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WEST VALLEY CITY — The city's police chief fired back strongly Tuesday at allegations of "hush money" being paid out by the former administration to cover up alleged illegal activities and "drinking funds" being established with confiscated drug money.
"The assertion that we still have criminals (in our department) is offensive, irresponsible and inaccurate," Chief Lee Russo said.
In federal court documents filed Monday, attorneys representing Danielle Willard's family raised new allegations against members of the embattled police department, including the suggestion that $10,000 in "hush money" was paid out by the city to an officer to keep quiet about sexual conduct he had with potential drug suspects. In addition, suggestions were made that officers used money seized in drug busts to buy alcohol.
Willard, 21, was shot and killed on Nov. 2, 2012, while sitting in her car during a botched undercover drug operation by West Valley police. Shaun Cowley, the former West Valley police detective at the center of the shooting controversy, has been charged with manslaughter, a second- degree felony.
A federal civil suit was also filed on behalf of Melissa Kennedy, Willard's mother, and the estate of Danielle Willard against West Valley City, Cowley, West Valley police detective Kevin Salmon, former West Valley Police Chief Thayne "Buzz" Nielsen, and West Valley officer John Coyle.
As part of their investigation, Willard's attorneys deposed West Valley City Manager Wayne Pyle last week. The allegations of hush money and drinking funds were raised based on his deposition.
But Russo said Tuesday that Willard's attorneys were "cherry picking" at the statements that were made and twisting them in a false and irresponsible way.
Russo acknowledged that before he took over as chief, there was an investigation into an officer's conduct. West Jordan police conducted the investigation, which was forwarded to the Utah Attorney General's Office, he said. The criminal allegations were determined to be "unfounded," Russo said.
However, the officer did violate department policy, and the city negotiated an agreement for the officer to resign, Russo said. As part of that agreement, there was a severance package issued, he said. Russo said the officer did not receive "hush money."
Russo called hush money a "sexy term" that Willard's attorneys are throwing around but that it's not accurate.
As for the allegation of alcohol being purchased, Russo said that was "absolutely, completely false."
He acknowledged that money was used to buy water and soda, but nothing more.
"To come up with this characteristic is a complete and irresponsible embellishment," the police chief said.
Russo said the allegations being made "are episodes, for lack of a better term, from a dark period. We have since moved beyond that."
Cowley was a member of West Valley's now-disbanded Neighborhood Narcotics Unit. He is in the process of appealing his firing before the West Valley City Civil Service Commission. A hearing on the matter was continued for a third time in April.
More than 120 state and federal criminal cases investigated by officers in that drug unit were eventually dismissed because prosecutors determined the cases were tainted with credibility problems.