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Darrien Hunt's family says it can figure only one reason that Saratoga Springs police would shoot to death a "timid" 22-year-old in the back, even if he had what they call a "toy" sword: He was black, and treated with extra suspicion because of it.
"It's difficult to make any sense out of the situation any other way," said Cindy Moss, the aunt of Hunt and acting family spokeswoman, on Saturday.
Saratoga Springs police issued a written statement saying claims that its officers' actions were a result of Hunt's race "are completely unfounded and speculative. Our officers responded to a call for service and addressed the situation that was presented to them."
The Utah County Attorney's Office, which is investigating the incident, also issued a statement saying, "There is currently no indication that race played any role in the confrontation."
The family's assertion comes amid still-ongoing protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the police shooting of an unarmed young black man and cries that blacks are still treated differently by law enforcement. But it also comes as former Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love is the favorite to become the first black Republican woman ever elected to Congress.
Hunt was the son of a white mother and a black father. Moss, a white aunt, said she has tended not to believe stories by her sister's family of mistreatment of blacks in today's world, "and I don't like it when the race card is played. It's easy for us as whites to dismiss it."
But Moss says her view changed in recent days as the family has tried to figure out what happened in the shooting, and she watched personally how some of her black nephews and nieces are treated.
For example, she said the family went to a dollar store to buy vases for a memorial. A black nephew was looking at items by himself "and people from the store started following him. So he did what he has done many times. He walked over to my [white] sister and said, 'That's my mom right there.' Then they quit following him."
Hunt was shot and killed Wednesday. A statement from the Utah County attorney's office on Saturday said, "Preliminary evidence suggests that Mr. Hunt brandished the sword and lunged toward the officers with the sword, at which time Mr. Hunt was shot." Police had described it as a samurai sword.
The Hunts' attorney, Randall Edwards, said in a statement that an independent autopsy revealed that Hunt was shot numerous times, "all from the rear."
"This is consistent with statements made by witnesses on the scene, who report that Darrien was shot to death while running away from the police," Edwards said. "It would appear difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile these facts with a story that Darrien was lunging toward the officers when he was shot. We continue to hope that a full investigation will reveal the whole truth about this tragedy."
Moss said the 3-foot sword strapped to Hunt's back was a decorator piece that is more of a toy, but it "does look like a sword from a distance." She said the blade is rounded and would not cut much.
She added: "The police make it sound like it was a big sword he was wielding. I'm offended that they even say he was armed with a weapon."
Moss said: "He was listening to his music, and maybe swinging his sword around to it at times. You don't deserve to be killed for that. … A lot of people who went to Comic Con last week probably looked a little different, too, in their costumes. Do we want them gunned down when they are just trying to have a fun day?"
She said Hunt's mother had been urging him to find a job, and they think he may have been headed to apply at a Panda Express restaurant near where he was shot.
"He may have worn it [the sword] thinking it was cool and would help. It's just the sort of thing he would do," adding he acted young for his age. She also said he was "timid" after he suffered for years from an abusive father who no longer lives with the family.
Moss said the family has been shown a picture snapped by a witness shortly before the shooting. It shows police talking to Hunt. "He is relaxed and his hands are down to his side," she said.
Moss added, "We'd like to know how in a second or two, he went from that to being shot" and how he could have so quickly possibly presented a threat with a sword not then in his hands.
Utah County Jail records show that Hunt was booked on Jan. 5 on suspicion of numerous counts of assault, domestic violence and child abuse. Later he pleaded guilty in abeyance on one assault count, meaning it would not count as a conviction if he did not re-offend.
Moss said it resulted from "a brother-and-sister thing" of siblings teasing and fighting with him, and him fighting back when some of their friends punched him.
Moss said the family has received "nothing" in information from police and investigators. .
Meanwhile, Moss said the family is mourning Hunt and trying to raise money for a funeral.
The family opened an account for a funeral fund at America First Credit Union.
Vigil for shooting victim
Darrien Hunt's family is holding a candlelight vigil Sunday at 8 p.m. at the spot where he died, 1413 N. Redwood Road, in Saratoga Springs.