Accident victim at center of University Hospital blood-draw controversy dies

Police union claims Salt Lake City’s handling of the matter has made “pariahs” of the two officers who arrested nurse for refusing to allow them to obtain blood sample.

(Salt Lake City Police Department/Courtesy of Karra Porter) In this July 26, 2017, frame grab from video taken from a police body camera and provided by attorney Karra Porter, nurse Alex Wubbels is arrested by a Salt Lake City police officer at University Hospital in Salt Lake City. The Utah police department is making changes after the officer dragged Wubbels out of the hospital in handcuffs when she refused to allow blood to be drawn from an unconscious patient.

The patient at the center of a University Hospital confrontation in July that resulted in a nurse’s arrest has died.

William Gray, 43, a full-time truck driver and a part-time reserve officer with the Rigby, Idaho, police department, passed away Monday night at the hospital, according to a Facebook post by his department.

“Bill was truly the best of mankind,” the Facebook post said. “Always willing to help, always willing to go the extra mile. Bill was a big man, with a bigger heart. Everything about him was generous and kind.”

Meanwhile, the president of Salt Lake City’s police union, Stephen Hartney, on Monday sent a letter to Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown and Mayor Jackie Biskupski saying the city’s handling of the situation had “unfairly and improperly made pariahs” of the officers involved in the arrest, Detective Jeff Payne and Lt. James Tracy. Both are being investigated for arresting nurse Alex Wubbels on July 26.

At a Tuesday news conference, Hartney explained how he felt the investigations into Payne and Tracy have been unfairly tainted by what he said was the premature release of body camera footage and “inflammatory” statements made by Brown and Biskupski. The mayor‘s office later disputed Hartney’s claims.

“I believe in our system, I trust our system, but our system wasn’t used this time,” Hartney said.

Reserve officer dies

Gray was taken to University Hospital’s burn unit July 26 after being injured in a fiery crash while driving a semi truck in Cache County.

He was severely burned on nearly half of his body and had been in critical condition, according to Jennifer Stamper, a spokeswoman for his family. Hospital spokeswoman Suzanne Winchester confirmed Tuesday that Gray died at 11:20 p.m. Monday.

A man in a pickup truck who was fleeing from the Utah Highway Patrol crashed head-on into Gray’s semi on U.S. 89/91 near Sardine Canyon, according to Logan police, who investigated the collision. The pickup’s driver, Marcos Torres, 26, died at the scene.

After the crash, Logan police requested that Salt Lake City police obtain a blood sample from Gray.

(Courtesy of Rigby Police) William Gray, 43, was critically injured July 26 when another driver crashed head-on into the semi Gray was driving in Cache County. Logan police, who investigated the crash, asked Salt Lake City police to get a blood sample from Gray at University Hospital. SLCPD Detective Jeff Payne subsequently arrested nurse Alex Wubbels after she refused Payne a sample without a warrant.

Payne, the detective, arrived that night to get a blood draw, but nurse Wubbels told him repeatedly that hospital policy barred a draw unless the patient was under arrest, there was a warrant allowing the draw or the patient consents. Gray was unconscious and could not consent.

(Courtesy of Salt Lake City Police Department) Salt Lake City police Detective Jeff Payne

Payne, acting on directions from Tracy, his supervisor, aggressively arrested Wubbels.

(Courtesy of Salt Lake City Police Department) Salt Lake City police Lt. James Tracy

The arrest drew widespread outrage when Wubbels' attorney released police body camera footage of the encounter on Aug. 31. The department placed both officers on administrative leave the next day.

Throughout the controversy, Gray had remained in critical condition in the burn unit.

In the Facebook post, Rigby police recalled Gray’s “selfless service,” such as clearing snow last winter with his personal ATV so children could walk to school.

“He was a man of kindness and heart, a man of dedication to not only his family but those in his community,” the department said.

‘Premature release’ of footage?

On Sept. 13, Biskupski announced that an internal affairs investigation had found Payne and Tracy violated several department policies during their interaction with Wubbels. A review by Salt Lake City’s independent Police Civilian Review Board also found the officers violated department policies.

Payne and Tracy have until early next month to respond to the internal affairs investigation, after which Brown, the police chief, will make a decision on potential consequences, which could be as severe as losing their jobs.

A criminal investigation into the incident also continues, involving the Unified Police Department, the FBI and the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.

Hartney, of the Salt Lake Police Association, said in a Monday letter to Brown and Biskupski that the police union’s executive board was “extremely concerned and dismayed” at the “premature release” of the officers‘ body camera footage and information related to the disciplinary investigation.

The letter said the union was, at this point, not arguing or even discussing the merits of the allegations raised against the officers. “Rather we are solely concerned... with the ‘investigatory process‘ which we believe has been corrupted.“

The letter claims the city has not followed an “agreed upon and carefully scripted process” for investigating the conduct of police officers. At the news conference, Hartney focused on if the city should have released the footage so soon under the state‘s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), considering the release could have interfered with the internal affairs investigation.

The release of the body cam footage and information from the disciplinary investigation “has created a public furor which makes reasoned determinations difficult, if not impossible,” the letter states.

Biskupski spokesman Matthew Rojas said the videos were properly released by the Salt Lake City Attorney’s Office. He said Wubbels requested the footage under GRAMA, and because she was the subject of the footage, “we had no reason not to fulfill the request.” The city, he noted, had no control over Wubbels and her attorney ultimately releasing the videos to the news media.

Rojas acknowledged city officials including Biskupski made public statements and other steps they “would not normally do” after the footage was released. But that was in response to the “extraordinary” nature of the situation, which included thousands of angry calls and emails pouring into city offices from around the world, Rojas said. Many wrongly claimed the city was ignoring the situation, Rojas said, and had tried to cover it up.

“It was imperative for the public to see there was a process moving forward, and for us to be as transparent as we could,” he said, adding the mayor was careful not to weigh in on what should happen to the officers.

Hartney seemed to criticize Wubbels on Tuesday for enflaming the situating by “resisting arrest,” saying he noticed her “swat” at Payne as he tried to grab her.

“We need to be able to investigate and sometimes that means taking someone into custody,” Hartney said.

His letter also notes that “police tactics sometimes strike the untrained lay person as excessive and even abusive, when they are anything but.”

Taking someone into custody “does involve going hands on and an officer must be forceful, particularly when the arrestee is refusing to cooperate or strikes out at the officer...” the letter says.

“It is for this reason that the release of the body camera footage and information from the disciplinary investigation was ill-advised, violates GRAMA, and creates an explosive atmosphere for no reason whatsoever.”

The letter says that as a city and a society, “we cannot have police officers who fail to get involved or mishandle a situation ... because they are worried about being condemned by the public, and by city officials before an investigation is complete. If this occurs, the lives of both officers and the public will be put at risk.”

The letter also asks that no one associated with the city "make any additional inflammatory statements about this matter" until the investigation, and the disciplinary and appeals process, are complete.