On Thursday night, I watched Anthony Mayhew die.
From my second-story desk window at the City Weekly office at 248 S. Main, I watched a standoff unfold between police and Mayhew, who’d threatened to blow himself up along with the Gallivan Plaza TRAX station in front of our offices. He was 40 feet away from me when police shot him.
The most disturbing thing about the shot that killed him was the casual finality of it. Beyond the very loud report of the gun, there was no drama. The shot pushed Mayhew back. He crumpled to the ground. There was no gory blood spray and his body was not thrown like a rag doll. This was not a movie death. He simply lay down and died.
The Salt Lake City police identified Mayhew on Friday morning, putting a name to the face of the anger-filled man with his finger supposedly on the trigger of a bomb, a threat that launched an evacuation of four blocks of downtown Salt Lake City.
When I first saw him through the window, he was merely a distraction from a late night of writing.
I was alone in the office except for a janitor when I heard shouting outside. Shouts and disturbances on our section of Main Street are usually just background noise, but when I looked out the window this time, at around 9:30 p.m., I saw a police officer yelling back. He had his weapon drawn.
I realized the officer was not yelling at another random drunk but someone who was potentially very dangerous.
The scene was frightening, yet also confusing. The man who’d later be identified as Anthony Mayhew was clad in a white shirt and dark pants. He didn’t appear to have a gun, just a loud mouth and a backpack. His shouting was garbled as it came through the windows of the office, but “motherfucker” was the punctuation to nearly every statement.
While mostly undecipherable, his yelling seemed to tell of a great conspiracy against him. Mayhew finally seemed to have the attention of someone who would listen to his story, a story that, for whatever reason, he seemed compelled to resolve through explosion or suicide by cop.
I wanted to know what his story was. His voice was desperate in and of itself, with a razor’s edge of menace. I wanted to believe that if he had told me his story, maybe I could have written about it. Maybe I could have righted the wrongs that had tormented him, or at least cast a light on how he’d been ground up in the indifferent teeth of the system.
But it was a thought almost immediately countered with the realization that, as with many people who wander off the street and into City Weekly with a story to tell, the conspiracies against him may have been more imagined than real. Had Mayhew met me in the lobby of the paper’s office and told me how the world was against him, would I have just politely heard him out, then dismissed him as a nutjob when mentioning him to colleagues? It’s not something I like to think about.
Still, from my office window that night, I was hypnotized, knowing that he had a story to tell. Sitting on a planter box on the Gallivan Center TRAX station, Mayhew took a stack of documents out of a bag and made some threat of suicide. All I caught was, “… then I’ll just go ahead and kill myself.”
After his threat of suicide, I snapped out of my initial shock and dialed 911, not knowing whether police dispatch were aware of the situation or if the cop I saw had just then encountered Mayhew. The police were well aware of the situation, and the dispatcher told me I should evacuate the area.
That could have been how this story ended. I instead thanked the dispatcher for the information, ended the call and went back to being transfixed by what was happening outside my window. I remained inside, unseen.
Mayhew moved away from the planter box, leaving behind a letter or some stapled documents. He moved 15 feet south down the TRAX stop and sat at a stone bench in the middle of the stop. A police officer cautiously approached the planter box and examined the papers. The officer said something to Mayhew. Mayhew responded to the effect of, “You don’t have the power …”
It may have been a document pertaining to a lawsuit Mayhew had filed this year against the city of South Salt Lake, specifically against its police department.
In July, Mayhew, representing himself, filed a federal lawsuit against the city for allegedly causing him to lose his employment and two internships as a result of his treatment by South Salt Lake police. In 2009, Mayhew alleged a neighbor shot at him and that he needed to intervene in what he said was a domestic-violence incident at a neighbor’s apartment. Mayhew barged into the home, attacked the man and was later charged by the city for burglary and assault. The charges were dismissed, but Mayhew’s attempt to recover $180,000 in reparations and $2.7 million in damages was dismissed Sept. 10, 2012, by U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell.
Now, two weeks later, officers appeared to be negotiating with Mayhew from both sides of the TRAX stop. Mayhew had claimed the middle of the platform. His ranting was loud and hard to understand, but what was audible was the claim that “he didn’t want to hurt anybody.” Mayhew kept one hand inside his red bag at all times.
Negotiations seemed to stop around 10:40 p.m. At this point, businesses on Main Street had been evacuated, and a perimeter was set up around the TRAX stop. Mayhew sat down, his back against a small stone seat. In his last moments alive, Mayhew sipped from a water bottle between looking anxiously over each shoulder. I believe he was looking for the man who would kill him.
Other than the cops, no one was closer to Mayhew than I was. The spot where he sat is a place that I often look out at absentmindedly from my desk. Tree branches obscured a clear view, but I could still see him at his resting spot.
PHOTO BY ERIC S. PETERSON
I tried to take a picture of Mayhew with my smartphone from a darker office, only to have the flash go off. Mayhew, between scanning both sides of the street, looked up at me. I don’t know if he saw me, but his stare went right through me.
Until then, I was trying to report, trying to see, trying to hear, trying to know but not be known. Mayhew knew I was there, even if no one else on the street did. I did not want to make eye contact with Mayhew. That was too close. But I did—seemingly eye to eye—and minutes later, he would be dead.
I frantically paced the office for a good vantage point. I took some grainy photos with a co-worker’s camera and was trying to transfer them from the camera when, at roughly 10:54, I heard the police give a loud verbal warning. Looking directly out my desk window, I saw that Mayhew was now standing. I don’t remember hearing him shouting, but he had moved four or five feet toward the police from the place he had been sitting. A second loud verbal warning came. Mayhew was rocking in midstep, as if contemplating tempting fate and moving forward, when a single shot punched him in the chest and he dropped.
It was so unexpected that I at first believed it was a nonlethal beanbag fired from a shotgun. I raced to our lobby, where there was a clearer view, and filmed a video from my phone. I assumed officers would soon rush to him.
After only 30 seconds into filming, I realized I was watching Mayhew die.
He was mostly still. Once, as he lay flat on his back, he raised a single leg, curled stiffly in the air, the way a person who falls off a ladder might reflexively curl up their legs in a moment of pain. The leg hung in the air for maybe 10 seconds, then slowly sank down. Mayhew stopped moving entirely.
From the darkened lobby, I could see two police officers who had a secure position directly outside City Weekly’s front doors, roughly 50 feet away from Mayhew. I don’t know if it was one of those officers who took the shot, or if it was the sniper reportedly on the roof of the bookstore next to City Weekly.
Mayhew’s body lay alone for nearly 10 minutes. Finally, a pair of robots with treaded wheels and claw hands rolled out to the scene and, with jerking motions, removed the red bag from the scene.
Salt Lake City police confirmed Friday that Mayhew’s bag did indeed contain an explosive, but have yet to release the type and quantity.
Officers in helmets, vests and tactical gear secured the scene and attempted resuscitation. Only then could I faintly see a red stain that had bloomed over Mayhew’s shoulder. I knew Mayhew was dead. I had watched him die and now I could see his blood.
I was in shock and disbelief. And now, while attempting to layer in more of the raw emotions I experienced while watching Mayhew die, I find myself a difficult source to deal with. I want to be able to exercise pathos here, but the reality is I couldn’t process what I saw when it happened any more than I can now when writing about it—even days later. Feelings are there, churning inside, but I don’t have a grip on them and I might not for a long time. I am lucky as a reporter but haunted as a person. The clench in my gut has not released its grip.
There’s some obsession here, too. I’ve followed this story a lot more than I normally would similar shootings. I’m more of a political junkie than a cops-and-courts reporter.
And in the meantime, light has been shed on the dark spots of Mayhew’s life. His criminal record, dating back to the 1990s, includes assaults, an incident in which he threatened several people with a shotgun and an alleged hate crime attack against a black man outside a Salt Lake City bar in 1995.
In a personal blog, he fashioned himself a “notorious Japanese American Yakuza” with knowledge in “crime and crime prevention” as well as hand-to-hand combat, explosives, weaponry and a laundry list of other tricks of the criminal trade.
Such disturbing comments and reports seem to round out the stereotypical profile of a troubled man determined to die at the hands of law enforcement. But documents from his lawsuit also indicate someone who appeared to be trying to turn his life around in the late 2000s.
Among the documents were a letter of recommendation for an internship with a multimedia company and a 2008 letter of recommendation from the Salt Lake-Tooele Applied Technology College. The letter spoke of Mayhew doing citizen lobbying at the Legislature in opposition to a plan to merge the school with Salt Lake Community College.
“I truly believe that Tony’s leadership abilities, commitment and tireless efforts significantly contributed to the future success of our institution,” SLTATC President Scott Snelson wrote in the letter. “It is without any hesitation that I give my highest recommendation to Anthony Mayhew.”
On Main Street that night, after the ambulance was gone and a deafening boom signaled that the bag had been detonated safely by police, I left the office through a back entrance, avoiding the still-present police barriers at 200 South and 300 South. I went to a nearby bar and ordered a stein of Cutthroat beer and a shot of Jameson whiskey.
The TV in the bar played highlights of the standoff, showing footage of the red and blue flash of the lights at the police barricade. Over their drinks, patrons raised a few eyebrows, but the reel soon passed on to clips from Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, which seemed to elicit an equal, if not greater, amount of attention.
I realized that by staying in the office, when I could have evacuated, I had chosen to become embedded and watch Mayhew catch his last stop. I’d need two more shots of whiskey before the night was over.
If I could have gone my whole career without writing an article in the first person, so much the better. But now, because I worked late Sept. 27, I know Mayhew’s name but he never knew mine. He might not have seen me in that dark office, but he knew I was there. Instead of writing a quick blog about the facts of the night, I have to live with it because I shared those final moments with him.
I still find myself coming to grips with the moments of that night. Watching the beginning of the standoff annoyed by the distraction of Mayhew’s yelling. Later, looking him in the eye minutes before his shooter did.
And, the next day, getting off TRAX and standing over the spot where he died.
All that was left was a tiny rust-colored stain that none of the other passengers noticed.
“Remove the obstacle and the ants resume their course,” author Vladimir Nabokov once wrote. In time, I’m sure I won’t think twice about that spot, visible from my desk, where he died. But not now, and not for a long time.