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New corruption claims raised against Utah police department

Published July 8, 2014 3:57 pm

Courts • Meanwhile, ex-detective charged in shooting death appears in court.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

New allegations against the troubled West Valley City Police Department were revealed this week by an attorney representing the parents of Danielle Willard, who was shot and killed by police in 2012.

Attorney Mark Geragos is asking a federal judge not to halt their civil court case while former Detective Shaun Cowley faces criminal prosecution for the shooting.

Geragos alleges as part of a Monday court filing that an officer — not Cowley — accused of having sexual contact with potential suspects was given "hush money" after he resigned from the department, and that the officer "extorted a cash buyout" and resigned instead of going public with details about corruption within the department.

But Police Chief Lee Russo said Tuesday that while the officer did receive a severance payment and signed a nondisclosure agreement when he resigned about a year and a half ago, the money wasn't given to keep him quiet.

"In no way, shape or form was this presented as covering up anything or as hush money," Russo told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Russo said the officer's actions regarding alleged sexual activity were reviewed by the Utah attorney general's office, but no criminal wrongdoing was found, and charges were never filed.

Attorneys for Willard's parents are arguing in a civil wrongful-death case filed in federal court against Cowley and others that the case should not be halted while Cowley's criminal case plays out.

The former detective is charged in 3rd District Court with second-degree felony manslaughter for the 21-year-old woman's death in 2012.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Cowley, 33, made a brief initial appearance in Salt Lake City's 3rd District Court in the criminal case.

Cowley's attorney waived reading of the charge, and a scheduling hearing was set for July 28. Cowley left the courtroom quickly and did not comment to reporters. If convicted, Cowley could be sentenced to prison for up to 15 years.

Kevin Salmon, the other detective involved in Willard's shooting, was not charged.

Attorney Geragos in his civil court filing alleging that "hush money" was paid, focused on a portion of a deposition with West Valley City Manager Wayne Pyle, who said that city administrators willingly agreed to pay the officer in question:

"Mr. Geragos: OK. Did you know about the accusations of his sexual liaisons with potential suspects while on his shift at the time that the $10,000 was authorized?

"Mr. Pyle: Yes.

"Mr. Geragos: And you knew that he was calling that hush money so he wouldn't talk?

"Mr. Pyle: I was aware of that after as [Assistant City Manager] Mr. [Paul] Isaac made it known to me, yes.

"Mr. Geragos: OK. Were you aware at that time that [the officer] wanted — was it $10,000 payment?

"Mr. Pyle: I don't remember.

"Mr. Geragos: Whatever it was, you had authorized it at the time, right?

"My. Pyle: Uh-huh."

Pyle was did not respond to a request for comment.

On July 1, Cowley's civil attorney, Dennis Ferguson, asked for a stay of the federal civil case until the criminal proceedings against Cowley are resolved. If a stay was not granted, Ferguson argued that his client would be forced to either waive his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination or forfeit the civil case "due to the adverse inferences that may be drawn when a party invokes his Fifth Amendment rights in a civil proceeding."

But Geragos argued that staying the entire case is too broad, since Cowley is only one of several defendants listed in the lawsuit — the city, Salmon, Lt. John Coyle and former Police Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen are also named. Geragos called the request for a stay a "dilatory tactic intended to indefinitely delay this case."

"Plaintiffs brought their case, in large part, to shed light on a highly dysfunctional city and its police department," Geragos wrote. "They wanted to prevent more tragedies like their own from occurring, and spare other parents the pain of losing a young child, without justification, at the hands of the police.

"To grant [Cowley's] motion to stay would allow other officers in [Cowley's] former department to continue to violate the constitutional rights of the public while defendant's case makes its way through the system."

Russo said Tuesday that he is not aware of any officer still working in his department who is doing anything illegal.

"That is a baldfaced, unsubstantiated and exaggerated statement," Russo said. "The allegations that we still have criminals working in the police department are completely false and irresponsible."

Willard's parents filed the wrongful-death lawsuit in June 2013 in U.S. District Court. The complaint, which also alleges various civil rights violations, does not specify how much they are seeking in damages.

Cowley and Salmon were conducting a drug investigation in the area of 2290 W. Lexington Park Drive (3710 South), when they shot at and killed Willard, who was unarmed, as she backed her car from a parking space on Nov. 2, 2012.

Prosecutors claim Cowley was standing to the side of Willard's Subaru, and not in the car's path, as he claimed, when he fired the first shot, striking Willard in the head. Cowley has insisted that the car's rear bumper struck his right leg.

"The evidence supports that [Cowley's] life was not in danger," Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said last month while announcing the charge.

The shooting episode sparked an internal probe of the city's narcotics unit after drug evidence dating back a year was allegedly found in the trunk of Cowley's patrol car, instead of the department's evidence room.

The probe revealed multiple violations, including that members of the unit had mishandled evidence, inappropriately used GPS tracking devices, kept trophies, or removed change and other property from suspect's vehicles.

Cowley was fired — not for the shooting, but because of the evidence found in his car. He has been fighting his termination and has an appeal hearing scheduled for Aug. 25 before the city's civil service commission.

Lindsay Jarvis, Cowley's attorney, has called the decision to prosecute him "politically motivated." She said in a written statement that her client learned that a charge had been filed against him while watching Gill's announcement during a live televised news conference. Cowley voluntarily surrendered to the jail and was released after posting $10,000 bail.

It is rare in Utah for a police officer to be charged with homicide.

The most recent case was a Taylorsville police officer, who was charged with negligent homicide, a class A misdemeanor, for allegedly killing a motorist while attempting to join a police pursuit in February 2007. As part of a deal, the officer pleaded guilty to three lesser traffic violations and was sentenced to a fine and probation.

Other than that case, veteran prosecutors could not remember another instance of a Utah police officer being charged with a crime for killing someone.

jmiller@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jm_miller