In 2012, West Valley City Officer Shaun Cowley fired two shots at 21-year-old Danielle Willard as she sat in her car, ending her life, inciting public outrage, and eventually triggering a wrongful death lawsuit and manslaughter trial in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court. Last month, Salt Lake County D.A. Sim Gill filed manslaughter charges against Cowley, alleging that the former officer acted recklessly and with undue force. Now, one attorney is claiming that another officer with the West Valley City PD may have extorted a bribe after having a sexual relationship with a criminal suspect, and that the entire department has been undermined by corruption.
Severance Package, or Hush Money?
In recent months, the news has been filled with stories of Utah police officers. Draper PD Sergeant Derek Johnson, who passed away after being shot, is still being mourned. But other officers from around the state have been the subject of decidedly less sympathetic headlines.
The troubled life and death of Lindon Officer Joshua Boren is under heavy scrutiny in the wake of a murder-suicide which claimed the lives of himself, his wife, his mother-in-law, and his two children. At the same time, Salt Lake City Officer Brett Olsen is at the center of massive protests (and even a few harsh words from Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose) after fatally shooting a non-aggressive Weimaraner dog named Geist. Shaun Cowley’s trial for the alleged manslaughter of Danielle Willard in 2012, which is joined by a civil wrongful death lawsuit, heaps a third controversy on the pile.
Now, yet another lens has been turned onto Utah law enforcement. This time, attorney Mark Geragos is claiming that certain members of the West Valley City Police Department — the department to which Shaun Cowley belonged prior to Willard’s death — have been involved with sexual misconduct and bribery, and that the department is plagued by systematic corruption.
According to Geragos, Officer Coombs of the WVC PD engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with a possible criminal suspect. Geragos asserts that upon being discovered, the officer forced “hush money” out of the department as a bribe to buy silence regarding his own — and by extension, the department’s — behavior.
WVC PD Chief Lee Russo denies that Geragos’ allegations are accurate. According to Russo, while the officer was let go from the department, the money subsequently received was part of a legitimate severance package.
“In no way, shape or form,” says Russo, “was this presented as covering up anything or as hush money.” He adds, “Frankly I’m offended by it.”
Russo’s anger is understandable, considering the relentless scrutiny his department has recently faced. Several weeks earlier, in response to Cowley’s manslaughter trial, the West Valley City Chief stated, “This is a very good police department… It’s not reflective of the whole police department, and I think the community needs to recognize that.”
“Was there a severance agreement? Absolutely there was,” says Russo. “Was there a non-disclosure? Yes. But was this presented or couched as ‘hush money’ to cover something up, absolutely not, and to characterize it as that I feel is irresponsible.”
He also states, “The assertion that we still have criminals [in our department] is offensive, irresponsible and inaccurate.”
But regardless of Russo’s counterclaims, Geragos is standing by his statements.
WVC Chief Russo Denies Corruption Allegations: “We Have Since Moved Beyond That”
It’s entirely possible that Chief Russo is telling the complete and sincere truth. However, Willard family attorney Geragos cites statements taken from a deposition earlier this month as the foundation for his allegations against the department.
During deposition, Geragos questioned West Valley City Manager Wayne Pyle, who has worked with WVC for over a decade.
Geragos asked Pyle, “Did you know about the accusations of [Officer Coombs’] sexual liaisons with potential suspects while on his shift at the time that the $10,000 was authorized?”
Pyle responded, simply, “Yes.”
Geragos then asked, “And you knew that he was calling that hush money so he wouldn’t talk?”
Pyle replied, “I was aware of that after as Mr. Isaac [assistant city manager] made it known to me, yes.”
Along with Russo and other members of the WVC PD, Cowley’s attorneys are similarly taken aback. According to a statement from attorney Lindsay Jarvis, “The hush money allegations… are just the tip of the iceberg in the house of cards West Valley City has created.” Jarvis has also called Salt Lake County D.A. Sim Gill’s choice to prosecute Cowley for manslaughter “incredibly disappointing.”
Geragos’ request for Cowley’s civil and criminal cases to move ahead concurrently was recently granted by a federal judge — a welcome decision for Willard’s family and legal representatives. Nonetheless, Cowley will be not be required to make any statements regarding the civil case, as such statements could potentially be incriminating in connection with the manslaughter charges. Whether or not the defendants in the civil case will have to pay damages to Willard’s family remains at the discretion of a jury. The defendants in the wrongful death suit include former WVC Police Chief Thayle “Buzz” Nielsen, Officer John Coyle, Cowley, and West Valley City itself.
While Russo is “offended” by the allegations of bribery, he also states, “From my perspective I’m glad it’s moving forward. I certainly and the department certainly wants to see this resolved.”
Russo describes any recent misconduct by WVC officers as “episodes, for lack of a better term, from a dark period. We have since moved beyond that.”
Whether Russo or Geragos is telling the truth, one fact remains unchanged: Cowley’s dual cases will probably continue to garner plenty of media attention as they develop in the months to come.
If you or someone you loved has been arrested for manslaughter, murder, or other charges, you could be facing extremely serious penalties and need to protect your legal rights. To schedule a free and private legal consultation with a Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer, call Darwin Overson at (801) 758-2287, or contact our law offices online today.