High on spice, a 16-year-old boy had fallen asleep along a busy street in Murray in June. Someone tried to roust him by rubbing his chest, then grabbing his wrists. The boy felt pain, so he swung his leg at the stranger and slurred, “Please go.”
“Hey, a--hole!” the stranger said as he punched the teen in the face. “What’s wrong with you, huh?”
That’s when the teen realized that the person trying to wake him up was a police officer, who, after punching him, pressed his face into the ground.
“I was in shock,” the boy testified at a recent trial for Murray Police Sgt. Luis Argueta-Salazar. “Like who was hitting me? I don’t know who it is.”
At first, the boy didn’t tell anyone he had been punched. And Argueta didn’t inform his supervisors that he had used force against the teen as he responded to a report of an unconscious person who may need help.
But two people waiting in a nearby tire shop saw what Argueta did and called the Murray Police Department two days later.
That led to a criminal charge against Argueta, a 25-year veteran of the Police Department, who resigned a few months after the incident. A jury in January convicted him of misdemeanor assault, agreeing with South Jordan prosecutors that Argueta broke the law.
“Argueta punched an innocent, essentially defenseless kid in the face because he’s got a gun and a badge,” prosecutor Ed Montgomery argued to jurors at the trial. “[He] is a bully cop with an anger-management problem.”
The June 13 incident was captured by Argueta’s body camera, footage that attorneys on both sides relied on heavily during the January trial in Murray City Justice Court. The Salt Lake Tribune obtained a copy through a public records request.
Jurors relied on this footage, along with testimony from the teen, Argueta and others, before rendering their guilty verdict after about 90 minutes of deliberation Jan. 18.
Despite a request from prosecutors to slap Argueta with jail time, Murray Justice Court Judge W. Paul Thompson on Monday sentenced the former lawman to a year of probation, a $1,000 fine and a requirement that he complete an anger-management course.
It was a decision the teen’s father considers too lenient. He wasn’t expecting Argueta to get jail time, he said, but was upset there wasn’t more of a punishment.
“He should be held to a higher standard,” the father said, “because he should be enforcing the law.”
The father said he wants the public to know what happened to his son, adding that he didn’t learn of the incident until a prosecutor contacted him.
When he watched the body camera footage, he was disappointed with his son for using drugs, he said, but “furious” that an officer who was supposed to help the 16-year-old ended up assaulting him.
“The way the officer handled it was completely unprofessional,” the father said. “To assault a minor that is clearly asleep?”
The Tribune generally does not identify underage victims of crime and is not using the father’s name to protect his son’s identity.
‘A distracting blow’
At the trial, jurors watched Argueta’s body camera video several times.
The footage shows the sergeant approach the 16-year-old, who is passed out near a gas station on 4500 South and State Street.
“Hey, buddy,” Argueta shouts at the youth, before telling him to wake up. The officer starts moving the teen’s arms, rubbing his chest and pushing on the teen’s wrist. He starts tapping his hand against the teen’s face to wake him up.
It’s then that the youth swings his leg around and asks him to leave.
Argueta strikes the teen, the footage shows, and holds his face to the ground as he tells the teen he’s trying to help him.
“Get the f--- out of here, please!” the teen slurs. “Please go.”
“Stop kicking me,” Argueta responds, his gloved hand still holding the teen’s face to the ground.
Eventually, the officer calls paramedics to examine the teenager but never mentions that he had punched him. The youth was not arrested or charged with a crime.
It wouldn’t be until almost a week later — and days after the woman who witnessed the assault called his department — that Argueta would write a police report that gave any indication he had used force on the teen.
Montgomery argued to the jury that Argueta delayed writing the report because he didn’t want to get in trouble, and he didn’t think anyone else had witnessed the violence.
“He has to hide it,” the prosecutor argued.
But Argueta’s attorney, J.C. Jensen, argued the police officer didn’t break the law when he punched the teenager, because he was justified in using the force.
Argueta testified at the trial, telling jurors he was worried about his safety that day. He said he was concerned the teen could kick him in a knee that had been injured before, or push him into traffic. What if the teen sprang up after kicking him and grabbed his gun?
“I didn’t know what kind of person I was dealing with,” the sergeant testified, “whether he was more agile than me.”
Argueta described the encounter as the teen kicking him three or four times, each time making contact with his legs. He called the punch “a distracting blow.”
“I was able to defend myself to get this attack to stop on me,” he testified.
Argueta’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Argueta is appealing the conviction to district court, but court documents do not offer details about any specific claims.
A history of discipline
The sergeant was charged last July with misdemeanor assault, but the charging documents had been kept secret until late October. They were released after The Tribune inquired about the case with Utah courts officials.
The Tribune learned of the allegations from a motion filed in a separate case in which Argueta had been one of several law enforcement officers to testify about a nurse who had been accused of multiple sexual assaults at Salt Lake County hospitals.
At that trial, Argueta testified that he had been with the Murray police force since 1994 and retired in September.
Jennifer Heaps, Murray’s public relations director, said in a statement Tuesday that the officer had resigned from the department — not retired — before police officials could complete their internal investigation.
After Murray police received the witness complaint about the assault, Heaps wrote, Argueta was placed on paid administrative leave and South Jordan police conducted a criminal investigation. Montgomery, who works for South Jordan, made the decision to file the assault charge.
Department of Public Safety officials said Argueta’s police certification is still active. But the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Council — which disciplines police officers who engage in misconduct — does have a pending investigation. That probe began Oct. 11.
In response to a records request, Murray police released four other disciplinary letters given to Argueta through the years, the most recent being in 2011. The letters offer few details about how Argueta violated department policy, however.
He was ordered to take one day off without pay in 2011 for violating laptop computer use policy, according to one letter. Another from 2007 was a warning given after Argueta had decided to “pursue alleged suspects for ringing [his] doorbell and leaving.”
A third disciplinary letter from 2006 references a resident who complained about Argueta as he responded to a bomb threat at Murray High School. No other details were released.
“I want to remind you that your decisions in this case negatively affected the police department,” the letter reads. “Your decision also may have allowed a catastrophic event to occur where lives would have been in grave danger.”
The fourth letter referenced a 2007 incident in which Argueta was cautioned to abstain from any activities with a particular woman that “may be construed as threatening or harassing.”