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SALT LAKE CITY — Three teenage boys accused of running over a West Valley police officer with a stolen car, killing him, pleaded guilty Wednesday to their roles in his death — one to murder, one to manslaughter and one to other charges.
The three — brothers age 14 and 15, as well as a friend who has since turned 16 — were originally charged in juvenile court with murder in the death of officer Cody Brotherson, 25.
The 16-year-old pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of murder, a second-degree felony, while the 14-year-old pleaded guilty to manslaughter, also a second-degree felony.
No mention was made about who was behind the wheel that night — something investigators have had a difficult time determining.
Prosecutors, however, said the 14-year-old was seated in the back seat of the stolen vehicle, encouraging the driver to keep up the high-speed chase with police. At the time of his arrest, the boy had told police his friend had been the driver.
As he admitted to the charges Wednesday, the 16-year-old gave a brief explanation of the crash to 3rd District Juvenile Judge Kim Hornak, making no mention of the slain officer.
"We stole a car, we didn't want to stop or pull over. We were afraid to get arrested so we kept going," the boy said.
Investigators say the teens were fleeing from West Valley police just after 3 a.m. on Nov. 6 in a car they had just stolen when they hit and killed Brotherson near the intersection of 4100 South and 2200 West.
Brotherson was attempting to lay down spike strips to stop the car his fellow officers were chasing. At least one officer saw the teens' vehicle swerve toward Brotherson, striking him and likely killing him on impact.
In the days following his death, Brotherson was hailed as a hometown hero, having long aspired to become a police officer in the city where he was raised. He had been in the job three years when he was killed, becoming the first officer killed in the line of duty in the history of the West Valley department.
Brotherson's family came to Wednesday's hearings in matching white T-shirts, a photo of the young officer in uniform printed on the front and the name "Brotherson" across the back. They were accompanied by West Valley Police Chief Lee Russo and other members of the department.
Following the hearing, Brotherson's parents commended prosecutors for bringing the case to a close and sparing them the prospect of three separate trials where they would have heard detailed accounts of their son's injuries.
However, the parents said they believe it would have been more appropriate for the teens to have faced the charges as adults.
"I don't believe there will ever be justice, not fitting. They took his life for no reason," said Jeff Brotherson, the officer's father.
With the cases resolved, Cody Brotherson's mother, Jenny Brotherson, said the family will now focus on petitioning Utah legislators to make the crime of killing an officer an adult offense.
"The prosecuting team did the best they could given today's laws in Utah, and our goal will be to fight to change those laws," she said.
As she has watched the teens in court, Brotherson said she has not seen them demonstrate remorse or accountability.
"Maybe in the adult system there would have been a little more concern on their part," she said.
Jenny Brotherson said she is committed to making sure her son is remembered, including by the lawmakers who pledged to work with the family following his death.
"Our fight will be to, No. 1, make sure nobody forgets Cody, and then two, to start working with the Senate and legislators and all these people we have met in the last eight months who have said they will help us. Now we're going to put them to the test because it's time to change laws," she said.
As he said goodbye to members of Brotherson's family, sending them off with firm hugs, Russo voiced his appreciation the family will be spared "the gruesome details" that would have been related at trial.
However, the resolution does not heal wounds in the community, he said.
"Is there a sense of justice here? No," Russo said. "West Valley City really lost a great police officer, and we'll never get over that, we just have to get used to it."
Even in death, Russo said, Brotherson's example has had a continued positive impact on the police department, the community and his family.
"There has been a positive in this tragedy," Russo said. "Cody makes a difference."
Asked whether he would support the Brotherson family's efforts to lobby legislators about the penalty juveniles face when accused of killing a police officer, Russo said "I think there should be some dialogue."
The three West Valley teens, who have been held in custody since their arrest last fall, will be sentenced in individual hearings on July 10. They could be sentenced to serve time in secure care in youth detention facilities, potentially until they reach age 21, but cannot be held past that time.
All three boys were originally charged with murder with gang enhancements, a first-degree felony; car theft with gang enhancements, a first-degree felony; and failing to stop at the command of a law enforcer, a class A misdemeanor.
Prosecutors did not seek to transfer the cases to the adult system.
The 16-year-old also admitted Wednesday to car theft, a second-degree felony, and obstructing justice, a third-degree felony, in connection to the crash that killed Brotherson.
As the time of his arrest, prosecutor Coral Sanchez-Rose said, the boy had sought to deceive police to hide who had been in the car at the time.
Sanchez-Rose emphasized Wednesday that as the boys sped through the streets of West Valley, they were well aware the officers pursuing them with lights flashing and sirens blaring were trying to get them to stop.
The 14-year-old boy's attorney, David Brown, said the vehicle was braking when Brotherson was hit. But Sanchez-Rose said the 14-year-old was egging the driver on to keep up the high-speed chase.
"Rather than pulling over, (they) accelerated," Sanchez-Rose said.
The boy told Hornak he didn't realize at the time that "an officer got killed."
The boy's 15-year-old brother admitted to car theft, a second-degree felony; fleeing from police, a class A misdemeanor; and possessing a dangerous weapon, a class A misdemeanor, in connection to the crash.
In exchange, the charge of murder for Brotherson's death, a first-degree felony, possessing burglary tools and one more charge were dismissed.
The boy's admission in court made no mention of Brotherson's death.
The three boys also pleaded guilty to charges connected to a gang-related fight that occurred two days before Brotherson's death.
The 15-year-old told a judge that the three went to a McDonald's restaurant on Nov. 4 to "rob some gang members," leaving in a stolen car. The 14-year-old said he took a knife to that fight, while the 16-year-old told the judge he knew others involved in the incident had weapons.
Additionally, the 16-year-old pleaded guilty to a charge of assault with a risk of bodily injury stemming from a January 2016 fight.
The 14-year-old also admitted to charges connected another gang-related fight on Oct. 25, and two separate fights while he has been in custody in a juvenile detention facility. Additional charges were dismissed.