A year after mass demonstrations sparked by George Floyd murder, protesters see double standard in prosecutions

Do police and courts treat Black Lives Matter protesters differently than counterprotesters?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Landon Daniel Buttars, 21, of South Weber, was charged in 3rd District Court with assault, a class A misdemeanor, for allegedly pepper-spraying a citizen reporter in the face at a Black Lives Matter protest in Cottonwood Heights in August 2020.

The following story was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Ty Bellamy is hoarse — not surprising given the amount of time she spends in Utah streets rallying for police reform. But she said it’s more than that, that her voice has been damaged from having been pepper-sprayed in the mouth by a militia member of the United Citizens Alarm (formerly Utah Citizens Alarm) during a protest a year ago in Cottonwood Heights.

Bellamy had put herself between then-militia member Landon Buttars and a Black Lives Matter demonstrator at precisely the wrong moment.

“I yelled ‘stop’ and as my mouth was open Landon sprayed pepper spray right down the back of my throat,” Bellamy recounted in a recent interview. It was “like eating fire,” she said, and the burn lingered for weeks.

While the assault happened in full view of multiple Cottonwood Heights police officers, according to Bellamy, it wasn’t investigated initially. She filed a complaint, but she said she was told they couldn’t find any record of it when she checked back with the department later.

Bellamy was involved in another demonstration in West Valley City where former United Citizens Alarm (UCA) member Randall Craig Schroerlucke brandished a weapon at BLM protesters and was not arrested at the event itself. Police didn’t even respond, she said, when BLM activists called for help.

“So many of us were calling 911 we were put on hold,” she recalled.

While Buttars and Schroerlucke are currently being prosecuted, Bellamy claimed they still get special treatment from cops and courts — an inequity she said that strikes to the core of why she and others have spent so much time in the streets seeking justice. If she ever brandished a gun at a protest, then “I am going to jail, if I even live that long,” she said. “It’s just a double standard.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ty Bellamy at a rally sponsored by the Black Lives Matter Utah Chapter, at the Public Safety Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 16, 2021.

Utah and the nation are now a year out from the summer of protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd beneath the knee of convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. While the heat of that summer has ebbed, it hasn’t gone away.

As the debate over social justice grinds on and the ramifications of all those mass demonstrations play out, the Utah Investigative Journalism Project has taken a deeper look into two prominent Utah court cases to emerge from the volcanic eruptions of last summer — the case of the militia member accused of pepper-spraying Bellamy, and that of Jesse Taggart, charged with shooting a driver he said he feared was going to plow through a line of BLM protesters in Provo.

‘Insufficient evidence’

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill drew controversy when his prosecutors added special gang enhancements to the charges against protesters who vandalized the D.A.’s office with red paint last summer. The enhancements carried a sentence of five years to life upon conviction. To Bellamy, it was another disturbing example of disparate justice for BLM activists compared to the handling of counterprotesters and militia members like Buttars. UCA leader Casey Robertson notes that Buttars was kicked out of his group after the incident.

Gill said that if witnesses see crimes committed by militia members, they need to come forward to authorities.

“I can’t go into court and prove it without evidence,” Gill said.

“Everyone has a constitutional First Amendment right to let their voice be heard,” he said. “What they don’t have is a right to engage in a criminal activity without accountability.”

The court record, however, reveals an unusual evolution in the Buttars case.

The original misdemeanor assault charge was filed Oct. 10 based on evidence provided by two Cottonwood Heights police officers and a single victim (not Bellamy). Six months later, on April 15, prosecutors dismissed the case because of “insufficient evidence to overcome the defendant’s anticipated claim of self-defense at this time.”

When the Utah Investigative Journalism Project asked for investigation records after the case was dismissed, the D.A.’s office denied the request. A few weeks later, the office refiled charges against Buttars.

It was the same assault charge, but now the indictment said 10 new witnesses could provide evidence.

The D.A.’s office said it could not comment on the abrupt turnabout because the case was ongoing. Attempts to reach Buttars through his attorney were unsuccessful.

‘They’re lucky this guy didn’t drive this tank right over the top of them’

What disturbed Jesse Taggart was the sound of an engine, revving and closing distance on him at an alarming speed.

“It was coming at us so fast, I can only decide this way or this way,” he said, recalling the time he was almost run over by a vehicle during a May 30, 2020, protest in Salt Lake City. “There was no gun, no shooting. It was just, ‘which way do I go to not die?’”

Things changed after that. Taggart, raised by a Reagan Republican father, had been around guns his whole life and was comfortable with them. But he didn’t think he’d need one marching for BLM until that close encounter.

(Photo courtesy of the Utah County jail) Jesse Keller Taggart

Taggart joined every protest last year from the end of May until a fateful convergence at the intersection of Center Street and University Avenue in Provo on June 29, 2020. From the beginning, he saw the protests as not about politics but the commonsense fight for the dignity and safety of Black Americans. His family was close to the Bonner family, the prominent Latter-day Saint singers, who are Black. When one of the Bonners posted on social media about their struggles dealing with racism last summer, it helped make a connection for Taggart.

“This isn’t my movement. I’m just an ally for the people leading this,” Taggart said.

Living in Salt Lake, Taggart was known for hauling a micro-home on a truck trailer to marches. He would maneuver the truck and trailer in front of marching protesters to help shield them from aggressive drivers.

But Taggart couldn’t afford the gas to haul his tiny home to the Provo protest in June and ended up instead hitching a ride.

He arrived late that evening and caught the tail end of speeches outside the Provo police department before joining marchers as they headed east along Center Street.

The marchers’ reception in Provo was a stark contrast to that in Salt Lake City, 45 miles away. Taggart said while he may have witnessed half a dozen instances of cars menacing protesters in the liberal capital city over a month’s time, in conservative Provo he estimated it was close to 10 in the space of 90 minutes.

Just as in his first encounter, Taggart heard an SUV revving its engine before he saw it. This time was different, though. He was armed and ready. At the intersection, Taggart was met by a cacophony of screams, the growl of the diesel engine and the blaring of the SUV’s horn. Then came the thud of the vehicle hitting demonstrators. Right after the thud, Taggart fired.

A video of the incident emerged quickly on social media showing the vehicle, a large white SUV driven by Kenneth Dudley, seeming to emerge from the right lane before protesters approached it and the first shot was fired. The early accounts related that the driver was trying to turn right onto Center Street when marchers surrounded him, attacking his vehicle.

But only recently released video from court discovery presented a new perspective on the scene.

A video shot from a second-story vantage point depicts the scene. Protesters block the intersection, the light turns green and a line of cars slowly comes to a stop. The cars are delayed less than two minutes before Dudley’s SUV appears in the frame of the picture and is seen immediately driving in the bike lane, for 117 feet — longer than an NBA basketball court. The vehicle slows down when it appears to be scraping against a light pole on the street, but it accelerates toward protesters in the intersection once it clears that obstacle. At no time does the video show the driver using a turn signal.

Taggart said he decided to shoot when the vehicle passed him and he aimed through the window for the driver’s legs, though the first shot hit him in the elbow. After he saw the vehicle pull away and strike a female protester, Taggart fired a second shot. A fragment of the second bullet lacerated Dudley’s eye.

Taggart faces felony charges for attempted aggravated murder, aggravated assault, felony discharge of a firearm and rioting.

Attorney Shane Johnson argued his client would not be facing a potential life sentence if the confrontation hadn’t occurred during a protest challenging the local police. The circumstances, he alleged, colored officers’ judgment from the outset.

“The Provo police department was willfully blind to the evidence in front of them,” Johnson said. “They had decided before they had even started their investigation what the outcome would be.”

Police body camera footage provided to Johnson shows detectives searching Dudley’s SUV, expressing surprise that protesters would attack it.

“They’re lucky this guy didn’t drive this tank right over the top of them,” one detective said, pointing out that the driver had a handgun inside the SUV, and a decorative car antenna shaped like a rifle shell.

“I mean this guy could have started a freaking war down there, that’s to say nothing of the sheer mass of the vehicle he could have used on them,” the detective said.

The idea that the vehicle may have been a weapon and not a crime scene received only a fleeting mention in the officers’ dialogue. As they searched the SUV, one mentioned that he heard a nurse saying video might have shown the driver was trying to run over protesters.

A pause filled the vehicle cab, before another officer stated matter of factly. “Yeah, cause he just got shot!’

“Dude, if I got shot, I’d be running over whoever to get my butt up to the hospital,” replied the lead detective.

Taggart’s attorney said because the police never considered the driver as a potential suspect in a crime, they never properly processed the scene. In total, Johnson said officers spent 17 minutes with the vehicle. They didn’t hold onto Dudley’s clothes or phone, or even check to see if the handgun in the SUV was loaded.

While the Utah County attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story, prosecutor David Sturgill stressed in a bail hearing that Dudley was driving slowly when he approached protesters.

“He crept up to the intersection, really wasn’t going too fast until he was swarmed — and then the first shot rang out,” said Sturgill.

Johnson, however, countered that there is no safe speed for a 4-ton vehicle pushing into a crowd of protesters.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Black Lives Matter protesters invited those from the other side to join them, as they gather for a demonstration on the corner of Center Street in Provo, Wednesday July 1, 2020.

At a June 25 preliminary hearing, both sides presented evidence for the judge to decide if a trial would be held. One witness described drivers aggressively targeting protesters while the prosecution showed video of Taggart in another instance banging on an accelerating vehicle with the butt of his gun.

Dudley testified about his fateful drive to the hardware store that day when he recognized the group ahead of him was “Black Lives Matter, Antifa.”

“I thought they’re going to pull me out of the vehicle and beat me to death,” Dudley said. He described protesters “swarming” people’s vehicles. But when Taggart’s attorney showed Dudley the video of him approaching the intersection, he acknowledged under cross-examination that no “swarming” was happening.

“Do you see any violence? Do you see any property damage happening?” Johnson asked.

“I just see people being held hostage,” Dudley replied, referring to the cars stopped at the light.

Dudley and Taggart crossed paths for a brief but fateful moment, less than a minute’s worth of irreversible pandemonium. Both were armed at the time, and each has cited self-defense as his motivation.

After being hit in the wrist with a rock in a previous foray into the space between demonstrators and police, Taggart adopted on social media the hashtag “peaceful protest protector,” or #PPP for short.

“I was like, ‘I’m only going to be here for peaceful people that want to have their voices heard,’” Taggart said. “And that’s what I did.”

Dudley, who did not respond to a request for an interview, is now running for mayor of Provo City. On his campaign website he expounds his support of the Second Amendment.

“Defending ourselves and our families, as well as our property is where I find my most adamant reason to support this right to keep and bear arms,” his website reads.