She has never even been accused of a crime, but for 31 days starting in late April, Alexus Irizarry sat behind bars at the Salt Lake County jail.
The 18-year-old Utah woman was actually a victim — someone shot at her black Toyota Tacoma early one August morning in 2017 while she was at a West Valley City park, and one bullet struck her friend in the head. He died later that day in a hospital.
But seven months after the shooting, Irizarry found herself in handcuffs and being led to a cell. She had missed a court date to testify against Frank Tsinnijinnie, the 18-year-old man who police believe fired into the truck filled with five teenagers.
Irizarry said she had been served a subpoena but didn’t show up because she had recently had shoulder surgery and knew she should not testify while under the influence of painkillers.
Her mother frantically told police and prosecutors about the surgery — at one point, she penned a letter pleading with the judge to release her daughter — but Irizarry remained locked up.
“It was hard in jail,” the 18-year-old barber said. “I had to sit there, and I was just thinking in my head, ‘There is somebody else out on those streets who is raping someone or abusing someone or committing a crime. Why am I in here? They could take my bed. I didn’t do anything wrong.’ ”
She was assigned an attorney nearly four weeks into her jail stay, then quickly testified about the shooting and was released.
Prosecutors in Utah have filed more than 100 warrants since 2013 seeking to have witnesses or victims arrested and detained to ensure they will testify at a hearing, according to state court data. Not all end in an actual arrest or jail time, and it’s rare for someone to be held for as long as Irizarry was.
Utah law allows for judges to issue such arrest warrants if a prosecutor can show a witness’s testimony is “material and necessary” to a case and there is a belief the witness would not show up to court.
“It’s a tool that is rarely used,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill. “But sometimes it’s the only option to get to the truth or to secure justice for the community.”
Since 2013, prosecutors have sought what are called material witness warrants 101 times in courts across Utah. The highest number came from the Salt Lake County courthouse, with 34 warrants filed to ensure testimony in cases that ranged from homicides to child sex abuse to robbery.
In more than half the Salt Lake County cases, a warrant was issued but the witness was never put behind bars, according to a Salt Lake Tribune analysis. Those who were arrested were generally released within a week — with the exception of Irizarry and two men in federal immigration custody who spent more than a year in jail so they would not be deported.
Some victims or witnesses had avoided being served a subpoena or gave fake addresses to law enforcement, which led to the warrants being issued. Many expressed fear of retaliation if they took the stand.
In one case, a man who had been beaten and stabbed inside a vehicle had a $50,000 warrant issued for him after he told prosecutors he had been threatened and did not want to testify. (The warrant was recalled before he was arrested.)
Another man involved in an attempted murder case told prosecutors he didn’t want to testify because people had been calling him a “snitch.” He was never arrested, and the charges against his alleged attacker were dismissed at a preliminary hearing after the victim did not show up.
In Irizarry’s case, her mother had called prosecutors to tell them she could not attend the hearing because of the shoulder surgery and gave them documentation from a doctor. A prosecutor wrote in court papers seeking Irizarry’s arrest that he informed Irizarry’s parents that she still needed to appear.
Once in jail, Irizarry said she wasn’t given proper medical care — she needed physical therapy post-surgery, and her arm was supposed to be in a sling. Sleeping on the flat metal bed made the pain in her shoulder worse, and she could not get access to pain medication.
She had painful nights when sleep proved elusive. For days, she couldn’t stomach the jail food — and on the day she decided to try a meal, her cellmate became violently ill in their room, and the guards did nothing to help clean the mess.
There were frequent unitwide lockdowns if two women got into a fight. Most of the inmates there were either detoxing from drugs, Irizarry said, or obsessed over how they would get narcotics when they left jail. She tried to keep to herself and often left her cell only to contact her mother.
“Everyone in there was talking about drugs and stuff,” she said. “[They were] nothing like me.’”
Irizarry’s mother, Angel Alvarez, said her family couldn’t get her daughter out of jail because the $50,000 cash-only bail amount was set so high and a letter she sent to 3rd District Judge Randall Skanchy went unanswered.
“I was stressed out,” Alvarez said. “It’s out of my control. I can’t do anything. What the hell is going on? She doesn’t belong in there. Why are you victimizing my child when she is a victim?”
Gill said Irizarry’s arrest came only after all other efforts to have her come to court had failed, and he noted the material witness warrant was approved by a judge.
As to the question of why she was incarcerated so long, Gill said: “We requested as quick of a date as we could. We were able to retrieve the testimony through a deposition that occurred, and she was released.”
‘It felt like I was the one who did it’
Though she had a court hearing a week after her arrest, Irizarry was not given a lawyer until she had spent nearly a month in jail. Defense attorney Edward Brass said he got her case just a day or two before the May 21 hearing in which she testified and was released.
“It’s very unusual to be held that long as a material witness,” Brass said. “I don’t know why her status wasn’t addressed earlier.”
On the day she was brought to Skanchy’s courtroom to testify, Irizarry said she felt she was the criminal, not a witness to the shooting death of a friend.
“I was shackled down from my hands to my feet,” she said. “It felt like I was the one who did it. They had me in a jail suit and I’m just like, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’ ”
Attorneys questioned Irizarry for less than an hour. She didn’t feel like her testimony was particularly useful, Irizarry said, because she couldn’t identify Tsinnijinnie as the shooter.
It was her idea to go to Kings Point Park that Aug. 3 morning to try to find some of their friends, Irizarry told The Tribune. They did not expect three teen boys they had never met to come to her truck and start firing rounds.
Irizarry drove away when bullets started flying, she said, and she never saw who fired the weapon.
Police landed on Tsinnijinnie as their suspect after viewing surveillance video that showed three teens running from Irizarry’s truck into a nearby home, according to charging records. Officers spoke with one of the teens at the home, court papers say, and the teen told police it was Tsinnijinnie who brought the Springfield 9 mm to the park and fired the gun.
A second teen later told police that as a truck approached their group, Tsinnijinnie said “What’s up?” to the occupants, then told him to duck and fired a gun.
Initially, police labeled the shooting “gang-related,” but Irizarry says it wasn’t — they just pulled into the wrong park at the wrong time.
After Irizarry testified in May, a judge found there was enough evidence for the case against Tsinnijinnie to move forward. He is expected to enter a plea to murder and discharge of a firearm charges in mid-June.
And after 31 days in jail, a judge finally ordered that Irizarry be released.
At first, the 18-year-old wasn’t happy to once again be free. She was still reeling from being on the witness stand.
During her testimony, the lawyers asked her about the shooting and showed her photos taken by police. It brought back memories from the night when her 14-year-old friend, Romeo Rodriguez, was killed.
“I cried the whole day,” she said. “I couldn’t be happy, they brought out pictures and it just refreshed my memory like it happened yesterday.”
In the following days, Irizarry would recall the moments when she was allowed outdoors at the jail and could look up and see the sky above a recreation yard flanked with high walls. It was always the same blue; she never saw so much as a cloud. When she got out, she saw so much nature even in this urban area. She noticed the trees and the grass. She drove her own car. She realized how much she loved her freedom.
Since she was released nearly two weeks ago, Irizarry said she’s spent nearly all her waking hours working at a barbershop, trying to rebuild the clientele she lost since her surgery and incarceration.
Being in the shop was all she thought about in jail, she said. She wants to own her own shop one day and wrote plans for what she wanted her business to look like.
“I don’t ever want to go back to jail,” she said. “It’s not somewhere you want to be. I have plans, and they aren’t to be in there.”