“Will one of you use your cellphone to call the police?” Megan Mohn said to the two men surrounding her.
“We are the police,” a Salt Lake City officer replied early Jan. 11, 2022, according to body camera footage police later released. His partner’s breath was visible in the frigid winter air.
“But I want to hear them confirm that,” the 40-year-old woman said, her short, dark hair framing her pale cheeks and brown eyes.
Mohn never told the officers her name, despite their requests. When the officers ask, she tells them her ID was stolen before again trying to move her small frame, the body camera footage shows. Her hands remain handcuffed.
“Sit down! Stay down,” an officer commands, pushing Mohn back down to the grass, about a six minute drive from the Capitol. She likely had methamphetamine in her system, police later said.
She asks for some water, and an officer replies “maybe” — if she tells them her name.
“Please don’t kill me…I love you guys!” Mohn said. Another officer arrives on scene, beyond the view of the body camera footage.
“Help!” Mohn cries out.
“We’re not here to help,” the officer responds. Nineteen days later, Mohn was pronounced dead.
Officers’ actions may have breached SLCPD Policy
Mohn’s death was announced by Salt Lake City police on July 30, six months after she was pronounced dead on Jan. 30.
She died at the hospital where she was taken after she became unresponsive during her arrest.
The morning Mohn was taken into custody, officers were dispatched at about 3:13 a.m. to the intersection of 400 West and 900 North, where a woman was reportedly “walking in circles carrying a piece of rebar,” according to a police news release.
Police said Mohn had tried to enter a secure area of the nearby Marathon Petroleum refinery before running back into the intersection. At about 3:30 a.m., an off-duty Salt Lake City officer who was working a second job at the refinery ordered Mohn to drop the rebar, and she complied, according to the news release.
But when she was ordered to sit on the ground, she “kept screaming incoherent language,” resisted arrest and tried to run away, the release states. That’s when the off-duty officer took her into custody and called for backup.
At about 3:39 a.m, Mohn continues to refuse to give authorities her name and an officer begins to cut off the backpack she’s wearing, the body camera footage shows. She starts to kick, and one of the officers forces her onto her stomach, where she remains for the rest of the arrest.
By 3:45 a.m., Mohn became unresponsive, and was later transported to the hospital.
Salt Lake City police said they became aware of Mohn’s death on Feb. 9, 2022. They initiated the department’s “officer-involved critical incident” protocol months later on July 29 — the day after the state Medical Examiner’s office ruled Mohn’s death a homicide.
Mohn’s cause of death was “anoxic brain injury” due to cardiac arrest, the medical examiner ruled, which was due to “probable methamphetamine intoxication in the setting of an altercation involving physical restraint.”
This means that Mohn was likely not getting enough circulation to her brain while she was being restrained, said Dr. Alon Steinberg, chair of cardiology at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, Calif.
Steinberg has studied the use of prone restraint and cardiac death, and said in cases where people are placed facedown and restrained — like Mohn was — there is potential restriction in ventilation and circulation, which can be fatal.
In January 2023, Mohn’s family filed a notice of claim — a legal filing that comes before a potential lawsuit — which stated that the officers’ actions during her arrest may have violated SLCPD policy. According to the filing, the medical examiner’s report found there was bleeding and poor blood circulation to a muscle in Mohn’s neck.
These findings support choking trauma similar to “knee on neck” officer restraint methods, the filing alleges, which are against SLCPD’s use of force policy.
After reviewing the filing, Steinberg said the medical examiner likely believed there was “some component of neck compression” that may have further contributed to Mohn’s death.
This compression may have caused a decrease in air circulation, and irritation of the carotid sinus — which is located in the neck, near the base of the internal carotid artery, and controls blood pressure and heart rate. Irritating this area can “decrease blood pressure, heart rate and cardiac output, which are important in vulnerable subjects,” Steinberg said.
“First and foremost, Salt Lake City Police Department’s policy does not allow the use of technique of knees to the head or neck as a form of restraint,” the police department’s website states, “nor is it allowed to physically restrain an individual once compliance is established. Reports of violations of this policy are investigated and addressed immediately.”
When asked about the possible violation of policy, a Salt Lake City police spokesperson could not answer “due to the ongoing investigations and potential litigation in this matter.” The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office has not yet determined whether the officers’ use of force was justified.
“She was having a crisis — she was a danger to herself, for sure, and that was obvious,” said the family’s attorney, Byron Ames. “When the police told her to drop the rebar, she immediately complied. … There was no escalation on Megan’s part; she complied.”
“What the family wants to know is how do we get from that … How did we get from someone in crisis who complies with an order to drop the metal bar, to somebody who’s facedown on the ground tied up like a pig — hogtied — and has four police officers leaning on her?”
The footage shows that police escalated the situation, Ames argues — by not putting Mohn in a patrol car, and instead repeatedly asking her name, then seemingly hassling her when she did not provide it.
“Their use of force had nothing — it appeared to me, nothing — to do with a threat,” Ames said. “She’s a small woman — she didn’t have weapons, she didn’t have this rebar. … So there’s no reason for them to be escalating and using restraints as they did.”
He said the family’s concern is holding the officers accountable, and ensuring that police are not “creating problems that don’t need to exist.”
The four officers involved in the arrest were initially put on leave, but returned to duty in September, according to a police spokesperson.
“Her family loves her deeply and misses her and is saddened by this,” Ames said. “They’re shaken, because this is an outcome that should not have happened.”
‘She wanted to better her life’
Mohn was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1981 to parents Sandra and Martin, who had six children — four boys and two girls. She graduated from Washburn Rural High School in Topeka, and eventually landed in Colorado, where she graduated from Alamosa College.
It wasn’t until Megan was in her late 30s that she started living on the Salt Lake City streets.
No one on the streets knew much about Mohn’s life before getting to the Beehive State — but that can be typical for the unsheltered community. The less people know, the less your history can harm you, some said.
In a chance encounter in 2021, Mohn stumbled into the newly formed Nomad Alliance. The nonprofit focuses on serving the unsheltered population in northern Utah, and it was founded by Kseniya Kniazeva, who created it after escaping homelessness herself.
After meeting Kniazeva, Mohn attended every five-hour empowerment workshop the nonprofit offered from April through December that year, Kniazeva said, amounting to nearly 30 weekly workshops ranging from cognitive behavior therapy to sound baths and rage therapy.
“I actually think that’s kind of what kept Megan and some of the others really stable during that time,” Kniazeva said.
Kniazeva sometimes noticed bruises on Mohn, she said, accompanied with the occasional black eye. In response to Mohn’s apparent struggle with domestic violence, Kniazeva set up an illegal housing alternative and dubbed it “The Secret Garden.”
With the property owner’s permission, a tiny unused backyard became an oasis for a handful of unsheltered friends, including Mohn. Mohn even had her own micro home, about 9 feet tall and 7 feet wide, with a narrow white door and a small glass window.
“She was just kind of like an intrinsic mystery. … She would do very, very contradictory things and loved extreme opposites,” said Daniel Taylor, who knew Mohn from his time as a client with Nomad Alliance. “Like classical music and death metal at the same time.”
Taylor lost his girlfriend and young daughter to a drunken driver in one of the canyons just east of Salt Lake City. After five years on the streets using methamphetamine and synthetic marijuana, he celebrated one year clean in March.
Taylor knew that Mohn had previously dabbled in meth and synthetic marijuana before getting clean herself.
“People that become addicts or individuals that become homeless, in general, have something in their life that they have lost, that they can’t replace,” Taylor said. “Typically, they don’t have much support. So they fall towards something that makes them feel good.”
Hard physical labor from Taylor’s job in construction helped him stay connected to his sobriety, he said.
For Mohn, that connection might have been Gunner Nielsen, a 61-year-old veteran with a beard, grisled face and no-nonsense attitude. Few nomads knew Mohn better. Nielsen and Mohn lived as neighbors in “The Secret Garden,” but eventually grew as close as siblings.
“She wanted to better her life; she wanted to show people out here that say they don’t have a chance because of the government,” Nielsen explained. “She wanted them to see that somebody can do it.”
After one of Nomad Alliance’s weekly workshops, Kniazeva took a group of clients to shower at a local recreation center. While they were inside, Kniazeva saw a job posting from a friend who needed help at a local vegetarian restaurant. A few text messages later, Kniazeva scored Mohn an interview.
“Want some good news?” Kniazeva asked when Mohn returned from her shower. “You ready for a job interview?”
“Well, I’ll never be cleaner,” beamed Mohn, with her characteristically full grin.
‘Beginning of the end’
While it was rocky at times, Mohn held onto the restaurant job for months. Between shifts, she worked with Nomad Alliance as both a client and a volunteer.
A week after Mohn’s 40th birthday, an altercation sent her to the intensive care unit for several days. Friends pointed to another round of domestic abuse. Nielsen sat by her hospital bed for days. Mohn had a broken orbital socket, shattered nose, and fractured jawline.
Afterward, Kniazeva confronted Mohn, asking her when she first lost confidence and faith in herself.
“The first time a fist connected with my skull,” Mohn replied.
Kniazeva witnessed the vicious cycle continue as Mohn entered or returned to relationships with domestic violence and abuse.
“That was kind of the beginning of the end, and she spiraled after that,” Kniazeva said.
The spiral came fast. Within a month, the property owner for “The Secret Garden” forced the residents out, saying he wanted to sell the property.
Fortunately, around that time, Mohn received a donated motorhome that needed some repairs. She slowly paid the repair bill with her paychecks from her part-time job. In the meantime, Kniazeva found her temporary housing in the home of a woman who needed regular pet-sitting services.
Late one January 2022 evening, Mohn called Kniazeva. The woman Mohn was staying with was throwing her stuff onto the lawn and demanding that she leave.
“I’m just so tired, I can’t help you,” Kniazeva told Mohn, explaining that she had just worked a 12-hour supply drive for Nomad Alliance.
Recalling the conversation, which happened less than two days before Mohn’s arrest, Kniazeva choked on her words as tears streamed down her cheeks.
She didn’t realize the severity of the situation, and that Mohn was being evicted, Kniazeva said. The biggest shame of her life is that she didn’t drive over there that night.
After 10 clean months of employment, therapy and volunteer service, Mohn’s fall from stability only took a day and a half. In less than 36 hours, she became unsheltered — and then unconscious.
About a month and a half after SLCPD announced her death, Nomad Alliance organized the event “Dance for Justice - Remembering Megan Mohn” on the steps of the Capitol.
The peaceful protest called for “joyful noise” in memory of not only Mohn, but all who succumb to systemic failures for marginalized and ostracized unsheltered individuals. Speaking on the building’s sunny, southern steps, Kniazeva repeated some of Mohn’s pleas to the officers.
“We’re here to say ‘I love you. Please don’t kill us. I love you. Please hear us and see us,’” Kniazeva said. “Every life matters. Every life is precious. Homeless lives matter.”