COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Criminal charges have been filed against three people involved in a high-profile clash between protesters and Cottonwood Heights police in August.
But the Salt Lake County district attorney has declined to file charges against five protesters, including Aaron James, the father of 19-year-old Zane James who was the focus of the protest. He died after being shot by a Cottonwood Heights police officer in 2018.
However, Zane James’ brother, Gabriel John Pecoraro, 26, of Cottonwood Heights, was charged with assaulting an officer.
“It’s disappointing,” Tiffany James, Zane James’ mother, said Tuesday.
District Attorney Sim Gill said his office was only looking at allegations of assault that rose to a class A misdemeanor level or higher. In those five cases, any assaults did not rise to that level.
Gill also declined to file charges against an officer who Cottonwood Heights City Councilwoman Tali Bruce claimed punched her in the throat during the protest. Gill said while some touching occurred, it did not rise to the level of a class A misdemeanor assault or a felony assault.
“The city is gratified that the district attorney’s office has confirmed there was no criminal conduct by any of the officers. The city is grateful that the protesters who attacked Cottonwood Heights law enforcement officers will be required to answer for their behavior,” attorney Heather White, who represents Cottonwood Heights, said in a prepared statement.
“While the city supports individuals’ rights to peacefully protest, it supports its officers’ rights to defend themselves and others against violence,”
On Aug. 2, what started as a peaceful rally by friends and family members of Zane James ended in a violent clash with police that resulted in injuries on both sides after police told the crowd to walk on sidewalks and not in the street.
Those who were charged in 3rd District Court on Tuesday included Pecoraro; Ren Alex Knab, 30, of Cottonwood Heights; and Andrew Ryan Carter, 35, of Salt Lake City.
Each of the three is charged with assault on a police office, a class A misdemeanor, and interfering with an arresting officer, a class B misdemeanor. Pecoraro is charged with two counts of assault on a police officer.
Between 100 and 150 people who had gathered at Mill Hollow Park that day for a rally started marching down Mill Hollow Drive while playing music.
“There were two men marching at the end of the crowd that wore open-carry pistols on their hips. As vehicles approached the crowd, these two men would turn around, stare down the vehicle, and would not allow it to pass,” according to charging documents.
A resident who lives near the park told police that he “observed some of his neighbors coming out of their homes to see what was going on. (He) watched some ‘heated exchanges’ between the crowd and some of his neighbors,” the charges state.
Extra officers were then called to the march to tell participants to use the sidewalk.
“Most people moved to the sidewalks; however, some of the crowd refused to leave the roadway,” the court documents say.
Pecoraro was one who allegedly refused to get out of the street. An officer attempted to arrest Pecoraro, but he pulled away and ran, while yelling, “Don’t touch me,” according to charging documents.
“As officer (Jamie) Croft attempted to get Pecoraro’s hands behind his back to place him in restraints, Pecoraro rotated his body while grabbing onto officer Croft and threw officer Croft to the pavement. Officer Croft injured both elbows as his elbows hit the pavement and curbing of the roadway,” the charges state.
The officer grabbed Pecoraro and took him to the ground with him where the struggle continued. The officer said Pecoraro then put an arm around his neck in what was described as a “modified choke hold.”
Officer Terry Brimhall went to assist Croft, but was punched in the face without warning by Knab, according to the charges, causing Brimhall’s nose to bleed. Knab allegedly took a second swing at Brimhall but missed, and Brimhall reacted by hitting Knab twice in the face. Knab was later tackled by police and taken into custody.
While Knab was being arrested, Carter attempted to interfere and started throwing punches at officers who then attempted to arrest him, too, the charges say.
Later, police spotted Pecoraro in the crowd and attempted to arrest him again. He is accused of then putting a second officer, Unified police officer Austin Stirland, in a chokehold.
“Officer Stirland could feel Pecoraro squeeze his arm around (his) throat. Officer Stirland had on his SWAT helmet with the chin strap engaged. Officer Stirland felt as though Pecoraro was using his helmet as additional leverage to twist (his) head. At this point, officer Stirland could not breathe,” the charges state.
Pecoraro then started to bite Stirland before another officer pulled him off, according to the court documents. “Officer Stirland was bleeding from his nose, had a bruise on his forehead, multiple abrasions on his arms and he felt pain in his throat.”
Gill noted that while reviewing the case, his investigators noticed concerning behavior toward protesters from another police officer at the scene. He didn’t elaborate, but said “there was not sufficient evidence to warrant criminal charges once reviewed in the context of the surrounding interactions.”
Tiffany James said while she is thankful her husband was not charged, “We’re not surprised.”
She said the the family is most disappointed that the case that was turned over to Gill’s office to be screened for charges and believes it is a one-sided investigation. She no one ever talked to her husband, Pecoraro or any of the protesters to get their side of the story.
“It’s not a holistic view of what happened that day,” she said of the investigation and the charges.
The district attorney’s office used cellphone video from witnesses and neighbors as part of their investigation. Gill said if new evidence should be presented to his office, those who were not charged on Tuesday could still face charges in the future.
Likewise, Gill said Cottonwood Heights could opt to screen potential misdemeanor charges in justice court against the five protesters who were not charged by his office. A city prosecutor already charged Bruce with interfering with an arrest during the protest. The city, however, later decided to hire an outside prosecutor because of a potential conflict of interest.
Cottonwood Heights has asked the state to conduct an investigation into whether excessive force was used by police that day. The James family filed a civil lawsuit against Cottonwood Heights in 2019.
Correction: An earlier version said a charge against Bruce was dropped, but the case against the councilwoman is still active and an outside prosecutor was hired to prosecute the case.