SALT LAKE CITY — Elizabeth Romrell did not hesitate when she got the phone call late last month.
Like her late husband David Romrell, Ogden officer Nate Lyday had just been killed in the line of duty at the very start of his career. She hung up the phone, arranged for a babysitter and wore her own medical scrubs in order to quickly bypass visitor restrictions at McKay-Dee Hospital, where Ashley Lyday had become a widow moments earlier.
“I just think to myself, that’s what you would have done,” Elizabeth Romrell said Tuesday, addressing her late husband at the sentencing hearing for a man who pleaded guilty in connection with his death.
“I wouldn’t have the strength or courage to help these people without you.”
A short time later, 3rd District Judge Royal Hansen ordered Jeffrey Don Black, a passenger in the car that hit and killed South Salt Lake police officer David Romrell, to serve at least two and up to 30 years in the Utah State Prison.
Hansen called Romrell a “hero” and emphasized that Black, 44, shared responsibility in his death.
South Salt Lake Police Chief Jack Carruth said Romrell had a degree in software engineering and could have taken several other jobs for higher pay. But he felt called to protect his community, and his colleagues could hear the excitement in his voice when he talked about his future in law enforcement.
Black, of Murray, originally faced a charge of murder, a first-degree felony. Utah law allows prosecutors to file such a charge if someone is killed during the commission of another crime.
As part of a plea bargain, Black pleaded guilty in January to reduced charges of manslaughter and burglary, both second-degree felonies. In exchange, remaining counts of obstructing justice, burglary and failing to stop for police were dismissed.
On Nov. 24, 2018, Romrell was responding to a call of a burglary in progress near 3575 S. West Temple, where Felix Anthony Calata had driven to collect money from a woman, court documents say. He and Black were unable to make entry and were about to leave when police ordered them to stop. But Calata instead hit the gas pedal and accelerated.
Calata ran over Romrell just after Romrell and another officer fired, fatally injuring Calata. The officer, 31, later succumbed to his injuries. Black ran from the scene but was later arrested.
Black was under the influence at the time and thought they had run over a mailbox, but broke down crying when he learned the officer was killed, his attorney, Heidi Buchi, said Tuesday. Romrell had been sworn in just 11 months earlier.
Black sobbed as he apologized to Elizabeth Romrell, saying he was heartbroken for her family. “I can’t imagine what she’s going through,” he said.
Black wore a face mask when he was not speaking, standing next to his attorney in the Salt Lake County Jail during the hearing held over video amid virus precautions.
A statement read on behalf of Black’s family members said he has collected Social Security since age 18 because he has learning disabilities that prevent him from working, a disadvantage he has turned to drugs to mask. They emphasized Black was not the one who stepped on the gas that day.
Prosecutors argued that Black previously had his probation revoked nine times in prior cases. The judge sided with their argument for back-to-back prison terms on each count, ordering Black to two consecutive sentences of one to 15 years in prison.
Buchi had argued for concurrent sentences, noting that Black completed a substance abuse program and earned a leadership spot there. She said her client would have tried to stop the crash if he could, but he didn’t know Calata would accelerate and didn’t have time to react.
Calata’s death means the question of why he accelerated will never be answered, Buchi said. Her own client, however, “has accepted his share of the responsibility for that five-second period on this night.”
She contrasted Black’s role in the split-second crash with the three former Minneapolis officers who stood by for nearly nine minutes while officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee to George Floyd’s neck.
While a charge of murder would fit the conduct of the bystander officers, the three are facing lesser charges of aiding and abetting murder, Buchi pointed out.
Elizabeth Romrell used a tissue to dab tears from her eyes Tuesday as she recalled how she and her husband, a U.S. Marine veteran, had cultivated a deep partnership throughout his military service and her training to become a nurse. They planned to hike with their son Jackson in Moab and retire in Montana one day, she said, displaying an enlarged photo of the couple smiling on the trail with the sun peaking out from behind a ridge.
Her 22-month-old son often toddles over to a neighbor, crying out “Daddy,” she said as she addressed her late husband.
“He should be running to you.”