WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah - After the Salt Lake County District Attorney announced an investigation into a West Valley City police officer and a link was made to the officer-involved shooting death of 21-year-old Danielle Willard, the West Valley City Police Department finally opened up about the case, nearly five months after the incident.
Was Danielle's death murder or a justifiable use of deadly force?
That’s the question soon before Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill in the shooting. But now, the battle lines have been drawn between police and the prosecutor.
On Thursday, West Valley Police explained why they shot Willard and the union representing Utah cops wants the District Attorney to recuse himself for allegedly trying the case in the press.
The tension all stems from a case that’s dragged on for nearly five months.
West Valley Police say narcotics detectives Shawn Cowley and Kevin Salmon saw Danielle Willard buy drugs November 2nd, then use the dope in the parking lot of the Lexington Park Apartments in West Valley. When cops approached her while she was in her Subaru, police say she tried to drive off.
"Ms. Willard put the car in reverse and backed out of the parking stall. As this was occurring, Detective Cowley was struck by the vehicle and both Detectives Cowley and Salmon fired their weapons," said West Valley Sgt Jason Hauer.
Cowley’s name only came to light after FOX 13 discovered his name on 19 cases the Salt Lake District Attorney is trying to dismiss. Most of the cases are drug related. The District Attorney said there was a lack of credible evidence and he couldn't prove the cases beyond a reasonable doubt. The police officer's union, or the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, fired back at Sim Gill.
"Showing those pleadings and suggesting or implying that there's a problem with this officer is inappropriate before that investigation is completed," said Bret Rawson, General Counsel for the Utah Fraternal Order of Police.
The FOP wants Gill to recuse himself and have a district attorney from a neighboring county review both the Willard case and the Cowley investigation. Gill told FOX 13 he won't do that and added, "I appreciate that they want to protect and defend one of their own but my job is to uphold the law and that's exactly what I'll do."
Danielle Willard's mother doesn't believe her daughter tried to run police down, especially because her Subaru was seen in the parking stall with a nearly unscathed SUV butted up against it.
Detective Cowley's lawyer Lindsay Jarvis said, "Detective Cowley's sympathies go out to the family of Danielle Willard. However, we are confident when all the facts are finally disclosed, it will be more than apparent that Detective Cowley's actions were legally justified as he was in imminent fear of losing his own life, and the life of his partner."
"I feel sorry for their (cops') family," said Willard’s mother, Melissa Kennedy. "I truly, truly do, but they made the decision to pull the gun, they made the choice to be there and to murder her and they need to pay. I feel incredibly hopeful that justice will be done for Danielle."
West Valley police stressed that the potentially dismissed cases are totally unrelated to the Willard shooting. FOX 13 is now awaiting three search warrants related to the shooting. The courts may release those to the news media on Friday.
Meanwhile, District Attorney Sim Gill still plans on meeting with West Valley police in the Willard case at the end of March and LA lawyer Mark Geragos, who's representing Willard's family, plans on being in Salt Lake City around that time.