No news may be bad news for Willard residents when it comes to a homicide case now four months old. Authorities still refuse to release even the first police incident report about the death of a man found in a burned-out home June 27.
Little has been revealed publicly about the death of Eric Daniel Lankford, 26, whose body was found in the burned remnants of his older brother's house. The brother has been named a person of interest in the case, but no charges have been filed.
The city invoked a Utah Government Records Access and Management Act clause that allows a police agency to lock up a police report if officials assert its public release "could reasonably be expected to interfere with an investigation."
The Standard-Examiner is pressing an appeal, now in its third level of bureaucratic review. In the wake of the latest denial, we are scheduled to go before the state Records Committee, hoping for a reversal so the public will get a chance to see the police report.
We feel strongly about this case, for several reasons.
Government records in Utah are considered to be open to the public by default, according to the basic statutory schemes and court rulings over the years, subject to certain exemptions. This assumed openness includes police records. Our decision to push for release of the Willard report follows this fundamental principle.
In what way could the report getting out damage the Lankford investigation, we asked city officials in a hearing last week. "We don't know," they said, because it's impossible to predict.
For our part, we're positive that lack of disclosure means a cloud of questions remain about the case.
We also take stock in the spirit of a 3rd District Court ruling in 2010 on police initial contact reports. Such reports should be considered public, the court ruled, because they are "prepared immediately following the incident and while the information is fresh in the reporting officer's experience."
What happened at the Lankford home early that morning? We know a little, but not enough. Police responded to a family fight call there at 1 a.m. but made no arrests. The fire was reported two hours later and firefighters found Lankford's body inside.
Perry police, who responded to the night's events in the two small cities' neighbor-helping-neighbor arrangement, have said Willard should have made an arrest in the 1 a.m. incident because a shot was fired. Willard Police Chief Nate Thompson said no shot was fired.
We'd like to see what the official police report from that night said about all of this. The initial documentation may shed some light on even basic circumstances and how Willard police investigated it in the first hours.
Our readers deserve to know about vital workings of local government agencies, in large towns and small. For instance, it's fair to ask why some tiny communities like Willard even have their own police forces. Many smaller cities in other counties have contracted with their sheriff's offices to provide law enforcement, due to the costs and organizational demands of efficiently policing in this era.
That Willard police report might contain some answers in this area of interest, but it's unknown as long as it remains filed away in the chief's desk.
At a GRAMA hearing in the Willard city office last week, Thompson told us he may decide to eventually release at least part of the police report, depending on what he learns from pending state toxicology and coroner's reports on the death.
City officials also told us they were worried the release of the report could generate unfair pre-trial publicity against a potential suspect.
We are not swayed by the city's arguments, but we are convinced that we're fulfilling our role as a community watchdog in fighting for public review of important government documents.
Mark Shenefelt is managing editor. He can be reached at 801-625-4224 or mshenefelt@ standard.net .