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Teen's death has officials looking at response to mental health alarms

By Jasen Lee and Emiley Morgan | Posted - Mar. 18, 2012 at 8:45 p.m.


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MAGNA —Police shot and killed a 15-year-old who fired two shots at officers Sunday morning, leaving more questions than answers from the troubling confrontation with the teenager.

The teen was identified as Sean Morrison, a young man who has had repeated contact with police and has a history of mental difficulty.

Police responded shortly after 8:30 a.m. to an emergency call from the boy's mother saying that the teen had left his house at 3845 S. Westgate Circle clad in a black ski mask and bulletproof vest along with a 45- caliber handgun.

According to Unified Police, he told his mother he was leaving the house so that he did not hurt anyone.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said Morrison was seen by witnesses walking through his western Salt Lake County neighborhood when he eventually confronted officers, firing at least two shots.

"The suspect continued to run through the neighborhood … subsequently barricading himself near a vehicle," Winder said. "There was a confrontation where the suspect fired first … our officers returned fire striking the individual a minimum of four times."

Morrison was transported to Pioneer Valley Hospital in extremely critical condition and later succumbed to his injuries.

Eyewitness accounts

Before the teenager was taken down by police, he was spotted walking through the neighborhood by residents, including Magna resident Adam Sheppick — who lives near the site of the fatal shooting.

"I heard two shots, so I looked out my front window," he said. "I saw a man wearing a black ski mask and black trench coat. Saw a cop approaching him (in a car). At that point he raised his gun (and) fired two more shots."

He said the officer swerved and looked as though he tried to strike the suspect with the police cruiser, but drove onto another street. At that point, the gunman just kept walking down the street.


He looked like he was out for a 'Sunday stroll.' He didn't act a bit alarmed or scared at all. He was as calm as could be.

–- Adam Sheppick, witness


Sheppick said considering the circumstances, the teen seemed eerily relaxed and was very methodical in his manner.

"He looked like he was out for a 'Sunday stroll,' " Sheppick said. "He didn't act a bit alarmed or scared at all. He was as calm as could be."

He said the gunman fired directly at the officer's windshield, but he could not tell of the car was hit.

Sheppick said he heard more gunshots about 20 minutes later and walked outside in time to see the teenager being loaded into an ambulance.

Another resident, Charlie Johnson, was leaving his home Sunday morning when he also noticed a police car driving slowly down the street with a search light on. Moments later he saw the gunman raise his weapon and fire on the police cruiser.

"He fired at least four more shots at the officer's vehicle," Johnson said. "He turned around and starting walking toward us, then raised his gun but didn't fire."

Johnson said he drove his car in reverse away from the gunman.

"I was scared when the (shooter) started going (toward me) and raised his gun," he said. "The shooter was really calm … no sudden movements or anything."

Incident leaves police questioning official efforts

The sheriff called the incident a tragedy because the circumstances surrounding the victim and his emotional well-being left the law enforcement veteran wondering if something could have been done to prevent such a tragic situation from happening.


We'll have to review why and how we could have intervened earlier. I don't want to characterize the system as failing, but he have to look at how we're managing these situations.

–- Jim Winder


"The family involved in this has had repeated contact with law enforcement over the past several weeks, if not months," he said. "Our hearts go out to the family. This is just a bad, bad situation."

Winder said the teen's actions lead police to believe he intended "to engage in violent activity," but to what extent was not known.

He said the boy had taken the weapon from a locked storage site at the family home. The mother tried to stop him, but was unsuccessful — prompting the call to police.

Winder said the teen was believed to have made comments to neighbors as he left the house "that he was bent on violence."

Whether the boy wanted to commit "suicide by cop," however, was purely speculative, Winder said.

"But there is no question that this situation was a violent encounter waiting to happen," he said.

Mental state of victim

Resources: Mental Illness Help
Valley Mental Health
5965 South 900 East, Murray
(888) 949-4VMH (4864)

Crisis Hotline
Summit:(435) 649-8347
Tooele:(435) 882-5600
After Hours:(888)949-4864

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Network
(800) 273-TALK (8255)

It is unclear if mental difficulties played any role in the confrontation 15-year-old Sean Morrison had with police Sunday. But the teen's state of mind and background is a part of the ongoing investigation into the officer- involved shooting.

Little is known about the teenager's home life, though police said Sunday that the boy's father, Barry Morrison, is in jail. Salt Lake County Jail records show that Barry Sean Morrison was booked Feb. 23 for aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony. He was being held on $250,000 bond.

Court records show that the man is facing 12 felony charges in 3rd District Court, including rape and forcible sodomy, in connection with the abuse of a 17-year-old girl. The alleged incidents began as far back as 1999 and took place at the Magna home Sean Morrison lived in.

Implications for other adolescents suffering from mental illness

Beyond their families, Renee Valles, a child and adolescent psychologist at Valley Mental Health, said adolescents are influenced by their peers, which make up what he called a social risk factor. Valles elaborated, saying: "Some type of affiliation with other delinquent kids or adolescents that puts you at risk for violence, aggression."

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Still, many children make threats to hurt themselves or others, Valles said, and those are typically harmless. They stop being harmless when they change beyond passing comments.

"What we need to watch out for, we need to look for, is if these threats are becoming more severe in the sense of more organized and more common," Valles said. "And if there is a history of kids following through with these threats."

Morrison reportedly told his mother he was leaving his home Sunday morning to avoid hurting anyone. Police said he made comments to neighbors that he was "bent on violence."

"If somebody shows a pattern or history of violence, whether at school or in the home, and the more they take out these violent acts and the more organized these violent acts become, that's a red flag," Valles said.

Earlier this week, Salt Lake County unveiled a new initiative involving three mental health crisis response teams to help people in distress and keep them from being sent to jail or involuntarily committed in hospitals.

But when the subject is violent or suicidal, supporters of the initiative said it is important to first contact law enforcement. Valles said parents worried about violent tendencies in their own children or who believe their child is a risk to themselves or others should also contact police. He also recommended setting up an appointment with a therapist.

Contributing: Mike Radice

Email:jlee@ksl.com

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