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26 more West Valley police drug cases dismissed, bringing total to 124

WEST VALLEY CITY — Yet more cases tied to the West Valley Police Department's former Neighborhood Narcotics Unit are about to be tossed out of court.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office filed motions in 3rd District Court to have 26 additional cases investigated by the embattled department dismissed due to a lack of credible evidence stemming from allegations of police corruption and an unlikelihood of achieving convictions in court.

That brings the total number of dismissed state and federal cases to 124.

But District Attorney Sim Gill said Friday that of the approximately 400 pending cases involving West Valley police that his office is reviewing, he believes he is just about done dismissing cases outright.

"This is an important moment in this whole issue," he said. "I'm finally starting to get my arms around this issue. So the cases that I'm dismissing are starting to taper down, so I'm not going to have more and more. I've hit the high water mark with those 69 cases that we dismissed (on April 15)."

Gill said the first tier of his review of West Valley police is now about over. Tier 2 includes cases where evidence may have to be dismissed, but not the entire case.

"These are cases we are going to defend and litigate," Gil said Friday. "Obviously, I'm not going to dismiss 400 cases."

On Friday, Gill also filed "notices of possible impeachment evidence" on 48 cases and expects to do the same next week with 25 more cases. That means Gill believes some of the evidence collected for those 73 cases cannot be used in court and should be thrown out.

But, he believes those cases still have enough credible secondary evidence that reaching a conviction is possible and his office will continue to prosecute them.

"Either I have secondary evidence I can go to, or I have evidence that although their role (drug unit members under investigation) is there and it may compromise, I think that the case is still defensible and salvageable," he said.

Most of the 26 dismissed cases were older ones, involving low- to midlevel drug dealers and users. As was the case with many of the previously dismissed cases, most of the charges tossed out Friday involved suspected drug dealers who fled the state after their arrests and pretrial releases. They still had active bench warrants for their arrests for failing to appear in court.

Friday's dismissed cases include:

Luis Hernandez, 23, who was charged in 2011 with allegedly possessing balloons of cocaine and heroin and selling them on the street.

Victor Melender, 27, who was charged with selling cocaine and heroin on the street in 2010.

Ali Flores-River, 20, who was allegedly selling drugs out of his Holladay house when he was arrested. Investigators found a pay/owe sheet with about $23,000 in transactions on it, according to court records.

After Tier 2 is over, Gill said the next phase will be to go back and look at West Valley criminal cases where a defendant has already been found guilty and sentenced. Gill admits that could include a huge number of cases.

"I wouldn't even want to guess," he said.

Gill and his team met with the Legal Defender's Association and the Utah Attorney General's Office on Monday to start developing a game plan on how to handle those cases. The attorney general's office was involved because it would be required to handle any post-litigation action in court.

"We talked about what our office was doing, the scope of what we're doing and a game plan to go forward," Gill said.

Also still pending is Gill's review of the officer-involved shooting of 21-year-old Danielle Willard in November, the incident that started the chain of events that put the police department in the position it is in today. He has yet to determine whether that shooting was legally justified.

Detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon have been on paid leave since the shooting. After that shooting, other officers found evidence linked to investigations unrelated to the Willard incident in the trunk of Cowley's car, prompting the department to shut down the narcotics unit.

Seven additional officers who worked in the drug unit have since been placed on paid leave pending the outcome of investigations by the FBI, Salt Lake police and the district attorney's office.

West Valley City officials identified six problem areas involving the drug unit, including undisclosed amounts of missing drugs and money, officers taking "trophies, trinkets or souvenirs" from drug-related crime scenes, the use of GPS trackers without first securing a warrant, improper use of confidential informants, improper handling of evidence within the unit, as well as officers taking small amounts of cash and other items from seized vehicles.

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