Wrongful death suit filed in W. Valley police shooting

Jun 12 2013 - 11:54pm

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Danielle Willard (Facebook photo)
Danielle Willard (Facebook photo)

SALT LAKE CITY -- The family of a young woman fatally shot by West Valley City police has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the former police chief and the officers involved.

Danielle Willard's parents filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.

The November shooting triggered an internal investigation that uncovered misconduct that led to the agency's drug unit being disbanded and more than 100 cases being dismissed by prosecutors because of lack of credibility.

The lawsuit names detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon, the two officers involved in the shooting. It also names the police chief at the time, Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen, who retired in March, and Lt. John Coyle, the supervisor of the narcotics unit Cowley and Salmon were in.

Police say Willard, 21, appeared to be buying drugs that day. When they approached her, she put her car in reverse and struck Cowley. That's when they fired.

The lawsuit alleges that Willard was shot in the back of her head, "assassination style."

The "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," the lawsuit says.

Cowley's attorney, Lindsay Jarvis, said the allegation that Willard was killed "assassination style" is disturbing and completely unfounded. She said the attorney doesn't have access to police reports and is guessing about what happened, likely based on media reports.

"It was probably thrown in there for the dramatic effect," Jarvis said. "There's not going to be any evidence that will support that allegation."

She said her client will vigorously defend himself against the accusations in the lawsuit.

Cowley, Salmon and the rest of the narcotics unit were put on administrative leave after the drug unit was disbanded. Jarvis said they'll remain there until Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill decides whether to file charges in the shooting.

West Valley City police did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment. Nielsen and Salmon could not be reached.

After the shooting, the West Valley police department opened an internal review.

That's how West Valley City police leaders discovered officers in the unit mishandled evidence, kept souvenirs from drug busts and possibly lost drugs and money, among other issues. Some officers also collected small tokens from drug cases, including necklaces and candles.

Prosecutors have also dismissed about 125 cases submitted by the unit because of a lack of credible evidence.

The lawsuit draws a link between the fatal shooting and issues uncovered in the internal review.

It alleges Cowley and Salmon engaged in a pattern of misconduct and corruption, and that Coyle and Nielsen allowed it to happen.

"The widespread corruption and misconduct of West Valley City officers are all factors leading to the shooting death of Danielle Willard," the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit was filed by Willard's parents, Melissa Kennedy and Frederick Willard.

It does not say how much money they are asking for in damages.

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