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1 of 2 assault charges against Salt Lake City K9 handler dismissed

Posted at 12:47 PM, Jul 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-26 19:52:08-04

WEST JORDAN, Utah — A judge dismissed one assault charge against a Salt Lake City police officer in a hearing Tuesday and heard arguments on whether the dog handler should stand trial on a separate count.

The officer, Nickolas Pearce, faces up to 15 years in prison on the remaining assault charge. About three dozen Salt Lake City police officers stood outside the courthouse in West Jordan Tuesday morning to clap for Pearce, shake his hand and pat him on the back as he walked inside for his preliminary hearing.

State court Judge William Kendall won’t rule until at least December on whether Pearce should stand trial. Kendall dismissed one assault count because a witness who is currently in jail did not appear to testify. Kendall dismissed the count “without prejudice,” meaning prosecutors can refile the charge later. In that case, Pearce was accused of lifting Tuco to bite a woman in a car.

One person who did testify Tuesday morning – Jeffery Ryans. April 24, 2020, his daughter called 911 to say Ryans hit her mother and the family was in danger. Both Ryans and his now-ex-wife have denied a physical altercation that morning.

Officers found Ryans in his backyard. Body camera video played Tuesday showed him with his hands up talking with a police officer.

“I was surprised because I wasn’t running,” Ryans testified. “I wasn’t fighting. I wasn’t causing any hostile environment.”

An officer was talking to Ryans as Pearce and his dog, Tuco, walked behind Ryans. A voice is heard telling Ryans to get on the ground. Then the voice says, “Hit.” That’s the K9 command to attack.

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Ryans testified he was on his knees and was about to put his face in the ground when he felt a dog biting his leg. He said he has had multiple surgeries and has undergone physical therapy and still has no feeling between his shin and his ankle.

Ryans testified the episode contributed to a split from his wife and that he lost his job at Union Pacific because of the leg injuries. Ryans has filed a federal civil lawsuit against Salt Lake City.

“I lost my marriage,” Ryans testified. “I lost my wife. I lost my job.”

Under cross-examination, defense attorney Tara Isaacson asked questions challenging his testimony that he didn’t know why police were at his home and pointing out that he should have known his then-wife filed a protective order against him. Ryans has since pleaded guilty in federal court to a charge related to trying to purchase a gun while the protective order was in place.

Two Salt Lake City police officers called as prosecution witnesses contended Ryans wasn’t following orders.

“In my mind, several commands he had been given throughout the course of the whole thing and he hadn’t complied with getting on the ground,” testified Officer Cody Orgill.

“You think you could [get on the ground] faster than Jeffery Ryans?” prosecutor Andrew Deesing asked.

“If there was a dog there, yeah,” Orgill answered. “A lot quicker.”

Officer Kevin Jewkes said that just because Ryans’ hands were near his head didn’t mean he wasn’t a threat.

“So hand level here,” Jewkes said as his hands were at his head much like Ryans’ were, “also has quick access to waist level and can be used as weapons.”

The last prosecution witness, longtime K9 trainer Wendell Nope, reviewed the body camera footage. He testified Ryans did not appear to be a danger, and that Pearce and Tuco would not have passed a similar training scenario.

“I just don’t see it where he’s actively resisting,” Nope said of Ryans.