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SALT LAKE CITY — A 42-year-old man found dead inside his Salt Lake apartment following an exchange of shots with police and a lengthy standoff with SWAT team members died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, prosecutors announced Friday.
Although Nevada Lee Escholt's death was determined to be a suicide, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office reviewed the shot fired by Salt Lake police officer Abel Bromley and determined Bromley was justified in using deadly force, District Attorney Sim Gill said Friday.
Gill also praised all three officers who responded to the scene that day last summer, for showing tremendous restraint. Despite the tragic outcome, the officers did what they could to try and help Escholt while at the same time balancing public safety and their own safety.
"I think everybody was trying to do the right thing in this scenario. But the other thing that this demonstrates … is you don't get to control the dynamics of the field when that happens," Gill said.
On July 20, Salt Lake police received a report that Escholt was suicidal and had a gun. In body camera video, before officers approached Escholt's apartment, 1660 W. 800 North, an officer is recorded talking to Escholt's estranged wife on the phone. She tells police that Escholt had been having suicidal thoughts and was going through a "mental breakdown."
She said she had talked to Escholt about an hour before police arrived and he told her he was going to shoot himself because he wanted to be with his deceased daughter, according to the district attorney's report.
After the phone call, the officer tried to call Escholt, but the call went to voicemail. Three officers then discussed their next move, with one officer stating "he'd rather try to get help for Mr. Escholt," but acknowledged that officers may have to arrest him because of an outstanding warrant for aggravated assault, according to the report.
The officers then walked to Escholt's apartment and knocked on his door, but no one answered. After waiting for about six minutes with no answer, the three officers moved to the sidewalk and took cover behind a row of trees as they talked about what to do next. As they were walking, Bromley said he turned around to look back at the apartment and "clearly saw someone peeking through the blinds of the large front window," the report states.
An officer called Escholt's estranged wife again to see if she could encourage Escholt to come outside so they wouldn't have to make a forced entry into the apartment, which could potentially make the situation worse.
Gill said that by creating distance from Escholt and not standing right outside his door, by calling his estranged wife several times for assistance, and by actively discussing how to get help for Escholt, the officers' actions demonstrated their intention to bring the situation to a peaceful resolution. But the officers also had the challenge of balancing a mentally disturbed person versus protecting themselves and the public.
"They demonstrated incredible restraint by both keeping the distance ... and reaching out in every way they could trying to make contact with him. That was something that really struck out to us as well. It's one of these absolute tragedies here, that we have an individual who is going through a mental health challenge, (police) are trying to keep that distance, but he comes out with a gun and fires at the officers. And they're reacting to that initial danger they're put into.
"In this scenario we had a person under crisis. But at the same time, he was a person under crisis who was alleged to be off his medications, drinking, and access to a firearm," Gill continued.
While the officer was on the phone with the estranged wife, the two others kept an eye on Escholt's apartment. That's when one officer saw Escholt peeking through his blinds and the front door opening.
"There he is," an officer says.
Just as he said that, Bromley turned to to look at the apartment and "the first thing he saw was a 'muzzle flash,'" the report states. Bromley said he could hear the bullet fly past him.
"Oh (expletive)!" one officer yells as he starts to run for cover. A shot is heard almost simultaneously.
"Shots fired, shots fired!" an officer tells emergency dispatchers. "Subject is firing at us."
Bromley, who moved for cover behind a tree, returned fire. A minute later, a second shot was heard, this time more muffled, from inside the apartment.
"That first one, I could smell the gunpowder," an officer is heard saying on the video.
Investigators later learned that Escholt was approximately 82 feet away from officers when he fired his first shot. That shot ended up hitting a parked car about 117 feet away, the report states. A bullet slug was recovered from the car's battery. Bromley's shot was determined to have hit the apartment near the entrance.
All the officers took cover behind nearby vehicles. They confirm with each other that Escholt fired two rounds and Bromley fired one.
A SWAT team was called and surrounded the apartment. After several hours, a robot was sent inside and it found Escholt deceased. The self-inflicted injury was the only gunshot wound found on Escholt's body, according to a medical examiner's report.
"Faced with the threat of death of serious bodily injury to himself and/or others, officer Bromley reasonably believed deadly force was necessary to prevent his and/or others' deaths or serious bodily injury," Gill's report states.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown issued a statement following the press conference. Like Gill, Brown also encouraged the public to seek out mental health resources for anyone in crisis.
"This situation ended tragically with a death by suicide. It reminds us that we must continue to invest in more services and resources that support mental health care for our community," Brown said. "After a careful analysis of the facts in this case, and reviewing the body worn camera, I am proud of our officers who demonstrated compassion, restraint and excellent policing. They did everything possible to keep things from escalating and to provide help to a person in a mental health crisis."