Willard's vehicle after the shooting, and could not locate any marks or evidence that would indicate Cowley was hit by the car — not even the dirt on the back of Willard's car indicated any disturbances. Cowley complained of leg pain after the shooting, Gill said, but there was no medical corroboration of injury beyond redness to his right leg. Gill added in his report to Schwemmer that a witness told officials that after shots were fired, he saw Cowley running a short distance from the scene and then falling, which may have caused the redness.

Though Cowley thought Willard had put drugs in her mouth before the shooting, Gill said her autopsy did not support that, adding a small amount of heroin was located in the driver door after the shooting.

jmiller@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jm_miller

Unjustified • District Attorney Sim Gill found that two officers were not in harm's way when they fatally shot 21-year-old woman.
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