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West Valley City detective who shot, killed Danielle Willard resigns

Published June 8, 2015 5:47 pm

Settlement • 2½ years after Danielle Willard's death, Shaun Cowley resolves pay issues with the city; former officer says he wants to "move forward."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

West Valley City • Some 2½ years after Shaun Cowley shot and killed Danielle Willard, the West Valley City drug detective has resigned from the police department.

His "voluntary resignation" came Monday just days after he had been placed back on the city's payroll — which occurred after West Valley City's attorneys agreed not to fight Cowley's administrative appeal of his 2013 firing for alleged evidence mishandling.

Cowley's attorney, Lindsay Jarvis, said his resignation was part of a settlement agreement with the city regarding lost wages, benefits and retirement owed to the detective.



"For the first time in 2½ years, I am at peace with this situation," Cowley said in a written statement. "I have proven my innocence in criminal court for a crime I didn't commit, and I have been reinstated as a police officer after a wrongful termination. Now that I have been vindicated in both actions, I want to move forward with my life and try to put all this behind me."

According to a "stipulated final judgment" that Jarvis released to the news media, the city and Cowley agreed that he lost $127,254.24 in salary since he was fired. The city has agreed to pay $88,190.54 of that amount and will contribute just over $32,000 to Cowley's retirement account, according to the accord.

Cowley, 34, earned just under $40,000 from other income sources since he was fired, according to the stipulation, so the city was not required to pay the entire lost wage amount.

The two parties have agreed to pay their own attorney fees, though Jarvis said her fees were being paid on Cowley's behalf by the Fraternal Order of Police. According to the deal, Cowley was to resign from the police department after the lost wages were paid.

West Valley City officials confirmed Monday afternoon that a check for more than $88,000 had been delivered to Cowley.

At a Monday morning news conference, City Manager Wayne Pyle said he was "very pleased" with Cowley's resignation, adding that it was a "step that needed to occur."

Pyle insisted that the case for firing Cowley was "completely reasonable and justified," but said it was dismissed over a technicality.

"Mr. Cowley is not in any sense of the word either vindicated or a scapegoat," he said. "All of the problems that existed with Mr. Cowley from the very beginning of this investigation still exist today. Drugs and money were missing and continue to be missing."

Pyle said the case was dismissed after the city did not properly provide Jarvis with copies of the rules and regulations that Cowley allegedly violated. An administrative law judge had ordered the city to produce the documents in advance of a five-day employment hearing that had been scheduled this week for Cowley.

"Those documents do exist," Pyle said. "However, there were some issues in terms of properly producing them."

But Jarvis later countered at her own news conference that it wasn't just a technicality that resulted in dismissal of the employment case. She asserted that city and police officials may have rushed to settle with Cowley to keep potentially damaging information from being made public during the employment hearing.

"At that hearing, every single one of West Valley City's skeletons would have been uncovered," Jarvis said Monday outside her Sandy office. "Part of what the city had to prove was that the discipline against Shaun was proportionate. That gives us the opportunity to go through the discipline of every single other officer in that department. We are talking about people who are breaking into houses to steal panties. Officers who were having sex on duty. We are talking lieutenants violating their own policies and procedures to break into Shaun's locker and take evidence without Shaun's presence. This is a situation where West Valley City did not want this information out in the public."

Pyle said Monday evening that Jarvis' assertions that the police department has "so-called skeletons" are "old and tired," and he accused the attorney of shifting the blame from her client.

"Throughout this investigation, her main defense has been to try to paint other officers as bad," Pyle said. "She knows she can't defend Mr. Cowley on his actions, so she tries to attack alleged instances of wrongdoing by other officers."

When asked about the missing money and drugs that the city pinned on Cowley, Jarvis said it was Cowley's superiors who went into his police locker, took the evidence and disposed of it within a week. The attorney claims this was done so officials could place blame on Cowley and make him out to be the "bad apple" in the police department.

Jarvis said Cowley chose to resign partly because of fear for his and his family's safety, saying Cowley has received multiple death threats in the aftermath of Willard's 2012 shooting.

Cowley said he is undecided on what his next career step will be.

"There is closure," Cowley told reporters Monday. "I don't feel vindicated. How do you put a price on what's been done to my reputation and what's been done to my family?"

Pyle said Monday that city officials expect that Cowley will file a civil rights lawsuit against the city, adding, "This story is about money, pure and simple." When Cowley was asked about the possibility of a lawsuit, he replied, "We'll see."

West Valley City police Chief Lee Russo — who joined the department in September 2013 — said Monday that since Willard's shooting and the subsequent fallout from the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, of which Cowley was a member, the police department has turned itself around.

"It can't be said enough, we're talking about 2012," Russo said of events that led to Cowley being fired. "It's been unfortunate it's taken this long. ... But the police department has made a number of changes. I wouldn't say the police department has just changed; we have transformed."

The city and Cowley reached the settlement Saturday, just days before a Monday hearing was to determine how much back pay the city would be required to pay their detective.

West Valley City has already paid $1.425 million to Willard's family to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit.

On Nov. 2, 2012, Cowley and his partner, Kevin Salmon, said they approached the 21-year-old Willard, who was sitting in her Subaru Forester outside an apartment complex, because they believe they had seen her buying drugs.

Cowley said that when Willard backed out of the parking space, he thought she was trying to run over him. He fired the shot that struck Willard in the head, while one of Salmon's shots grazed Willard's chin.

Both detectives were placed on leave immediately after the shooting. Cowley was fired in September 2013, though not for the shooting.

West Valley City said it found drug evidence in the trunk of Cowley's car that should have been submitted to the police department and that he mishandled evidence in other drug cases.

The Salt Lake County district attorney charged Cowley with second-degree felony manslaughter in Willard's death, but a state court judge dismissed that count during an October preliminary hearing, saying there was insufficient evidence to advance the case to trial.

Salmon remained on paid leave for almost two years before resigning in October.

jmiller@sltrib.com

 

 

 

 

 

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