Jury: No award in deaths, Ogden not liable in 2005 double fatality

Nov 14 2009 - 10:43pm

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(Standard-Examiner file photo) Utah State Highway patrolmen investigate the scene of a fatal accident Dec. 13, 2005 at 24th Street and Grant Avenue in Ogden.
(Standard-Examiner file photo) Utah State Highway patrolmen investigate the scene of a fatal accident Dec. 13, 2005 at 24th Street and Grant Avenue in Ogden.

OGDEN -- A 2nd District Court jury Thursday absolved Ogden city of any liability in the 2005 death of Jessica Nelson following a police chase of Eddy Raymond Bustos that ended seconds before he plowed into her car.<--break->

Killed in the 3 a.m. Dec. 13, 2005, collision in the intersection of 24th Street and Grant Avenue were Nelson, 21, and her passenger, Philemon "Bob" Ellis, 62. Nelson's family filed suit in 2006.

The five-day trial spread over two weeks concluded with about seven hours of jury deliberations that resulted in a "no cause of action" verdict early Thursday afternoon.

Nelson's lead counsel, Rob Sykes, promised an appeal after the verdict came in, saying, "We didn't get a fair trial."

Sykes had asked the jury to award $715,000 to Nelson's 5-year-old daughter, Wonzie Barrientos.

Former Officer Matt Jones was chasing then-48-year-old Bustos after Bustos drove erratically upon leaving a home described as a known "gang/drugs/weapons" hangout police had staked out that night.

Bustos, high on methamphetamine, was traveling at 78 mph when he ran a red light and broadsided Nelson's vehicle.

The city's lawyers say the chase had stopped moments before Bustos plowed into Nelson.

Sykes contended Jones, ignoring his sergeant's order to end it, had begun the chase again just before the crash took place a block ahead of him.

The trial featured dueling experts -- police veterans testifying Jones' speeds above 80 mph on Grant Avenue at the close of the roughly minutelong chase were either totally justified or an unnecessary hazard to the public.

The suit is the only one of three to make it to trial in the double fatality.

Two others brought by other lawyers were dismissed during the motion and discovery phase. One dismissal of a suit brought by Ellis family members in federal court is on appeal.

"It's a relief to finally have it behind me," Jones said of the verdict. "I don't think anyone doubted us, other than the plaintiffs."

Jones has since left law enforcement, having been fired from the Ogden Police Department for unrelated issues he has always called political, and now runs a butcher shop in Tremonton.

"The city, of course, is very pleased with the verdict," said Heather White, one of the city's lawyers.

"Officers have a very tough job to do, and they do it the best they can under trying circumstances. We are saddened for the Nelson family, but the sole person responsible for all of this is Eddy Bustos."

In May 2007, Bustos was sentenced to consecutive one-to-15-year prison terms on two counts of automobile homicide.

Sykes said his appeal would key on Judge Scott Hadley's decision against allowing any evidence to the jury from Jones' police department personnel records. Sykes said these records would have impeached Jones' honesty.

"When they fired him in January 2007, the Ogden Police Department issued a press release stating that the reason for the firing was lack of honesty," Sykes said.

"That would have made a difference to the jury in evaluating his testimony."

Jones was placed on leave July 27, 2006, the same day Mayor Matthew Godfrey spotted Jones' wife driving a van adorned with a sign criticizing the city's ticket-writing policy.

The mayor also saw Jones driving a separate vehicle behind the van and provided the car's license plate number to Ogden Police Chief Jon Greiner.

Once Jones was identified, Greiner had officers visit Jones' home that night to place him on suspension, with pay. Jones was fired six months later.

Updated 12:01 a.m.

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Ogden found not liable for damages in fatal accident

OGDEN -- A jury said Thursday that Ogden Police and former Officer Matt Jones are not liable for damages in a double-fatal collision in December 2005 after police ended a high-speed chase.

The jury was asked to award Jessica Nelson's 5-year-old daughter just under a million dollars if they found a high-speed Ogden police chase caused her mother's death.

Killed in a 3 a.m. Dec. 13, 2005, collision at 24th Street and Grant Avenue were Nelson, 21, and her passenger, Philemon "Bob" Ellis, 62. Nelson's vehicle was hit by a car driven by Eddie Bustos, who had been chased by police for several blocks. Police contended the chase ended shortly before the accident occurred.

Nelson's family filed suit in 2006.

After several contentious days of trial, the case was delivered to the jury on Monday, which deliberated for two hours. Debate resumed this morning after a two-day break and a verdict was delivered just after 2 p.m. to 2nd District Judge Scott Hadley.

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