A family loses a loved one who happened to be a grief counselor. Now the family is left to grapple with her death without the advice they all desperately need.
Joslyn Spilsbury had given them guidance for coping with loss for years, and they cherish it, but they’d rather have her.
“The true definition of irony,” said Randall Cooper, Spilsbury’s brother-in-law.
Spilsbury, 48, was killed on a sunny day last June as she drank coffee with friends at a table outside a Millcreek Starbucks store. Salt Lake County prosecutors — now one year later — still haven’t decided whether or not to charge the driver of the truck that struck and killed Spilsbury and injured her friends.
That delay, her family says, is making it difficult for them to move forward with their lives.
It takes time to dissect any deadly collision, said Salt Lake City police Sgt. Tom Potter, who leads the valleywide major crash team. It reconstructs any fatal or near-fatal crash in Salt Lake City and much of the county.
Unlike in other cases, such as homicides, the team processes its own evidence — combing over vehicles for clues, inspecting them for mechanical issues, analyzing any video footage, interviewing witnesses and requesting medical records.
All that takes time, usually between six months and a year, Potter said. Reconstructing the crash that killed Spilsbury took about six months.
Potter said the remaining delay is caused by difficulty in getting the medical records of the driver, West Walker.
It’s not clear how much more time investigators will need to make some kind of determination. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said his team of investigators has taken over the case from the overburdened police team.
After the June 8, 2018, crash, Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said at a news conference that her team had concluded Walker was not intoxicated during the crash. They didn’t suspect he deliberately drove into Spilsbury’s group. That left them with another thread to follow: Was Walker experiencing a medical issue?
And beyond that, Potter said, “It kind of comes back now to the driver’s awareness of the [medical] issue. Is it new? Did he know it existed? Or was this a first-time event?”
‘Dealing with death’
Part of the reason the case is taking so long is that law enforcement and prosecutors have opted to investigate it.
From 1995 to 2001, Salt Lake City police didn’t prioritize automobile homicides, Potter said. Its major crash team was reinstated in 2001 and staffed with six people. But with retirements and attrition, he said, it became “harder and harder to find people.” The Unified Police Department found itself in a similar situation.
The shortage of candidates is partly due to how hard it is to be a crash investigator. It takes time for training to learn how to reconstruct crashes, and requires an aptitude for science and math.
“They either want to do it and they can’t because of the educational background, or they can do it but they don’t want to because the nature of the work,” Potter said. “Anytime you’re dealing with death, that’s just not that not great.”
The departments decided to pool their resources with some smaller agencies. Today the team led by Potter has a half-dozen full-time investigators from Salt Lake City, Unified and South Salt Lake, and the help of about 30 part-time contributors.
Normally the team handles about 60 cases of near-fatal or fatal crashes per year, and each requires an estimated 200 hours, Potter said. Due to the size of that workload, cases often take six months to a year to complete; but most finish before the year mark, Potter said.
The team hasn’t investigated quite so many cases this year, which Potter attributes to the recent wet weather and people driving slower.
In 2017, the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office created a major-crash team of its own. Fourteen prosecutors add vetting these cases to their regular caseloads.
Before the team existed, Gill said, sometimes drivers who caused crashes slipped through the cracks and weren’t charged. That distressed families and did a disservice to victims, he said.
The new team has reviewed 108 cases since it began work in January 2017. Chief Deputy Blake Nakamura said that of those, 38 resulted in felony charges, and in 65, charges were not filed or the case was referred to municipal prosecutors for lesser charges.
A stalled investigation
Witnesses claimed to see Walker’s truck — or at least one that looked like it — circle the parking lot at the Starbucks before the crash. And the day before, Spilsbury had been accosted by a man who’d been stalking her.
That led to in initial concern “that there might be some intent involved,” Potter said. But, he added, “those all were proven to be completely … unrelated.”
Investigators were eventually left with their current questions: Did Walker have some kind of medical issue that contributed to the crash? And if so, what did he know about that condition when he decided to drive that day?
If a driver has a medical condition that means he or she should not be driving, and chooses to drive anyway, a criminal charge could be warranted by that culpability for a crash, Gill said.
At first, police said the investigation was slowed as Walker’s attorney took time to respond to their requests for information. But investigators have had additional trouble getting medical records from the institutions holding them, Potter said.
About a month ago, Walker’s case was turned over to the district attorney’s office to complete the investigation, Gill said.
‘Is anyone going to be held responsible?’
With that lack of information and closure, Spilsbury’s family has been left wondering what might have been behind the crash. Elizabeth Cooper, Spilsbury’s niece, said she hasn’t been able to reckon with her aunt’s death, with the case still unresolved.
“I’m still in this very shocked, angry spot. You guys get upset and cry a lot,” she said, while talking to her mother, Erin Spilsbury Cooper, and sister, Vanessa Cooper. “But I don’t know. I feel like I’m still confused and mad. I’m like, ‘Is anyone going to be held responsible for this?’”
On June 8, one year to the day Spilsbury died, the Coopers gathered with some of Spilsbury’s favorite things: fresh flowers, pistachios, chocolate-covered raisins and blocks of cheese.
They shared memories: how Spilsbury talked too much during eyelash appointments; how she brought protective crystals to family members in their times of need; tips she’d taught them to deal with hardship; the way she could almost inhale a box of Popsicles or a pint of Haagen-Dazs ice cream.
The memories they shared were bookended with tears or sips of pink champagne — another of Spilsbury’s favorites.
Later, Randall Cooper said, maybe at 2 a.m. when no one would be around, the family planned to return to the Starbucks for the first time since the crash, to drop off a vase of yellow flowers, and just maybe, start the process of recovery.
Like everything else they were sharing that day, they felt that was exactly what Spilsbury would have wanted.