Violence, Corruption in Utah Police Force
SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - Police shot a young woman to death "assassination style" as she sat in her car, amid "widespread and systemic corruption" in the undercover drug force, the woman's parents claim in court.
Melissa Kennedy and Frederick Willard, parents of the late Danielle Willard, sued West Valley City, its police Officers Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon, Lt. John Coyle, Police Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen, and 10 Doe officers, in Federal Court.
West Valley City, pop. 125,000, is a suburb of Salt Lake City.
According to the complaint: "On Nov. 2, 2012, at approximately 1:30 p.m., decedent Danielle Misha Willard, 21 years old, was fatally shot in the back of her head, assassination style, by defendants Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon, members of the narcotics unit of the West Valley City Police Department, while she was seated in her vehicle in the parking complex of the Lexington Apartments, ... Defendants' execution of Danielle Willard was without justification, unrelated to any legitimate law enforcement purpose, and done purposefully and/or in reckless disregard of her safety and well-being."
Willard's parents say the "brutal killing" was "untimely and unwarranted," and that Cowley and Salmon "were engaged in a pattern and practice of illegal conduct."
"Since the tragic shooting of Danielle Willard, it has been uncovered that Officers Cowley and Salmon were engaged in a pattern and practice of illegal conduct and widespread and systemic corruption, sanctioned by the West Valley Police Department, culminating in the unjustified and senseless killing of Danielle Willard," the complaint states.
The narcotics unit was disbanded after the shooting, the parents say, and West Valley City admitted "rampant corruption and systemic constitutional violations by its officers," including mishandling evidence and confiscating drugs for personal benefit.
"In the months following Danielle Willard's fatal shooting, the narcotics unit of the West Valley Police Department was disbanded. To date, two supervisors and five other rank and narcotics [sic] unit officers have been placed on administrative leave, along with Officers Cowley and Salmon; another West Valley City Police Department officer, Michael Valdes, was discovered in Wyoming, dead from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound; and Chief Nielsen has retired.
"West Valley City admits to rampant corruption and systemic constitutional violations by its officers, including mishandling of evidence, confiscation of drugs for personal benefit, theft of seized property, illegal use of GPS tracking systems, improper use of confidential drug informants, and commission of perjury.
"Since the shooting death of Danielle Willard, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has sought the dismissal of 115 criminal cases and the United States Attorney's Office has dismissed eleven criminal cases as a result of the illegal conduct of the defendant officers and others within the department," the complaint states.
The parents to no say why Danielle Willard was in the parking lot where she was shot, or her whereabouts before the fatal shooting. But they say Cowley and Salmon were no strangers to "misconduct."
"West Valley City continued the employment of Cowley and Salmon and allowed little to no supervision of these officers in spite of the fact that these officers had prior citizen complaints for misconduct," the complaint states.
"The city's deliberate indifference in the training of its law enforcement officers related to the use of reasonable force and lawful seizures, as well as the deliberate indifference by the police department's hierarchy to the safety of its citizens or the adherence to the Constitution's protection of individual rights, are the moving force behind the misconduct engaged in by Officers Cowley and Salmon. The widespread corruption and misconduct of West Valley City officers are all factors leading to the shooting death of Danielle Willard."
The plaintiffs seek punitive damages for wrongful death and civil rights violations.
They are represented by Mark Geragos of Los Angeles and Jon Williams of Salt Lake City.