He told police he had gone to a South Salt Lake business to “collect a debt” with an acquaintance, then tried to flee in a car when the police showed up.
But he claims he didn’t know that as he sat in the passenger seat as they sped away in a black Chevrolet Impala, they had hit a police officer.
He felt the impact, Jeffrey Black told police, but he thought it was a mailbox.
South Salt Lake Police Officer David Romrell died that Saturday evening from injuries he sustained after he was hit by the Impala. The driver, 31-year-old Felix Calata, was also killed that night after police officers opened fire after he hit Romrell.
Though he claims he didn’t know they hit a police officer, Black could now face the same penalties as if he had been behind the wheel himself.
The 43-year-old man was arrested Monday and booked into jail on suspicion of a number of charges, including aggravated murder, burglary, obstruction of justice and failure to stop for police.
No criminal charges have been filed as of Tuesday morning, and it’s not clear what police believe Black did that implicated him in Romrell’s death.
Romrell and his partner had responded to a report of a burglary late Saturday afternoon at a business complex at 3575 S. West Temple when they confronted Calata and Black.
Black later told police that he heard the officers yell for them to stop, according to a probable cause affidavit filed with the jail.
As he sat in the passenger seat, Black said he heard Calata say, “F--- it,” then accelerate the car and drive toward the police officers to try to get away.
After the vehicle struck Romrell, Calata kept driving as police fired toward them.
“Felix got out of the vehicle,” a police officer wrote in the affidavit, “and Jeffrey steered the vehicle towards a pole crashing the vehicle.”
Both men then tried to run away.
Calata, who was struck by gunfire, was captured and taken to a local hospital, where he died.
Black hid inside a boat for more than a hour to avoid being captured, according to the affidavit.
After police found him, Black was interviewed and was initially released.
South Salt Lake police spokesman Gary Keller said investigators from Unified police “revisited” the case and then arrested Black on Monday after he had answered some follow-up questions when he was at the police department to pick up some of his belongings.
“We’re just happy he’s in jail, behind bars,” Keller said. “[Black] could have made a difference, but he didn’t. We need to bring the family some closure. At least let him face the justice system and see where that all pans out.”
In an unusual move, South Salt Lake police alerted media to the arrest before making the routine transfer from the sheriff’s office to the county jail. When questioned by reporters, Black said he was sorry for the officer’s death and said he had only known Calata a few days before the incident that killed Romrell.
It’s not clear what charges might be filed against Black, if any. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill on Tuesday said he could not comment on any charging decisions being considered, saying he had yet to receive any reports from police about Black.
But Utah law allows prosecutors to charge an accomplice with serious crimes, even if they didn’t kill anyone. The law states that anyone who “solicits, requests, commands, encourages, or intentionally aids another person” in a crime can be held equally culpable for that crime.
That’s what happened in another Utah police officer’s death, when a then-17-year-old girl was convicted of aggravated murder and other crimes for driving her truck while her 27-year-old boyfriend fired out the back window and killed Utah County Sheriff’s Sgt. Cory Wride and injured Deputy Greg Sherwood in 2014. The boyfriend was killed in a shootout with police. Meagan Grunwald is currently serving a 25-year-to-life prison sentence.
It’s also possible that prosecutors could charge Black in Romrell’s death if they can show the homicide was committed “incident to an act, scheme, course of conduct, or criminal episode” where a serious crime — like a burglary or aggravated burglary — was committed.
Black is being held at the Salt Lake County jail without the opportunity to post bail, after a judge found he is likely to flee if released and committed a new felony while free on bail on another felony charge.
Black is facing drug possession charges in West Jordan and was expected to be sentenced Thursday for a domestic violence assault in Kanab. He has a lengthy criminal history, most of the crimes drug-related.
Romrell was a Marine veteran who had been with the police department for 11 months before his death. He leaves behind a wife and a 4-month-old child. Funeral arrangements for the officer have not yet been announced.