Two agents from the State Bureau of Investigation were found to be legally justified when they shot at a wanted fugitive who accelerated his vehicle toward one of the officers more than a year ago, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office announced Friday.
On Dec. 17, 2020, officers conducting an undercover narcotics operation saw a man in a Mercedes-Benz SUV engage in a suspected drug deal. The man sped away from officers when they attempted to pull him over. They were able to identify the suspect as Romeo Jimmy Lopez, 29, of Salt Lake City, who had multiple warrants out for his arrest for fleeing and theft, according to District Attorney Sim Gill's report of the incident.
Several hours later, Lopez was spotted again in the Rose Park area. State agents began to follow the vehicle in unmarked police cars and discussed a plan on how to stop him, anticipating he would try to flee again. The agents noted that because of the way Lopez was driving, he "appeared to be trying to lose them," according to the report.
About five minutes later, when Lopez was in a residential area near 750 N. Morton Drive (1900 West), officers attempted to box in his vehicle and make a high-risk stop and arrest.
State Bureau of Investigation Sgt. Christopher Shelby and agent Zorica Jelic-Fallows stopped their vehicles in front of Lopez's car, then got out and approached Lopez with their guns drawn. Lopez put the Mercedes in reverse and hit a third agent's car that was behind him and pushed it 8 to 12 feet, the report states. The agent was not in his car at the time. He was standing to the side of Lopez's car and had his gun drawn but did not fire.
"Mr. Lopez then began driving forward toward agent Fallows, who was standing in front of him in the narrow space between her vehicle and the inside corner curb," according to the report.
Fallows yelled several commands to Lopez such as, "Show us your hands!" "Hands!" "Hands up!" Gill's report determined that the vehicle came within 15 feet of Fallows, and the chain-link fence was less than 6 feet away from her.
"Agent Fallows was in a crush point with no viable retreat or point of exit from the Mercedes' path," the report concludes.
As the vehicle accelerated toward Fallows — who was directly in the car's path — she and Shelby opened fire. The confrontation occurred on a corner lot where the road makes a sharp curve. The Mercedes veered to the right of Fallows after shots were fired, went over a curb and through a fence on a residential property. Lopez cut through the yard back onto the road, drove another half block to 700 North where he crashed into a FedEx truck. At that point, he got out of the car and surrendered.
Lopez was treated for a bullet graze to his abdomen and for other injuries at a local hospital. Investigators collected 14 spent shell casings at the scene and counted 13 bullet holes in the driver's side door of the Mercedes. Investigators believe the two agents fired up to 16 rounds in total.
Lopez also stated right after he was arrested "something to the effect of, 'He was going to hit (Fallows),'" the report states.
The report concluded that when both agents opened fire, they likely believed Fallows had "no means of escape." At that point, the Mercedes "had become a deadly weapon."
"Agent Fallows was not required to gamble with her life in the face of the immediate and serious threat of harm as posed by Mr. Lopez," the report states.
Gill said Friday that was a key point in reaching his decision. In the past, there have been several incidents of officers shooting at moving vehicles that were determined not to be legally justified. For the incident involving Lopez, Gill said his investigators couldn't rely solely on body camera and dashboard camera video. His team went out to the scene and took measurements. What they found was that Fallows was trapped between her vehicle and a chain-link fence.
"That's 81⁄2 feet of total space. The vehicle is 6.2 feet wide. And as (the SUV) starts to accelerate to her, that was the critical pitch point. And at that point, it would be hard for me to prove beyond a responsible doubt that her fear for her safety was unreasonable at that point," Gill said.
Likewise, Shelby — who was standing to the side and not in the SUV's path — reasonably believed that his partner was about to be hit and was justified in using potentially deadly force to protect his partner, the district attorney said.
Lopez was charged in 3rd District Court in connection with the incident with assault on a police officer, a second-degree felony; and two counts of failing to respond to an officer's signal to stop, a third-degree felony. He was ordered to stand trial on those charges following a preliminary hearing last August. His next court hearing is scheduled for April 18.
As for why it took about 14 months to make a decision on the shooting, Gill said it was simply due to caseload and investigations being slowed by the pandemic.
"We also had a record number of shootings last year. This is where it fell in the queue,” he said. “We're trying to move the most urgent ones to the extent that we can out. It's just an issue of volume and where we are with our COVID reality."