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Salt Lake K-9 officer faces new charge in second biting incident

(Salt Lake police)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A Salt Lake police K-9 officer already facing a criminal charge accusing him of releasing his dog on a Black man who was kneeling in his yard with his hands in the air, has now been charged in connection with a second biting incident.

On Tuesday, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office filed amended charges against Nickolas John Pearce, 39, of Herriman, charging him with a second count of aggravated assault, a second-degree felony.

On Nov. 14, 2019, police pulled over an SUV near 600 West and 100 South that was reported to be stolen. A woman driving the vehicle was ordered to throw out the keys and hold her hands out of the window. She complied with those orders.

But the woman stayed in the SUV when ordered to open the door and get out, according to the updated charging documents.

"(The woman) was not making any threats or aggressive moves toward the officers and did not do so during the entirety of the arrest. Several other officers arrived on the scene and surrounded the vehicle with weapons drawn," the charges state.

The woman was not holding a weapon, according to prosecutors. Pearce is accused of lifting up his police dog named Tuco so he could reach the woman's extended arms and told the dog to "hit," the charges say. "K-9 Tuco bit (the woman's) arm and pulled the arm down due to the weight of K-9 Tuco."

Nellieana Mafileo Langi, 26, "suffered significant lacerations to her left forearm," which required stitches and "caused permanent disfigurement due to scarring," according to the charging documents. She later pleaded "guilty and mentally ill" to theft, court records state.

Pearce's attorney, Tara Isaacson, said both cases were already reviewed and cleared both internally and by the district attorney's office.

"Each case was reviewed by supervisors and no concerns were ever expressed. Each case was also previously reviewed by the district attorney's office when charges were screened against the suspects in each case. No concerns were raised at that time, either," she said in a prepared statement. "We believe that the court will ultimately find that the use of a K-9 in both of these instances was lawful and consistent with department policy."

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill countered on Wednesday that prosecutors at the time were only looking at the alleged crimes committed by the suspects and not the conduct of the officers, which he said is a different issue.

Isaacson said in both incidents, Pearce "deployed his dog in a scenario consistent with his training and with department policy."

In September, Pearce was charged with aggravated assault for an incident a year ago that happened while he and Tuco responded to a domestic violence call near 765 W. Justin Kay Court.

Officers found Jeffery Ryans, 36, on the east side of the residence in the backyard. The officers confronted Ryans through a gate and he complied with their orders and put his hands in the air, according to charging documents.

Ryans was compliant with officers' commands, the charges say, but just three seconds after confronting Ryans, Pearce allegedly kicked him in the leg.

"Ryans dropped to his knees and kept his hands raised. While Ryans was on his knees with his hands in the air, Pearce ordered K-9 Tuco to engage Ryans," the charging documents allege.

In body camera video, Ryans can be heard saying, "I'm on the ground, why are you biting me?" and crying out in pain several times. Doctors say Ryans was treated for a wound that was approximately 4 inches wide and 3 inches long, and another that was 5 inches long and an inch wide. His injuries required surgery and "resulted in Ryans' prolonged loss of the use of his left leg," as well as permanent disfigurement of his leg, the charges state.

A preliminary hearing on both charges is scheduled for June 15.

Pearce and the other four members of the Salt Lake City Police Department's K-9 unit remained on paid administrative leave as of Wednesday and the K-9 unit remained suspended pending an internal investigation and investigation by the district attorney's office.

In September, following an audit of the use of police K-9s to apprehend suspects over the past four years, the Salt Lake City Police Department identified 19 incidents it believes required a second look. Body camera videos of all 19 of those incidents were made public. The Nov. 14, 2019, incident for which Pearce was just charged was not among those videos.


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