Utah police officer justified in shooting, killing California fugitive who was armed with broken scissors

(Photo courtesy of West Jordan police) Jose Martinez, 34, was fatally shot by a West Jordan officer in 2019.

A West Jordan officer was justified in fatally shooting a fugitive who ended an hourslong standoff by rushing at police with a broken pair of scissors, according to findings released by prosecutors Wednesday.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said that Officer Charlie Sandness believed he and his fellow SWAT team members were at risk of being killed during the July 5 confrontation with Jose Martinez. And, because of that perception, Sandness will not face charges.

“Officers tried to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the situation, but Mr. Martinez told the officers that he would not surrender and told them he was going to die in the ensuing conflict,” Gill’s final report on the incident said.

Gill added in an interview Wednesday: “It’s an absolute tragedy. But the officer’s perception is that this man had a dangerous weapon.”

Martinez, 34, had been released from a California jail in May after spending time there for assault. Several days after he got out, the report said, he allegedly committed more felonies and was charged with kidnapping and drug counts. Police there issued a $500,000 warrant for his re-arrest.

On June 28, law enforcement became aware that Martinez had come to Utah and was staying at a family member’s house in West Jordan. FBI agents from Sacramento planned to locate him and escort him back to California.

Those agents first tried to arrest Martinez on July 5 while he was in a car near 6300 South and Dewdrops Drive, but he fled. They later tracked him down at about 6:30 p.m. at a condo near 6900 South and Prairie Dunes Drive. And the force called for backup from West Jordan police.

When the local SWAT team arrived, prosecutors said, the FBI agents told the officers that Martinez was carrying a gun and refused to go back to jail. Inside, Martinez stood on the second floor landing above a set of stairs.

“Jose, this is the police, come out with empty hands,” Sandness yelled at him, according to body camera footage of the encounter.

Martinez shouted back: “I have a weapon.” The fugitive then said he would “go to the grave” before surrendering.

“Just put the gun down, throw it down the stairs,” Sandness returned. “No, no,” Martinez responded.

Officers spoke to Martinez for more than an hour. When he wouldn’t relent, they used a sting-ball grenade that throws out rubber pellets to distract Martinez, according to the report, and also released tear gas.

Martinez then raced down the stairs with his arms raised. One was wrapped in a towel. And he pointed it at Sandness.

The officer fired and hit Martinez. The man fell to the ground but continued pointing, Sandness testified. He fired several rounds at that point. Martinez died at the scene.

“He took a really aggressive stance with the officer,” Gill said. “And the officer fired in response to the threat.”

In later interviews, several officers testified that Martinez appeared to be holding a gun under the towel. Investigators found half of a pair of broken scissors in his other hand.

Prosecutors reviewed the footage captured by Sandness’s body camera, which the officer did not watch after the shooting. He told interviewers that he believed at the time that Martinez would kill him or another officer.

In his decision, Gill wrote that perception made the officer justified to shoot — it didn’t matter what the actual weapon was. The district attorney said that Sandness gave Martinez several opportunities to cooperate, but he didn’t and he didn’t deny that he had a gun.

“The most important part of our analysis is always at the point that the trigger was pulled and what was going through the officer’s mind,” Gill explained. “And before that, they tried negotiation. They tear gassed to use less lethal force.”

Beginning in 2002, the report also said, Martinez had been in and out of both prison and jail in several states for various felonies.

West Jordan police Chief Ken Wallentine issued a statement Wednesday in response to the determination, saying he appreciated the conclusion after “an exhaustive investigation.”

He added: “We regret that the officer was compelled to use deadly force to defend against Jose Martinez’s attack at the end of a long series of criminal acts committed by Mr. Martinez.”