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West Valley City agrees to pay $1.4M in police shooting case

Melissa Kennedy talks about her daughter, Danielle Misha Willard, at a memorial created in her honor in West Valley City on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. West Valley City and relatives of Danielle Willard announced a settlement Thursday in the case surrounding
Melissa Kennedy talks about her daughter, Danielle Misha Willard, at a memorial created in her honor in West Valley City on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. West Valley City and relatives of Danielle Willard announced a settlement Thursday in the case surrounding Willard's death.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY CITY — City officials have agreed to pay $1.425 million to the family of Danielle Willard, who was shot and killed by two detectives in a botched undercover drug operation.

The civil lawsuit settlement will be paid to Willard's parents, Melissa Kennedy and Frederick Willard, and to the estate of Danielle Misha Willard. As part of the agreement, Willard's relatives will drop all claims against the city and its police department.

"The settlement is not an admission of liability, but rather a compromise of disputed claims among the parties and brings closure and resolution for all involved," according to a prepared statement from West Valley City.

Willard, 21, was shot and killed in November 2012 by former West Valley police detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon. An investigation by the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office determined the shooting was not legally justified and Cowley was charged with manslaughter, a second-degree felony. But in an extremely rare move, a since-retired judge dismissed the case at the preliminary hearing stage because of a lack of evidence.

The shooting, however, was the start of a series of events that cast a dark shadow over the police department. The Neighborhood Narcotics Unit was dismantled, more than a half-dozen officers were placed on paid administrative leave, and more than 100 state and federal drug cases were tossed out of court because of credibility issues.

In motions field by the Willard family's Los Angeles-based attorney Mark Geragos in 2014, he claimed he had uncovered even more evidence of corruption within the department including "hush money" being paid out to former officers.

Neither Kennedy nor Geragos could be reached to comment on the settlement Thursday.

Despite the criminal charges against Cowley being dropped, West Valley City Attorney Eric Bunderson said it was in the best interest of the city and its taxpayers to settle the civil lawsuit.

"All (parties) felt like this was a settlement number they could live with. And due to the complexity, the length, the uncertainty and the expense of litigation, it was something we could all agree on to reach resolution and move forward," he said. "This is a mutually agreeable and acceptable resolution for everybody."

Bunderson said both sides had been working for a settlement for awhile. He believes the outcome of the criminal case helped push both sides to a resolution, though he couldn't say Thursday whether either side was swayed more than the other by the outcome or which side approached the other about a final settlement proposal.

The majority of the $1.425 million will come from insurance funds, Bunderson said. When asked whether it would have cost more than that amount if the case had gone to trial, he said it was hard to say.

"The case was costing a lot of money anyway and would have continued to cost a lot of money. This way we can say this is exactly how much it costs and button it up and move forward," Bunderson said. "We didn't feel it was appropriate to gamble with taxpayer money."

Bunderson and attorney Heather White, two of the four attorneys retained by West Valley City, said they were just about to begin the expert discovery part of the lawsuit, the costliest and most time-consuming part. It still would have been another year before the case went to trial if a settlement was not reached, they said.

While the legal issues with Danielle Willard's family are now over, the city still has not reached a settlement with Cowley, who is appealing his dismissal from the department. Cowley contends that he became the police department's scapegoat in an effort by administrators to salvage the department's tarnished reputation. He wants to be reinstated, not so he can work for West Valley again, but so he can have a clean record while seeking another job.

Attorneys for Cowley filed a notice of claim last month with the city seeking $351,000 to pay for the legal fees incurred during their successful defense of their client in court. Attorney Lindsay Jarvis said they tried to reach a settlement with the city without resorting to a lawsuit, but West Valley refused.

Meanwhile, Jarvis said the legal fees will continue to mount. She said the city is also required to pay all fees associated with trying to collect what the defense attorneys say they are owed. The final bill could be $750,000 to $1 million if the lawsuit goes all the way to trial and Cowley's defense team wins, she said.

West Valley City has 60 days to respond to the notice of claim. Jarvis intends to officially file a lawsuit on March 10 if a settlement isn't reached.

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam