SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill called it an “incredibly dynamic” situation.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and we talk about how dynamic these situations are … but I think this situation is really one where I have not seen a tight shooting pattern with so many other people that are there,” Gill said.
On Friday, two Salt Lake police officers who shot and killed a man who pointed a gun at them and fired twice, were determined to be legally justified in using deadly force, according to the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.
The officers were forced to return fire, even though the gunman, Riche Antonio Santiago, 21, was in a car full of people including an 8-year-old girl who was sitting next to him. Only one other person in the vehicle suffered a minor injury, a cut believed to have been caused by flying shrapnel, according to police.
On Aug. 5, officers Wilson Silva and Lucas Johnson responded to the Park Place Apartments, 350 E. 700 South, to investigate a 911 hang-up, meaning someone had dialed 911 but didn’t say anything before the call disconnected, police stated.
While searching the area, officers spotted a Nissan in the parking lot and Johnson observed what he thought might be a drug deal happening, according to Gill’s final report on the officer-involved critical incident. The officer checked the vehicle’s license plate and learned it may have been involved in a shooting in the same area about a month earlier.
Officers checked the identities of the occupants of the vehicle and learned that Santiago had a warrant out for his arrest and was also a suspect in the earlier shooting.
Moments later, what started off as a casual conversation turned into a chaotic scene with at least a dozen shots fired, resulting in Santiago lying on the pavement dead.
Body camera videos from the two officers captured the wild situation as it unfolded. Gill showed portions of those videos Friday during a news conference while explaining how he reached his conclusion that the incident was a justified shooting.
A total of five people, including Santiago, and a dog were in the car. Santiago was in the back seat on the driver’s side. Sitting next to him was an approximately 8-year-old girl whom he called his niece in the videos. Another adult was sitting in the back seat on the passenger side. The driver and a woman were in the front.
As an officer questions Santiago in the video, he tells him, “If you have no warrants, I’ll get you out of here as quick as I can.”
Santiago appears visibly nervous in the video. Silva concurred that Santiago “was very nervous and did not make eye contact,” according to the report.
“Officer Silva stated he put on his patrol gloves to prepare for the ‘flight or fight’ that he thought might likely ensue,” the report states.
At one point, Santiago tells the officer he wants to get out of the car to smoke, but the officer tells him, “You’re detained. You’re in the vehicle, you’re going to stay right here. ... Let’s just keep the door shut.”
Santiago then gives the officer his name and birthdate and the officer runs a background check on him, discovering there was a warrant out for Santiago’s arrest.
When the officer returns to the car, he asks Santiago to step outside.
“Please don’t tell me I’m going back to jail, sir,” Santiago says.
“Yep. You’re under arrest,” the officer replies in the video.
“Please no, please, hold on hold on, I have anxiety,” Santiago replies.
From there, the seemingly low-key interaction between Santiago and the officers takes a sudden turn when Santiago puts his head down and starts searching for something in his backpack just as Silva grabs his left arm to place him under arrest.
“Don’t. Don’t be stupid,” Johnson yells at Santiago as he reaches for something in his backpack. “What do you got?”
“Mr. Santiago suddenly drew a handgun from the backpack at his feet. Witnesses later recounted hearing a shot and believed Mr. Santiago fired the gun,” the report states.
Based on witness statements — including from at least one person in the back seat of the car — Gill said he believes Santiago fired a shot at officers before he got out of the car, and then fired again as he ran away from the vehicle. A slug fired from Santiago’s gun was found in the rear panel of the vehicle, according to the report.
The officers returned fire, first shooting through the rear window, “aiming downward to avoid the other occupants,” the report states.
Gill said the officers, who were aware of the other occupants in the vehicle, made a “very conscious, deliberate decision to fire downward” and to the left.
“These officers did an incredible job under some really trying situations given the number of individuals in the vehicle,” he said.
The report concluded Johnson fired seven times and Silva eight times. Santiago was struck at least seven times, according to the report.
The young girl who was in the back seat was able to climb into the front seat once the shooting started. She was not injured.
As the other shocked passengers continue to scream and yell at officers, one officer is heard in the body camera video exclaiming, “He pulled a gun on us!”
Three bullet holes can be seen in the video in the back window.
The gun that officers recovered appears in the body camera video to have been in a racked position when it is recovered, with the barrel of the gun exposed from the slide.
Based on the totality of the evidence, Gill said the officers were justified in using deadly force.