Utah’s fatal courthouse shooting might never have happened if the drapes had arrived earlier

Courtesy photo by FBI via Freedom of Information Act | This 2014 photo shows the witness stand in the new federal courthouse in Salt Lake City where a marshal shot Siale Angilau. The photo was taken after the shooting by a device which creates a 360-degree image. The FBI, citing privacy concerns, redacted something in a bottom corner of the photo near where Angilau would have been treated for his gunshot wounds.

When Siale Angilau arrived in April 2014 as the first defendant to stand trial at the sparkling new federal courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City, he was led into a state-of-the-art, metallic-and-glass building with security features designed to protect jurists and juries, the accused and the accusers, civil servants and citizens.

One thing hadn’t arrived yet.

“No drapes were available to cover the tables in the courtroom,” an FBI agent later wrote, “and the tables could not be moved. As a result, Judge [Tena] Campbell ordered that Angilau was not to be restrained in front of the jury.”

When the trial’s first witness was called, some of the marshals in the courtroom didn’t know about Campbell’s decision to leave Angilau unshackled — not until those marshals saw the 25-year-old gangster stand up from the defense table, grab a pen and a mechanical pencil and run toward a witness testifying about Angilau’s gang.

(Courtesy photo) Siale Angilau.

One of the surprised marshals reached for his pistol.

The marshal “drew his firearm and believes he fired at Angilau right before Angilau ‘went airborne’ over the witness stand,” according to an FBI report. The marshal “recalled trying to pivot so that he was not shooting into the gallery.”

He shot Angilau four times. The defendant later died at a hospital.

Angilau’s attack and the courtroom shooting, as well as what happened before and after, are described in 282 pages of FBI reports recently obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through the Freedom of Information Act. It took the FBI, which was called to investigate the shooting because it happened in a federal courtroom, five years to provide the documents. Salt Lake City police interviewed witnesses, too. The FBI also provided those reports.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The FBI’s interviews with marshals, lawyers, jurors and observers in the gallery that day paint the first panorama of the violence that christened the building that serves as a symbol of federal justice in Utah. A recurring theme in the interviews is how many people in the courtroom were concerned about Angilau and his family — even those who didn’t know anything about them until they received a jury summons.

‘Error in her judgment’

Angilau was a member of the Tongan Crip Gang, or TCG. When he was as young as 14, according to court records, he began participating in robberies of convenience stores in Salt Lake City and eventually received the nickname “C-Down.”

He also was accused of having a role in a 2007 chase in which another gang member shot at U.S. marshals. The marshals weren’t injured. In connection with that encounter, Angilau pleaded guilty in state court to obstruction of justice and failure to stop at the command of police. He received up to 15 years in prison.

Then, in May 2010, federal prosecutors working with area gang detectives indicted 17 TCG members on racketeering and other charges related to robberies and violent crimes. Eventually, 12 would plead guilty or be convicted. Angilau was to be the last of the TCG defendants to be tried.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Authorities secure the plaza as police investigate a shooting inside the Federal Courthouse in Salt Lake City on April 21, 2014.

When a suspect is jailed while awaiting trial, it typically triggers a discussion among lawyers and the judge about whether the defendant should be shackled in court. The FBI documents cite the U.S. marshals who kept security in Salt Lake City’s federal courthouse as saying it’s their policy to keep such a defendant shackled during trial. Defense attorneys counter that seeing a client in handcuffs and leg irons can create an assumption of guilt among jurors.

Judges, who ultimately are the ones responsible for ensuring a trial is fair, often strike compromises by ordering the shackles to be out of sight of the jury. The FBI documents say that the staff at the new courthouse didn’t yet have drapes to place around the defense table to hide Angilau’s shackles and that the table could not be repositioned. Campbell overrode the marshals’ policy and ordered that Angilau have no shackles in front of the jury.

“During Judge Campbell’s interview,” an FBI agent later wrote, “Judge Campbell indicated that not having Angilau shackled during his trial was an error in her judgment. Furthermore, Judge Campbell indicated that she was surprised at how quickly a man as large as Angilau could move, and how high he could jump.”

Most of the reports redact the names of witnesses, but the FBI did not redact Campbell’s name.

Worries in the courtroom

Jury selection concluded April 18, 2014, a Friday. At least two jurors told the FBI they thought it was odd that Angilau’s family was allowed to be present while the jurors were being picked.

“It made her feel uneasy and insecure,” an FBI agent wrote of one such juror.

Marshals who would later be in the courtroom during Angilau’s attack were worried, too, the interviews show. If they weren’t familiar with Angilau, they at least knew about TCG, either because they helped pursue the gang members in the months or years leading to their indictments, or they were present in the courtrooms during the earlier trials. One marshal told the FBI that some previous TCG defendants had gotten into a fight in the cellblock at the old federal courthouse with someone they thought was a cooperating witness.

After opening statements from the prosecution and defense, court paused for the weekend. Angilau and his attorney thought he would be returned to the state prison in Draper, but for reasons never made clear, marshals took Angilau to the Weber County jail, where the feds have a contract to house prisoners.

Angilau was kept in the jail’s maximum-security unit. He was not allowed to shower and did not receive the papers related to his criminal defense, he and his lawyers later would complain. Campbell would later say she thought she saw a fresh “shiner” under Angilau’s eye — as if he had been in a fight over the weekend.

When Angilau returned to the courthouse Monday morning, April 21, and taken to the prisoner holding area, he was agitated.

Law enforcement noticed.

(Photo courtesy of FBI via Freedom of Information Act) This 2014 photo shows the courtroom in the new federal courthouse where a marshal shot Siale Angilau. The photo was taken after the shooting by a device which creates a 360-degree image. The FBI, citing privacy concerns, redacted something in the bottom right corner of the photo.

A marshal would go on to say Angilau “was posturing in the cell with those who interacted with him.” One court security officer, a contract position hired by the U.S. Marshals Service, said he was worried about Angilau’s demeanor that morning and borrowed a Taser from another officer to take with him to the courtroom. Another security officer said he was so concerned about the likelihood of having to go “hands on” with Angilau — and possibly have his gun taken — that he left his firearm behind and went into the courtroom with only a Taser.

Before the jury entered the courtroom that morning, Angilau’s defense attorney Michael Langford relayed Angilau’s complaints to Campbell. She said she had limited influence over how or where Angilau was incarcerated, but she seemed sympathetic.

“I don’t want to interfere with jail security or anything,” the judge said, according to the trial transcript, “but Mr. Angilau has been in front of me and it’s been a long time and he’s no problem whatsoever.”

“You’ll be on your best behavior, right, Mr. Angilau?” Campbell asked a moment later.

“Yeah,” he replied.

Langford and the marshals were supposed to speak later in the day about Angilau’s complaints. Campbell ordered the jury into the courtroom.

Five seconds

About 9 a.m., prosecutors called the first witness, Vaiola Tenifa. He was a former TCG affiliate who was serving a sentence of up to 30 years at the Utah State Prison for robbery and assault.

The gallery was nearly full. Tenifa was scheduled to testify in an upcoming murder trial, too, and other gang associates were supposed to testify later in the trial. A variety of police and prosecutors were in the courtroom to hear what the witnesses would say about TCG. Angilau’s family and supporters sat in the wooden, church-pew-like benches, too.

The prosecutor never got around to asking Tenifa about Angilau. In his approximately 23 minutes on the stand, Tenifa testified about how TCG operated — graffiti on street signs and in parks to mark their turf in west Salt Lake City’s Glendale neighborhood, along with patrols to make sure other gangs weren’t in TCG territory.

Angilau stayed silent. One juror thought the defendant looked “restless” and moved in his chair during the testimony. Another juror would later tell the FBI Angilau “looked sideways” at Tenifa.

What happened at 9:23 a.m. took just five seconds.

Video released in 2018 shows Angilau was seated at the defense table between his two lawyers. Tenifa was on the witness stand in front of Angilau and to his right.

Angilau stood up and walked around one of his lawyers. The FBI reports said he reached down to the defense table and picked up a pen that had “Alta Club” written on it as well as a mechanical pencil and a yellow highlighter. Angilau then ran behind the podium where the prosecutor was asking questions before turning toward Tenifa.

The marshal who drew his pistol was one of at least four marshals or security officers in the courtroom that morning. That marshal told the FBI he didn’t normally work in a courtroom and assumed he had been assigned there out of safety concerns. The marshal “was not familiar with Angilau,” an FBI agent wrote, but knew about TCG’s violent reputation.

The marshal was standing near a corner of the courtroom between the jury and the witness stand. The prosecutor at the podium blocked the marshal’s view of Angilau standing up, but the marshal saw Angilau as he turned toward the witness.

“Angilau was moving very quickly,” an FBI agent, who later interviewed the marshal, wrote, “and [the marshal] realized he was not shackled. [The marshal] was never informed Angilau would not be in restraints.”

Some court staffers and jurors told the FBI they could feel the rush of air as Angilau darted past them. Somewhere on his short path, Angilau dropped the highlighter, but he still had the pen and pencil, the FBI wrote. The marshal who fired described him carrying the pen and pencil “as one would carry a knife if they were preparing to stab someone.” Video shows Angilau cocking his right arm and swinging it at Tenifa. Audio from the courtroom reveals that someone shouted, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!” as Angilau ran, but no one actually yelled at him to stop.

Gunfire and tears

(Photo courtesy of FBI via Freedom of Information Act) This 2014 photo shows the jury box in the new federal courthouse in Salt Lake City Siale Angilau, 25, ran past before a marshal shot him to death. The photo was taken after the shooting by a device which creates a 360-degree image. Leftover bandages appear to be on the floor.

After the marshal drew his .40-caliber pistol, he could have fired at Angilau’s front, but that would have put the spectators in the gallery in the line of fire. So the marshal told the FBI he tried to "pivot.”

As Angilau reached the witness stand, the marshal fired his first shot into the defendant’s back. He fired three more shots as Angilau tumbled over the witness stand. A medical examiner later would say three shots struck Angilau’s back and one hit his left arm. Tenifa backed out of the witness stand when he saw Angilau coming and was not injured.

Those five seconds set off shock in the courtroom. Other security personnel arrived to Angilau as he went over the witness stand and at least one had his Taser drawn. The marshal who fired kept his pistol aimed at Angilau until it was clear he was no longer a threat. One of the marshal’s colleagues soon told him, “Good job.”

Jurors had a good view of what happened. They told the FBI they could smell the gunpowder and see a laser pointer — probably from the Taser — aimed at Angilau as he lay in a curled position.

Anyone in the gallery who didn’t get down when the shooting started was ordered to the floor by marshals. Angilau’s family and jurors were crying.

Angilau still had the Alta Club pen in his hand. A marshal told him to drop it, but Angilau couldn’t or wouldn’t respond. One of the marshals reached down, took it out of Angilau’s hands and tossed it away. The courtroom soon was cleared of everyone except the marshals who were trying to render aid to Angilau.

Campbell and the attorneys reconvened in another courtroom at 10:01 a.m. Not yet knowing whether Angilau was dead, the judge declared a mistrial. She also met with the jurors and apologized.

Campbell, who had perhaps the best view of the shooting, later told an FBI agent and a Salt Lake City police detective she was surprised she could see the muzzle flash from the marshal’s pistol. She was supportive of the marshal.

“When Judge Campbell saw the shots being fired,” the detective wrote, “she thought to herself, ‘Well, that's probably all that would have stopped him.’ Judge Campbell agreed with the fact that the incident happened so quickly, that there was no opportunity to deescalate the situation and there was no time to ‘grab’ Angilau.”

Of the absent drapes and the inability to move the defense and prosecution tables, Campbell told law enforcement that procedures in the courtroom would have to change.

In an email to The Tribune last week, Campbell said she has “no set policy on shackles.”

“The decision whether a particular defendant should be shackled," she wrote, “is almost always made by the United States Marshals Service.”

Campbell otherwise declined to answer questions about April 21, 2014. Attorneys in the courtroom that day declined to comment. Angilau’s family did not return messages seeking comment.

Matt Harris, the current U.S. marshal for Utah, declined to make any of his staff available, but he issued this statement:

“The U.S. Marshals Service takes the responsibility of protecting the federal judicial process very seriously. We do not discuss specific security measures or methodologies we use regarding judicial security.”

The marshal who fired has never been publicly identified.

Steven Burton, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said shackles can be “devastating” to a defendant’s presumption of innocence.

“Shackles should only be used in specific cases,” Burton said in a statement to The Tribune, “and only when their presence can be completely hidden from the jurors who are deciding the case."

Three months after the shooting, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the marshal who fired was justified in shooting Angilau and that no charges would be filed.