It sounded like a run-of-the-mill domestic dispute.
A husband was pestering his estranged wife in Taylorsville. Brett Miller, a Salt Lake County sheriff’s deputy, two years on the job, went to the scene and found the suspect’s van — a Ford Econoline with tinted windows. As Miller approached the van, one critical piece of information hadn’t been reported to him: The man had stolen his wife’s shotgun.
Miller beamed a flashlight into the van’s rear window and locked eyes with the suspect, who was waiting in the darkness with the gun trained on Miller.
"He was peering down the barrel at me," Miller recalled Tuesday night, when he received a heroism award for what transpired that night 10 years ago.
Miller was one of 20 law enforcement officers honored by the Fraternal Order of Police in a ceremony at West Valley City’s Granger High School. Honorees included officers who had saved victims from fires and medical emergencies; officers who had subdued suspects who were shooting at people; officers who had been wounded in the line of duty.
Honors also were bestowed on three officers who died as a result of their service.
Miller knew he could have joined that group as he stared down the barrel of James Torres’ shotgun Jan. 19, 2004. Torres began shooting from the van, striking Miller multiple times from 6 feet away with rounds of birdshot — twice in the head. Miller took cover behind his cruiser as birdshot lodged in his eyelid and became embedded in his skull. He assumed he had been blinded in his left eye as gunfire rang out for at least one minute. Between the van’s tinted windows and his eye clouded with blood, Miller could not see Torres.
Suddenly, the van started and rammed Miller’s cruiser, Miller said.
"He was trying to run me over," Miller said. "Then I knew: If he was driving, he’s gotta be in the driver’s seat."
Miller fired on the driver’s side of the van, striking Torres in the head. Inside the van, investigators found a large cache of guns and ammo that had been stolen from a pawn shop a day earlier.
Torres survived and is serving a prison sentence; he is due to be paroled Jan. 19, 2016 — exactly 12 years after the shootout.
Miller returned to work just two weeks after the shooting.
"Deputy Miller’s heroic actions under fire saved his life and protected the community," emcee Alex Cabrero, a KSL reporter, said Tuesday night.
The night brought emotional moments as fallen officers were honored. Draper Sgt. Derek Johnson was gunned down in the line of duty in September; his wife, Shaunte and son, Bensen, received a trophy and flowers on his behalf. Midvale Detective Jose Argueta died in 2006 from esophageal cancer, which he believed he had developed as a result of exposure to chemicals in meth labs. His brother, Detective Luis Argueta, received his award.
A moment of silence for Ogden officer Jared Francom, killed in a Jan. 4, 2012, drug raid, gave way to a standing ovation for five other officers on the Weber Morgan Narcotics Strike Force who were injured when they entered the Ogden home of Matthew David Stewart. Stewart opened fire on the officers, striking some multiple times as they tried to pull each other to safety, Cabrero said. Ogden officers Shawn Grogan, Kasey Burrell and Michael Rounkles, Roy officer Jason VanderWarf and Weber County sheriff’s Deputy Nathan Hutchinson were honored.
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