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Provo mother hopes her son, who allegedly sparked police shootout, can come home

Published September 9, 2013 8:55 pm

Courts • Alex Opmanis, 21, remains in custody pending mental evaluation.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Provo • Before each of her son's court dates, Deborah Preste cleans her house, in case that is the day that Alex Opmanis will come home.

But five court dates have come and gone since her son, who is accused of shooting at police officers serving a no-knock warrant at his Provo home last November, was moved from the Utah County jail to the Utah State Hospital in March. Opmanis is still in custody, as his mental competency is still in question.

This Tuesday, it's different. Acting almost like a superstitious sports fan, Preste said Monday that this time, she's not cleaning the house. Maybe she's been jinxing herself. Maybe Tuesday is the day the judge will rule that her son is incompetent to stand trial for attempted murder and is unable to be restored to competency.

It seems unusual that Preste would hope that her 21-year-old son's competency could never be restored, but she said after Opmanis was attacked and beat up when he was 16 years old, he's had physical brain damage that can't be undone — no matter how long he stays in the state hospital.

"His problem is not mental," Preste said Monday. "It's physical damage. He doesn't hear voices, he's not mentally ill."

Since the 2008 assault, Opmanis has had the mental capacity of a 10-year-old, Preste said. He suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after the attack, and he still has head pain, even five years later. He self-medicates with marijuana, Preste said, because the medication that was being prescribed to him was making him depressed. But he's never sold marijuana, Preste said, so he had no idea that a group of men breaking down his door last November would be police officers acting on a tip from a confidential informant.

Fearful • In the weeks before the police shooting, Opmanis was scared for his safety, according to his mother. An acquaintance had upset members of a Polynesian gang, and he was being threatened, so he purchased a hand gun. But Preste said her son had loaded the gun with "snake shots," that would sound like a gun shot, but would distribute non-lethal BBs. He didn't want to kill anybody, Preste said, but he wanted protection.

On Nov. 19, Opmanis was in his apartment with his girlfriend, getting ready to go out to dinner with his mother for her birthday. Then, someone began breaking down his front door.

Preste said her son thought it was the gang members coming to harm him, and he decided to fire his gun from his bedroom, down the hallway to the front door.

On the other side of the door, a group of police officers were attempting to enter the apartment, near 454 S. 900 East, on a no-knock warrant for marijuana distribution. According to a search warrant filed in 4th District Court, Utah County Sheriff's authorities asked a 4th District judge for the warrant based on an informant who said Opmanis was selling marijuana from his apartment.

Authorities allege they announced their presence and used a ram to attempt to open the locked front door of Opmanis' home, according to a probable cause statement. The ram made a hole, but failed to open the door because it was locked.

When officers couldn't open the door with the battering ram, a second officer started to kick and push the door, while continuing to announce the officers' presence, according to court documents.

Immediate surrender • Provo Police Lt. Mathew Siufanua could not comment on Opmanis' case specifically, but he said Monday that officers will generally announce that they are police, even on a no-knock warrant. The warrant allows police to break through a door without the homeowner's knowledge, intended to give officers an element of surprise when serving warrants on dangerous criminals or those whose illegal drugs could be flushed or disposed of.

"We'll announce on both," Siufanua said of no-knock warrant and knock-and-announce warrants, where officers are required to knock on the door and wait for a response before entering a home. "The difference is, for a no-knock [warrant,] we'll announce while we're trying to get into the house. It's a safety mechanism so that the people in the house know that we are police officers."

Preste said Opmanis never heard that the men at the door were police officers, and he thought they were the men that had threatened him. Preste said none of the rounds Opmanis fired ever made it through the front window or the door that the police were breaking down. Police returned fire, and narrowly missed Opmanis and his girlfriend, who was hiding in a bedroom.

"I still don't understand how no one got hurt," Preste said.

No officers were hit, but police say several were struck by either BBs from the shots fired or debris from the door and suffered injuries to their arms and faces.

Officers eventually broke through a back door, and once Opmanis realized it was police, he immediately surrendered, according to Preste and police reports.

Officers found less than two ounces of marijuana in Opmanis' apartment, according to court documents.

"Who in their right mind would think cops are coming for an ounce of marijuana?" said Preste, who described her son as a sweet, sensitive man who loves animals and kids.

'I don't feel safe here' • Since the November incident, Opmanis has been housed at the Utah County jail, as his family is unable to make the $65,000 cash-only bail. Along with the attempted murder charge, he is also charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute in a drug-free zone, a second-degree felony, illegally possessing a weapon, a third-degree felony, and possessing drug paraphernalia, a class A misdemeanor.

Preste said she felt if police would have investigated more thoroughly, they would have known that her son was not a drug dealer, and that a no-knock warrant was unnecessary. She said the informant had never entered Opmanis' apartment, and she believes he lied to police to get a better deal in his criminal case.

"They didn't need to come in here like Rambo," Preste said. "...How dare they charge him with attempted murder, when he used fake bullets, and you [police] used real bullets."

Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Cannon also could not speak specifically about the case, but said their deputies generally try to get information to verify the informant's statements. The search warrant filed in Opmanis' case makes no other mention of probable cause beyond what the informant told police.

"They usually try to get as much additional information as they can," Cannon said. "Some [informants] are better than others. That may be from where [the investigator] gets the information initially."

Preste said she hopes if the judge rules Tuesday that Opmanis' competency can't be restored, the charges against him will be dropped. If that happens, she plans to move to California — where medical marijuana is legal — with her son.

"I'm bolting out of here," she said. "What they did was too much damage. I don't feel safe here."

jmiller@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jm_miller