SANDY — Those who knew Bill O’Neal knew he was a larger-than-life figure, both physically and with his personality.
“The first moment I met him he was always just friendly, outgoing, very loud and vociferous. Just a great character. He was kind of larger-than-life, actually. An icon of the city, I would say. Especially with the police department,” Sandy Police Sgt. Jason Nielsen said.
On Sunday, Sandy Police Chief William “Bill” O’Neal died unexpectedly at the age of 48 after suffering an undisclosed medical condition at his home.
“When I first found out the news I was in disbelief ... he was young, it was completely unexpected and tragic. It’s a tremendous loss we’re going to feel for a long time,” Nielsen said. “He was strong. He was a big guy.”
O’Neal died about 4:30 p.m. of natural causes, according to police. While police declined Monday to discuss the cause of O’Neal’s death, Nielsen said there were no red flags leading up to the tragic incident.
This year would have marked O’Neal’s 24th with the Sandy Police Department. He has been chief since 2018. O’Neal rose through the ranks of the department from officer to sergeant, captain and later deputy chief before becoming chief. At one point he served as commander over the department's SWAT team.
In 2003, O’Neal was one of three Sandy officers who found Elizabeth Smart walking along State Street with Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, ending the missing girl’s nine-month kidnapping saga.
In 2005, O’Neal was the public information officer for the department, and one of the first officers the newly hired Nielsen met. In addition to being outgoing, Nielsen remembered O’Neal as being someone who was easy to talk to in addition to being well-spoken.
O’Neal’s loss is not only impacting the police department, but the entire community, said Nielsen. O’Neal grew up in the area, graduating from Brighton High School. Nielsen said the messages that the city has been receiving all day are more than the standard “I’m sorry for your loss.” He said nearly everyone has a story of their own personal interaction with the chief.
“It’s crazy how much of an impact and an influence he had on each individual officer and citizen that he encountered,” he said,
“This is unbelievable really. I’m in complete shock. Bill personally gave me a new respect for law enforcement. He was a great officer and even a better man,” one man wrote on the Sandy Police Department’s Facebook page.
“Bill was such a nice man, and I am so stunned at his loss, sending my sympathies to the entire police department as I’m sure you must all be devastated by this,” wrote Jamie Zayach.
Flags outside Sandy City Hall were at half-staff on Monday, and American flags were placed around the parking lot of the Sandy Police Department.
“It was an absolute honor to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with this man through many ups and downs the past few years. I will miss him greatly. Till we meet again Chief ... rest easy and thank you,” Sandy Mayor Kurt Bradburn wrote on his Facebook page.
He followed that up with a longer, official statement Monday afternoon:
“It is with great sadness that we say goodbye to our beloved Chief of Police William O’Neal. Bill has spent his life and career serving the residents of Sandy. From working as a lifeguard at Alta Canyon Recreation Center in high school to serving and leading almost every department at Sandy police, his impact on the community cannot be measured. Bill O’Neal embodied what it means to protect and serve. Sandy residents have enjoyed a safe community over the years due in large part to his efforts and his influence.”
The mayor met with members of the police department Monday morning. Nielsen said the mood of the department was somber, but officers were carrying on.
“We’ve got a job to do and we can’t just quit, we can’t just take the day off. We have to keep doing our jobs. And that’s exactly what we’re doing today and we’re pushing forward and doing exactly what he’d want us to do,” he said.
Other police agencies sent out messages of condolence Sunday night and Monday.
“Such sad news. You will be missed Chief,” West Jordan police tweeted.
“Chief O’Neal was a tremendous example of a leader in law enforcement and our partner in public safety,” Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson said in a statement. “He was an example and friend to his officers and the law enforcement community in our state. I am so grateful to have known Chief O’Neal. The entire Department of Public Safety mourns with the city of Sandy. Our prayers are with the O’Neal family at this time.”
“RIP my friend-You have given more hours to the community then people will ever know. Shocking news. Chief Bill O’Neal EOW,” another man posted on Facebook.
Deputy Chief Greg Severson will act as interim chief. Funeral plans had not been determined as of Monday.