A Unified police officer was legally justified when he shot and killed an armed suicidal man.
But despite reaching that conclusion, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill says the case leaves him “troubled by the outcome.”
“In essence, this is a shooting that did not need to happen. But it is a shooting that is protected by the law,” Gill said during a press conference Thursday to announce his findings.
Specifically, Gill said he grapples with the question, “Was this use of deadly force necessary in the larger sense of the word?” His hope is that police agencies will address “hard questions” like this one and look at whether their own training and internal policies — particularly in light of the recent passage of House Bill 237 — need to be reevaluated.
“At the end of the day, when we're troubled with the outcome in which a suicidal man with a gun is shot and killed by police, we have to ask, ‘Could this have ended differently?’ The answer to this ultimate question, and the answers to the other more specific questions related this encounter, may alter the course of future police encounters with similar circumstances,” Gill wrote in a final report about the shooting.
“If we don't ask these questions we'll continue to have these shootings,” he said.
The incident occurred Aug. 8 started when the wife of Matthew Hilbelink, 39, of Millcreek, received a text message from her husband containing a photo of a gun he'd just purchased and informing her he was going to kill himself, according to the report. His wife called 911 and told dispatchers that her husband “had mental health issues and had threatened suicide before, but this was the first time he had purchased a gun.”
She used an app to find the location of Hilbelink's phone and relayed that information to police. Unified officers found Hilbelink in an empty parking lot at 6510 S. Millrock Drive in Holladay, sitting next to his minivan and holding a gun, the report states. Hilbelink said cross-legged on the ground next to his vehicle in the corner of the parking lot, which was adjacent to a steep hillside and isolated from other homes and businesses.
For 24 minutes, “officers tried to talk to Mr. Hilbelink and convince him to put the weapon down and to talk to the officers, but he never did. Instead, he kept the weapon in his right hand, often with his finger on the trigger, throughout the incident,” the report says.
Three officers stood behind a police truck which they moved to within 25 yards of Hilbelink. One had a ballistic shield, another a less-lethal rifle and the third, Unified police officer Dave Jaroscak, had a police-issued .223-caliber rifle. For nearly half an hour, the officers tried talking to Hilbelink, urging him to put the gun down.
“Please at least take your finger off the trigger, it would make me feel safer,” Jaroscak told investigators he heard one of his fellow officers say, according to the report.
A sergeant who was at the scene that day explained how officers attempted to communicate with the gunman.
“We're making communication with him, constantly talking to him, trying to get him to talk to us. He won't talk. He was just sitting there fidgeting with his gun. So, he had the gun in his hand, finger on the trigger, holding it in the middle of his lap,” he said, according to the report. “We're talking to him, calling him by name, ‘Put the gun down. At least get your finger off the trigger. Please take your finger off the trigger.’ He takes his finger off the trigger.”
But Hilbelink remained silent the entire time.
“‘It's not worth it, we've all been in your shoes,’” officers pleaded with him, according to the report. “I mean, everything we could think of to get him just to put the gun aside, we even asked him, ‘Just put the gun to your right side and let it go.’ ... He never relinquished the firearm, held it the whole time.”
A second sergeant said the officers tried to get as much information through dispatchers as they could to talk to Hilbelink.
“We learned that he liked hiking. So I tried to kind of start talking about what hobbies do you like, things of that nature. Talked about hiking and how we just went hiking, my wife and I. I talked about PTSD and how things could still be OK, just let us get the chance,” the second sergeant said, according to the report. “He just wouldn't take it. And he just kept looking at us like he was ... kind of that zombie kind of look. There was no one home, it seemed like. Like a man totally lost.”
Several officers set up a containment surrounding Hibelink. The report says Hilbelink would switch from pointing his gun at officers who were standing behind a half wall and those who were behind the truck, and at one point he “put the muzzle of the weapon in his mouth, and then withdrew it and placed his hand with the gun back in his lap.”
The report says officers also considered using a less-lethal round but were afraid it would agitate Hilbelink and they'd end up in a shootout with him.
As the standoff went on, Hilbelink's expression changed so that he had a "thousand-yard stare," according to the officers on scene, something that made Jaroscak nervous.
“It looks like he's getting ready to pop one off. ... He's gonna kill one of us first,” Jaroscak can be heard on body camera video telling other officers.
Jaroscak — who declined to be interviewed by those investigating the shooting but instead provided a written statement — wrote that he could “clearly see Mr. Hilbelink had his finger on the trigger of the gun” and watched as he “placed the barrel of the gun inside his mouth and held it there for several moments.”
After taking the gun out of his mouth, Hilbelink rested the gun on his thigh, but his hand was still on the trigger and the barrel was pointed in the direction of officers.
He then raised his gun and pointed it at an officer, the report states. Jaroscak said Hilbelink “began to raise the gun from his thigh, and it appeared he was aiming at (another officer's) exposed upper body, face and head. I believed that Hilbelink was about to shoot (him) if immediate action wasn't taken.”
“Officer Jaroscak wrote that in his ‘training and experience over 16 years, this was almost always indicative of someone who was about to assault an officer and I began to fear for my safety and the safety of the other officers. ... All Hilbelink had to do was move his wrist to the left and up a bit,’” the report states.
After the shooting, police examined HIlbelink's gun and found it was loaded with a round in the chamber, the report states. He had purchased it that morning. Three boxes of ammunition with 50 cartridges each were also recovered.
Hilbelink died at a local hospital three days later. In his obituary, family members wrote, “Sadly, Matt's depression intensified over the past few years which blinded him from seeing his tremendous value and that he was worthy of love. We wish to thank the many individuals who stepped in to help him with his battle with depression.”
Gill said that after reviewing more than 100 officer-involved shootings in his career — with “at least conservatively, 30% of them are people who are mentally ill or threatening self-harm” — it is only a matter of time before police find themselves in a similar situation. That's why he believes hard questions need to be asked if the public wants a different outcome.
“This is a justified shooting under the law. But just because it is a justified shooting it is not inappropriate for us to ask all those questions? So that's why I say, this is a shooting that did not need to happen. But it is a shooting that is a protected by the law.”
Gill commended the Unified officers who “genuinely believed they were trying to save his life,” but said law enforcers need to look at what outcomes can occur when certain decisions are made. “We cannot minimize the actions that Mr. Hilbelink himself took. Nor can we ignore what we, as state agencies, did as well. And that his not an unfair questions to ask, because we are going to take those actions again.”
He said those who would disagree with him for raising such questions “selfishly and disingenuously promote their own special interest, usually at the expense of the greater community's good. We ask these questions and invite this discussion to improve the community, of which we are all a part.”
On May 5, HB237 went into effect in Utah. The new law allows police officers who are responding to a person who is a threat only to themselves to take a step back. It was one of the few times that both the district attorney's office and the Utah Fraternal Order of Police agreed that a law was necessary to help all law enforcement.
“I think what this is going to do, it codifies and says if a person is only a threat of self-harm to themselves, then you really shouldn't be engaged in having a fatal encounter,” Gill said.
In this case, because Hibelink was in an isolated area and only threatening harm to himself, and because police were armed with a rifle that could shoot accurately from 100 to 200 yards, Gill questioned what would have been the harm for Unified officers to back off and not confront him from 20 feet away.
If the dynamics of the situation had changed — such as the suspect directly threatening officers by advancing toward them or the suspect threatening another member of the public — then HB237 does not prevent officers from using deadly force, Gill noted.
But with the passage of the new law, Gill hopes officers will ask their own departments questions such as, “What is our plan?” if they find themselves in a situation where a person is posing a threat only to his or herself, and ask, “How do we do tactical withdrawal?”
“We should be asking those hard questions about how we can change training practice and tactics. And some of that we're going to have to do through codification because it's not going to happen on its own,” Gill said.