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West Valley City • More than two years after police shot and killed Danielle Willard during an undercover drug investigation, the city announced Thursday that it has settled a wrongful-death lawsuit with the woman's family for $1.425 million.
West Valley City said in a statement that the settlement is not an admission of liability "but rather a compromise of disputed claims among the parties."
The settlement covers the city and the police officers who were named as defendants in the suit.
"I think it'll help everyone move on," said City Attorney Eric Bunderson, who stressed that the city was not admitting any wrongdoing. "We hope it brings closure and resolution to everybody."
The Nov. 2, 2012, shooting sparked numerous protests and led Willard's parents, Melissa Kennedy and Frederick Willard, to file the federal suit. Named as defendants were West Valley City; narcotics unit detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon; their supervisor Lt. John Coyle; and then-police chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen.
A lawyer for the parents, Los Angeles-based attorney Mark Geragos, said they are "gratified to close one chapter." And Salt Lake City attorney Jon Williams, who also represents the family, said the settlement will ensure that Danielle Willard's legacy "will forever live on."
"Melissa Kennedy will have the resources to continue her invaluable work as an advocate for those involved in officer-involved shootings," Williams said. "This case has left an indelible impact in the fabric of Utah and our nation."
The settlement has already been paid by West Valley's insurer, according to Bunderson. He said the city will pay approximately $360,000 of the total; that amount will be reimbursed to the insurer over the next five years.
The money went to Danielle Willard's estate, of which her parents are beneficiaries, Geragos said.
Cowley and Salmon said they approached the 21-year-old Willard, who was sitting in her Subaru Forester outside an apartment complex, that day in 2012 because they believe they saw her buying drugs.
Cowley said that when Willard backed out of the parking space, he thought she was trying to run him over. He fired the shot that struck Willard in the head; Salmon fired and missed.
The shooting ignited a chain of events that roiled the police in Utah's second-largest city.
The West Valley City Police Department's routine investigation of the shooting led to the discovery that the narcotics unit had a number of problems, including mishandling of evidence and booking evidence without proper documentation. The city disbanded the unit, and the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office and federal prosecutors dismissed more than 100 drug cases associated with it.
Cowley was later fired from the department for mishandling evidence. Salmon spent almost two years on paid leave waiting for the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office and West Valley to finish investigations into his conduct, then resigned last year, shortly before the city was to announce its findings.
Nielsen retired in 2013, citing medical reasons. Coyle remains a lieutenant with the police department.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill found that Cowley's life was not in danger in his encounter with Willard, and filed a second-degree felony manslaughter charge against the officer. A 3rd District Court judge dismissed the charge last year after a preliminary hearing.
On Thursday, Cowley's criminal attorneys said they have notified West Valley City of their intent to sue for about $350,000 in defense fees.
Keith Stoney, an attorney with Jarvis & Associates, which represented Cowley, said the city declined to pay after receiving a notice of claim. "Now we plan to sue," Stoney said.
Stoney said that according to Utah law, Cowley is entitled to compensation for his defense bills because he was an on-duty city employee when he committed the alleged crime, the charge was subsequently dismissed and the city did not provide him with counsel.
West Valley City has since created a new police unit to target drug dealing and vices such as prostitution. Police Chief Lee Russo was quick to explain in an interview last month that the new unit will have more training and oversight than its previous incarnation, and is staffed by none of the detectives who were part of the previous unit.