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Cover Story

Shoot First Page 1

South Jordan officers get a pass after killing an unarmed man.

By Stephen Dark
Posted // December 8,2010 - Around 10 a.m. on May 28, 2009, a West Jordan Police Department captain knocked on the front door of Kristi Russell’s parents’ home. He told Kristi her boyfriend, 41-year-old Wade Pennington, had been shot and killed after a high-speed chase. The distraught woman called Pennington’s mother, Judy.

“Oh my God, don’t tell me Wade’s dead,” Judy cried out. Pennington’s father, Garry, collapsed on the lawn of their Kamas home, repeatedly throwing up, until one of his two remaining sons took him to hospital.

An employee of the funeral home, where hundreds of mourners gathered to say farewell five days after Pennington’s death, consoled friends and family, saying he died instantly. Months later, in February 2010, that consolation was taken from them when family members, including Pennington’s 19-year-old son Tyler, reviewed the video and audio recording they obtained through open-records requests from West and South Jordan police departments.

While the dashcam video taken from the patrol cars of the two officers involved—South Jordan Police Department’s officers Jared Nichols and Brett Perez—did not show Pennington’s actual shooting, the audio portion recorded the shouts of the officers and the two gunshots, fired by Nichols, which killed Pennington. According to an interview with investigators three days after the shooting, Nichols claimed he berated Pennington for provoking Nichols’ use of deadly force. “You fucker, why did you do that?” is what he claimed he said to the supposedly dead Pennington.

But, members of the Pennington family burst into tears when they heard the words Nichols had claimed were his. In truth, it was Pennington’s voice on the audio, they realized, not Nichols’. Pennington, they now understood, was still alive moments after being shot. He was hanging upside-down from the window of his black SUV, where Nichols had left him after attempting unsuccessfully to drag him out of the vehicle. And what a weeping Pennington said in his dying moments, as caught on Nichols’ body mic: “I’m fucking shot. Why did you shoot me? You bunch of assholes.”

That question has torn an enormous hole through the lives of Pennington’s family and intimates, in part because Pennington, who fueled a crack-cocaine addiction by breaking into commercial properties at night, seemed finally to be turning his life around. On the day Pennington was buried, he was scheduled to be in court with West Jordan 3rd District Judge Robert Adkins for a hearing that, family members say, may have ended with him released from the criminal-justice system to continue building a new life with 35-year-old girlfriend Russell, who was also his partner in a successful roofing business based in Duchesne County.

News_clipping.jpgFrom the first days after the shooting, anguish over Pennington’s death gave way to outrage as more and more questions emerged about the shooting and the subsequent investigation, which resulted in Nichols’ actions being ruled as justified by Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller. While West Jordan Police Department issued a press release the day after the shooting that claimed Pennington was shot because he repeatedly rammed police cars, his family learned through records requests that it was Perez and Nichols who rammed Pennington before the latter shot him. They also learned from records requests that the two officers involved in his death had troubling pasts. According to South Jordan Police Department records, Perez had previously lost his sergeant’s stripes for violating South Jordan chase policy, while Nichols had been one of two shooters in another death 20 months before Pennington’s. Neither of these facts surfaced in the shooting investigation, despite one of the lead investigators, Sgt. Michael S. Leary of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, having interviewed Nichols for both shootings.

Out of all the doubts and questions that circle the case, perhaps the most fundamental is that Nichols told investigators, “I have no idea who this guy is.” Yet on his own dashcam video, he can be heard shouting, several seconds after he shot Pennington, “Freeze, Wade, I’m going to shoot you. Get down on the fucking ground.” Jarring discrepancies between the dashcam videos of Perez and Nichols and their statements to investigators, combined with the failure of investigators to ask any questions beyond those that ensured a clearance of the shooting, led the family to think that early in the pursuit, Perez and Nichols decided to exact retribution on a career criminal who, despite a slew of recent burglary charges in South Jordan and Sandy two years before, had perhaps gotten off too easy.

The family’s attorney, St. George-based Aaron Prisbey, concludes, “The question is whether you want law enforcement to be judge, jury and executioner.”

On May 27, 2010, the Pennington family filed a multimillion-dollar wrongful-death lawsuit in the central division of the Utah District Court against the two officers involved in the killing, as well as South and West Jordan police departments and their chiefs, the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office and Lohra Miller. Legal representatives of the police departments, the District Attorney’s Office, Miller, Leary, Perez and Nichols did not return calls for comment on this story. Miller’s legal representative, attorney Peter Stirba, has however filed a request for sanctions against Prisbey, claiming the lawsuit is frivolous.

In the wake of Pennington’s death, his brothers, Dennis and Dusty Pennington, have been consumed by their search for the truth, a role forced upon them by post-shooting investigators who they argue failed to do their job. They go frame by frame through the dashcam videos, eerily reciting police dialogue with the exact intonation of those involved. “We’re not investigators,” Dennis says, calmly clicking through autopsy photos of his brother that would make most blanche in horror.

Controversy over the district attorney’s investigations of police shootings is nothing new, especially during the four years of Miller’s tenure. Days after she started in January 2006, she dismissed a charge of aggravated assault against Granite School District Officer Richard Todd Rasmussen. The charge had been filed by Miller’s predecessor, David Yocom, two years before, following Rasmussen’s shooting of unarmed Anthony Chavez after a high-speed pursuit. Miller also declined to prosecute two sheriff’s deputies despite declaring their shooting of a theft suspect unjustified. In that instance, the district attorney’s investigative report noted there was not a “reasonable likelihood” her office could get a guilty verdict from a jury. In total, according to an open records request of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office by City Weekly, law enforcement personnel within the county used deadly force 48 times during Miller’s term, resulting in 24 fatalities. None of the shootings resulted in a prosecution of law enforcement.

The controversy over Pennington’s May 2009 shooting, however, coming in the final weeks of Miller’s administration after she lost her office to Sim Gill in the November 2010 election, offers a disturbing portrait of a system that appears to provide little to no scrutiny of officers’ actions when deadly force is used.

Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Executive Director Kent Hart, after viewing video from the shooting, calls for the case to be reopened by an independent body. The shooting investigation “was not adequate,” he says. “There are many questions that are unanswered coupled with a lot of red flags.”

Defense attorney Jeff Hall, who represented Nichols in the initial post-shooting interview, cautions that officers caught up in shootings are in “very difficult situations” and should be “afforded a substantial amount of deference. You need to stand in the shoes of an officer in the moment to appreciate the dynamics of the situation.”

But Pennington’s family, still struggling to deal with the horror of that night, cannot countenance anything they see as resembling excuses. Among the final words Pennington heard came from Perez: “You’re dead, motherfucker.” Tears in his eyes, Garry asks, “How does that feel?”

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Posted // August 8,2013 at 16:15

If the idiot would have stopped. . . He would still be alive. . .


Posted // December 30,2011 at 13:55 wow theese pigs are messed up. the cop that killed wade deserves to be locked up or even killed. i didnt know wade but i know tyler and im sorry.


Posted // December 15,2010 at 12:02

Have you ggogled the original story posted the day the shooting happened? If you want I can go word for word on what the media was told. Lets say the news would have stated the following; A man was sitting out side a business at 1.30 am in his vehicle when a police officer chased him for a moment until he realized there was no crime commited and according to their chase policy they could not chase. However another officer decided to chase him disregarding a direct order from his commanding officer to not pursue not only once but twice. After that another officer jumps in and starts ramminmg the suspect and claiming it was the suspect doing the ramminmg but in fact it was the officer. At one point they got into a cul de sac and both officers were ramming the suspect until one officer rams him with such force it moves the suspects car into a brick wall where the vehicle is pinned unable to move, at that point the suspect is ordered out of the vehicle by one officer and the other officer while sitting in his patrol car window rolled up shoots the suspect twice. At this point the officer jumps out of his patrol car and tries to pull the suspect out to make it appear he was lunging. He could not get the body fully out and decides to drop the body and then calls for medical. A while later he admits on camera there goes my job and realizes he is on camera on says oh no. Now thats the story that should have been told but go back to the original release and see what was stated and I think you will agree this story should be told in this manner!


Posted // December 21,2010 at 13:07 - Oh, how funny. You're stating that I am G and G is me because you can't understand that another person might disagree with you. Look up the IP addresses on our posts for your answer to that. I posted this here because Dustin stated in another blog that I seem to be coming around, seeing his side and agreeing with him. That wasn't and isn't the case. It never was and I never said it was. I'll debate you, TMcLain, when you show you're capable of attending this matter with honesty and truth. I don't think you can. You're just another parrot without an original thought. As it is, you've got a bug up your ass for me because I refuse to agree with you and your fabrications. You can't stand that I've refuted parts of the story and that you cannot prove me wrong. I didn't respond to your last post to me because it was too idiotic and all anybody has to do to see you're lying is read my posts. Prove your assertions. Quote my words to back up your fabrications. You can't just make things up and expect me to roll over for you.


Posted // December 21,2010 at 11:22 - In reply to: "I'm finished with this", G, I mean Hayduke. Thank you for making my point. You tried to represent yourself as a conscientious observer trying to understand the facts of the article. But in reality you were a man with extreme prejudgment on Wade’s person and believed he deserved to get shot because he ran. Then used that observer persona to try and quietly and calmly undermine the information, the writer, and the deceased. See Hayduke, you’re not that complicated. No one needs a keen eye for the obvious to see through it.


Posted // December 21,2010 at 09:54 - Re-posted from rant control: My view was too complicated, too gray, to bother with and I should have left the blog for Pennington's family and friends to say how great and wonderful this man was even though all he did was burglarize businesses and steal from people. Apparently, we differ on our views as to what makes a great and wonderful man. But that's neither here nor there. I got into it because I saw people (Pennington's family and friends) behaving like a lynch mob, stating that these officers murdered this man intentionally for revenge. I thought that was bullshit. It is bullshit. I didn't state that he should have been shot, and I didn't state he shouldn't have. I'm not positive because I cannot see what he was doing when he was shot. But judging by the fact that the bullets seem to have hit him square in the chest and abdomen, I'm thinking he was coming out of that window all on his own, as well as disobeying orders, which is why he was shot, which is likely justifiable as far as applicable laws go. Did the cops need to shoot him? Absolutely need to? Probably not. Did he give them reason to shoot him? Yeah, from what I've seen and can deduce, I completely think he did. I think he got himself shot and I do not blame the police. Is that clear enough? The fact is that he was caught getting ready, for the zillionth time, to do what he did best and he ran. The fact is that the police did chase him. The fact is that he was driving aggressively and dangerously, putting other people at risk. The fact is he did tap a cop car and then totally hit another, which gave the officers the excuse, the legal reason they needed to continue with the chase. But who cares what I think or say? Somebody else will want to see the proof I requested, the proof that others deem so silly, in order to justify this million dollar payday. Go ahead, guess who that might be.


Posted // December 15,2010 at 20:55 - G. Hayduke from the onset has belittled commentators, the author, the story and the deceased. His opinion was clear from the beginning and there is no changing it. So exactly how is he feeding us and who are we biting. He speaks words that sound like he feels the shooting was a wrongful death and in the same breath implies it was Wades fault. Then claims we misunderstand him and to stupid to get his point. We get it G. No amount of evidence with make Hayduke admit this a wrongful shoot. He demands evidences he knows no one has and discounts the lies the police told. Very interesting lies. Lies the misrepresenting the risk to Nichols person. Lies that gave him the green light to use lethal force. Lies the police told the public justified the shooting. Lies Hayduke claims were out of self preservation. Oh and G, Respect is earned and Hayduke, I'm a tax payer as well.


Posted // December 15,2010 at 17:26 - I think were all missing the point of what really happend.A man regaurdless what his past is, was killed unjustly! I have been following these posts since the start and I belive there are points on both sides that make alot of sence.Now lets remember that the media 90% of the time is one sided without all the facts,facts the public doesent always get to see because of court and litigation purpous's. Now, that said, I'm thinking the family is trying to get a story out about a wrongful death with some facts they cant share. And we as the public have to take what we can read on both sides and make our own oppion's,regardless of what will happen in court. Now Me as a person that has been in the system myself (for some bad choises I Made) does not agree that any man should be shot for a high speed chase or his past.I have lifetime friends that are Police officers and friends that have been in trouble with the same law.I dont think that the Pennington is trying to say that all police officers are bad,but the ones that are need to be weeded out and held accountable for there wrong doings just as they would a criminal that broke the law.


Posted // December 15,2010 at 17:02 - I said before that this story is heartbraking. The point of my comments were to question the slant involved. "Shoot First" and a picture of a bloody shirt on the cover of City Weekly is what sparked my thoughts. I don't know why the officer shot this man, but neither does the author. His opinion was revenge. Ok, but then your asking me to believe that an officer shot someone for no reason. There has to be facts, presented by the author, to back up such a bold theory. The author didn't come close to presenting this. My point is that there are a lot of people doing bad things and a lot of good officers protecting us. I don't know whether the officers in this story were good or bad, but neither does the author. When you present the image that officers "shoot first" and are murderers, it creates distrust and puts a lot of good men and women serving our communities in harms way. Again, it is a hearbraking story, but also horribly written.


Posted // December 15,2010 at 16:25 - I have to agree with Hayduke. If you want your point to come across as someone educated on this subject and want others in the general public to buy in to this story you really should make it legible. To read what you posted was a challenge to say the least. It took me a few times reading your post to make what sense I did get out of it. All I can say is don't bite the hand that feeds you. The insults are not called for. It sounds to me like Hayduke is an educated person that you need on your side. You have now lost that support. (for those who don't know I am referring to Dawns posts).


Posted // December 15,2010 at 15:51 - Dawn, I can barely follow your retort. The least you could do, if you're out to prove something, is try and make it legible. And if you'd like me to take you seriously, lay off the insults. Again, I wrote a lengthy reply and have erased it. You're trying my patience in that you refuse to read and try to understand my words before vomiting up your own. I've been fair, respectful and honest - you'd do well to show a little respect as I am part of the society to which you are trying to prove that Mr. Pennington should not have been shot that night. I have read the initial news reports, as you have requested. But then, I already acknowledged that the cops lied about certain things - I did that in my very first lone post. I've watched these videos several times and I do not see what I need to see and that is what Mr. Pennington was doing when he was shot. Everything hinges on that point and it is nonexistent - all I have, in the limited capacity that I am able to review this situation, are stories from two opposing sides and a video showing Mr. Pennington thoughtlessly driving like a maniac through residential neighborhoods. I completely disagree that Mr. Pennington was the victim of a revenge killing, as you'd have us believe. I've learned that Mr. Pennington had spent at least half his life in and out of jail and prison. That only accounts for what crimes he was actually caught doing. I've also learned that this was the third time that Mr. Pennington has made the DECISION, the CHOICE to run from the police since 2001, leading to a chase. What all of this tells me is that Mr. Pennington thought little of anything or anyone other than Mr. Pennington. What is very plain is that Mr. Pennington's antics, choices, and overt criminality finally caught up with him and that's that. I'm finished with this.


Posted // December 15,2010 at 15:01 - U said officers r not robots...u said..they are human beings and they screw up....agreed and when they do they should be held accountible for there screw up! This was a big one! And then. Not to mention tht when this officer screwed up in soooo many different ways. many other government employees screwed up to cover up his screw ups in the manner of the publics the mannner of which goes against all their integrity as officers and why???? Let me remind u of something wade pennington took responsibilty for his screw ups and past crimal history...he paid his fines...restitution and debt to society for his bad decissions but he's not around to go to court on his poor decission tht night so that's why we r going about this through the court systems everyone including officer shld be held accountable for their decissions!


Posted // December 15,2010 at 14:39 - Hayduke.....have to jump in here....first and foremost let me repeat officer perez own statement which here again hayduke and mickey these r not assumptions these words r not wht we "think" this is wht "we" know...and I quote "please tell us what happens next....(officer perez) states in his own words tht he. Watches officer nichols try to pull mr pennington out of the vehicle! Hayduke..let me ask u a question....from that statement can u tell me why? Why would officer perez witness that behavior from a fellow officer?? Why would the crime photos tht this "Author" speaks about in this artcle talk about mr pennington hanging by one foot??? The trajectory of the bullets don't match these officers story and they both have complete differnt storys..videos...and version of wht happened in there own words but yet they were the only two there...well besides mr pennington mind u he's dead so he cnt tell us can he??? Let me tell u why and this is by far not my take the original story tht was told to us...leads to questions...u take those questions...unanswered ...leads to investigating to try and get some answers. Which leads to documentatio reports..investigation reports. Which leads to tape after tape...his car...his clothes and his voice on officer nichols chest mic....and so much more......all compiled over and over day after day for 18 months....lawyers...experts and a little common sense leads to a lot of cold hard facts! FACtS...did I studder? Let mewd say it one more time FACTS so if u new what it takes to be soooo Brave as to challenge these kinds of facts and what its taken to present and have enough evidence to even file this in fedearal court not state federal court...if you new how shocking and agonizing this has been u would probably not ASSume this was just such a made up story and our perceptions are based on our fixticious beliefs and that really all it boils down to is one small fact....the one where we all agree is that mr pennington was fleeing from an officer! But please do me and everyone else a favor do ur homework and read up on the facts read up on what we have clearly given to the public to see and before u answer this arcticle again with assumptions and repeat u ask yourself why? From the da's office at the top....all the way down! Hopeully if u read and listen your ASSUMPTIONS guarenteed will different


Posted // December 15,2010 at 12:57 - I'm thinking this is in response to Mickey and I? To quote you: "At this point the officer jumps out of his patrol car and tries to pull the suspect out to make it appear he was lunging" See, this is hearsay. It is opinion, not fact. The problem I have with this is that you guys are accusing the officers involved of murder, of driving this man down and shooting him regardless of what he had or had not done. What you accuse these officers of is 1st degree murder. Do you understand that charge? If you're going to accuse somebody of 1st degree murder, you need to provide something solid to go on. As it is, you're talking about revenge killings. I don't see that here. Yes, the police screwed up, big time. That's completely obvious. But because both sides have skewed their stories to fit their perceptions, I don't know what to believe and what to disregard. That leaves me in the same position I was in before and that is: Mr. Pennington created a situation that whirled out of control and got him killed. I do not believe, in the slightest, that these officers hunted him down and intentionally murdered him as has been said. Police officers are not robots. They are human beings. They screw up. If you're a criminal, it is wise to remember that they are as prone to screwing up as anybody else and that they have the guns and the power. If you choose to place yourself in a position in which you may be killed and are, who is ultimately to blame? The idiot cop that killed you, or you for putting yourself in that position in the first place? I'd be pissed if I were in your shoes and I'd try to do everything I could to find justice. I don't blame you at all and seriously hope you're able to find some peace. I just don't think that accusing these officers of murderous revenge is helping your case any.


Posted // December 14,2010 at 13:59

This is a difficult story for me because in my heart I feel that this shooting was unjust. It did not fit the crime and that is wrong. However, I feel that the author presents only one side of the story. If this is the case, then I have to disregard it as another case of a journalist sensationalizing a story in order to cast law enforcement in a bad light. This is the problem with the media today and it threatens the foundation of this country. If the author wont at least acknowledge the wrongfulness of this man leading a high speed chase through neighborhoods, then what other facts are missing. Heartbreaking story, horrible reporting.


Posted // December 15,2010 at 09:00 - You guys tend to construe the strangest things from words posted here. What I understood Mickey to say is that this article is slanted, seemingly written to invoke a specific response from the readership. It is sensationalized and dramatic. The facts are not presented in such a way as to allow the reader to form their own opinion. Not one person has said, in any post, that it is okay for the police to lie, nor has anybody said, not once, that it was okay for the police to shoot this man. With all due respect to Mr. Dark, whom I think generally does a wonderful job, this article reads more like an opinion piece than anything else. There are holes everywhere and certain aspects are blatantly exaggerated and one-sided. It depends a great deal upon emotion and hearsay, not facts. The audio at the end of the video, as sad as it is, is manipulative and almost ensures a preset opinion from those hearing it and reading the story. Had the video included footage of the actual shooting, so that we could see exactly what Mr. Pennington was doing when he was shot, it would have provided undeniable proof for one side or the other. But it doesn't. When some readers see a story like this and recognize that parts are missing and that some of it is constructed so as to be leading, they tend to wonder what it is that is missing and why they are being led and that takes away from the veracity of the content. I think that's primarily what Mickey was trying to say. Of course, only Mickey can tell us for sure.


Posted // December 14,2010 at 21:52 - Mickey...Indeed the shooting was unjust, im glad we agree on that although you must go back and read the original story by west Jordan police department and there side of what took place that night. There were construed lies on the news of what took place that night to paint a picture of another "career criminal" out doing burglaries so its ok we needed to shoot him! Please, go google this original story and tell me you wouldnt want the actual facts of what took place to be released rather than made up stories on what didnt take place! I think as a jouranalist Mr. Dark done a hell of a job on story where most would not touch. However you can come up with bad reporting after watching the videos and the police reports from that night is hard for me to understand! If you, or anyone else thinks its ok for the police to lie, we as human beings should fear law, for they can do no wrong under any circumstances, even murder!


Posted // December 14,2010 at 19:27 - To me it’s obvious that Wade Pennington running that night was crazy and wrong. I’ve really never seen anyone trying to say any different. I thought that went without saying. So let me say it. It was crazy and wrong. Now, I am interested in knowing that if you feel it was a bad shoot and unjustified, why his running makes that ok. Secondly, what side of story did the District Attorney’s office tell all three channel news and both newspapers after the shooting and after the conclusion of the investigation? What side of the story did the West Jordan police department release to the media after the shooting? This story was Wade Pennington’s side of the story. A little harder to read than the police shot a bad guy who was trying to kill them while chasing him all over West Jordan.


Posted // December 14,2010 at 15:17 - Good post.


Posted // December 10,2010 at 19:21

I'm really sorry that the Pennington family has had to go through this.

I see people commenting that this man should have pulled over and he would still be around - but I sincerely doubt it.

These cops knew his name. They knew who they were chasing. I'm sorry, but I think had he pulled over they would have been more careful to not leave their dashcams on and he still would have been killed wrongfully, there just wouldn't be any way to prove it since the cops would have better covered their tracks.

It pains me to have such low opinions for law enforcement officers, but I have seen how things work around here. A lot of the Utah police are liars, thugs and cowards. Hopefully there are a few good ones who will cross the blue line and eliminate the sociopathic cowards who are enjoying terrorizing citizens.

Even if he HAD burglarized a business - that would have been no justification for shooting him.

Internal affairs is useless, and the civilian review board is deaf, dumb, and blind.

I long for those long-lost days when police were honorable and worthy of respect, I really do.


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