Feature | Final Shot: Salt Lake Police fired Rob Joseph nine years ago. He’s not about to get over it. | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Feature | Final Shot: Salt Lake Police fired Rob Joseph nine years ago. He’s not about to get over it. 

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nAs a child growing up in Queensland, Australia, Rob Joseph loved Serpico, the classic 1973 true-crime thriller featuring Al Pacino as “an honest cop” who turns state’s evidence about corruption in the NYPD. Serpico made Joseph want to be a policeman. n

“I thought that being a cop suited my desire to help people,” Joseph says. In retrospect, he adds, “That was gullible.” n

Joseph realized his childhood dream in 1997, joining the Salt Lake City Police Department at the advanced rookie age of 36. It took him 10 years because he first needed to become a U.S. citizen. But finally he had the badge and the gun. He was married to a future beauty queen and was quickly dubbed the “Hollywood cop” for his consultations on police movies filmed in the city. But his gig didn’t last. n

In 1999, just two years after joining the force, Joseph was fired in spectacular fashion—arrested based on evidence gathered by his own brothers in blue and charged with aggravated assault for shooting at a drunken driver. n

Typically, the story would end there. For Joseph, it was just the beginning. Convinced he was being set up as a sacrificial lamb by a city under pressure to rein in a shoot-first police department in time for the 2002 Winter Games, Joseph went Serpico on the SLCPD, charging he was a victim of police and political corruption. He’s driven city attorneys and generations of mayors and police administrators to distraction ever since. n

At 48, Joseph is a self-described anticorruption crusader and buddies with the real Frank Serpico. He’s spent the last nine years unwinding a conspiracy story surrounding his firing to rival any in the cop movies on which he’s worked. After years of suing in every court he could try—and getting thrown out of every one—Joseph finally convinced someone to take another look: a little-known Utah judicial body known as the Grand Jury Panel of Judges. n

Frank Serpico, he says, “encouraged me to keep fighting and never give up.” Joseph thought the advice was finally paying off.n

Movies and Mayhem
nEvery three years, the grand jury panel hears out anyone who thinks they have evidence of a crime. At the end of 2007, the panel heard Joseph’s claims of a conspiracy by Salt Lake City and police officials to frame him and decided Joseph had enough evidence to warrant a criminal investigation. The panel issued a secret request to the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office and the county Sheriff’s, “to conduct a criminal investigation into possible obstruction of justice, perjury, false and inconsistent material statements, the suborning of perjury, official misconduct and spoliation of evidence that led to the filing of charges against Mr. Joseph.” n

It was the second time the grand jury panel had asked for the probe. The judges first asked for a Sheriff’s investigation in 2004, but nothing happened. n

Joseph’s Sandy home is in foreclosure for the fourth time. He hasn’t held a steady job since he was fired from the police. “No one wants to hire a dirty cop,” Joseph says. He’s kept a roof over the heads of his wife and four children by working carpentry jobs, but employment has been in short supply recently. Joseph’s wife, Rachelle, who in 2003 held the title Mrs. Utah America, says she thinks the family may lose the house this time. n

Joseph spends a lot of time nowadays in his den surrounded by mementos of his short police career: One glass frame holds Joseph’s Sept. 19, 1997, police academy graduation photo along with his old SLCPD business card, uniform patch, ID and badge. Another wall is devoted to posters for movies Joseph worked as a police technical adviser. Today’s Joseph is thinner than the chisel-jawed policeman shown in stills from movies in which he got bit parts, like Primary Suspect (2000), featuring William Baldwin, and 1999’s Absence of the Good (1999), with another Baldwin brother, Stephen. But Joseph still has the tight black curls and full-toothed smile of his younger self. n

Stapled to a wall by itself—behind Joseph’s head as he sits at his desk—is an unframed photocopy of the movie poster for Serpico. Against the next wall: file cabinets overflowing with tens of thousands of court documents and transcripts. n

The initial aggravated assault charge brought against Joseph in 1999 was dropped four months later, before trial, when the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office decided the evidence against Joseph didn’t stack up. Joseph was offered a deal: Agree not to sue the city, and the police department would officially decide his shooting was “good.” Joseph refused. He wanted an investigation of fellow police officers who got him charged in the first place. n

Joseph was still back on the force in January 2000, but with an “out of policy” shooting black mark on his record. And two months later, he was fired—this time after a city-paid doctor ruled Joseph was too crazy to be a cop. n

“I’d made a decision I’d sit and rot in jail before I’d plead to something I didn’t do,” says Joseph, repeating one of the many lines he’s delivered so often through the years, it sounds like dialogue from a B movie. n

The shooting that led to this legal saga unfolded like something on film. Joseph was in uniform March 26, 1999, but off-duty and helping with an outdoor crash scene for The Crow: Salvation. He had left the film set and met his wife for a key hand-off at Liberty Park when a blue Ford Escort sped by at 80 mph southbound on 700 East. n

When the Ford wouldn’t pull over, Joseph forced the car to stop by blocking the speeder’s path with his cruiser on 700 East near 2300 South. Joseph approached the car with gun drawn. When the driver ignored Joseph’s request to roll down his window, Joseph opened the driver-side door. The next few minutes would change the cop’s life forever. n

The Ford driver, Wesley Scott, later told police he feared being arrested for an outstanding LSD possession warrant. So he floored the car in reverse, scooping up Joseph in the open car door, according to case testimony from Joseph and Scott. Joseph grabbed the open door frame with one hand and hoisted half his body on the Ford’s roof. Scott braked hard, throwing Joseph from the car. He then sped around Joseph’s police cruiser and away, leading sheriff’s deputies in a high-speed chase. n

After Scott floored the car in reverse, Joseph got off 11 shots. He hit Scott twice—injuring his cheek and foot—and struck the left rear panel of the Ford several times. One bullet just missed Scott, lodging in the driver’s seat headrest. Joseph’s fate as a police officer would hang on the question of whether he fired to save his life as the Ford was backing into him, or shot at an unarmed misdemeanor traffic citation suspect driving away. n

For Joseph, it’s a matter of black and white. His experts and his attorney maintained that it was a clear-cut case of self-defense, with no room for debate. But others suggested the shooting was filled with gray. The shooting might never have happened, they argued, had Joseph not put himself in a dangerous situation in the first place. Ultimately, a police officer’s decision to use deadly force is a judgment call—and they didn’t much like Joseph’s judgment.n

Don’t Take ‘No’ for an Answer
nJoseph claims there was context a decade ago that puts in perspective the action the department took against him. n

In spring 1999, then-civil rights attorney Rocky Anderson (who became mayor shortly after) was railing against the tough-guy tactics of the police chief at the time, Ruben Ortega. The month Joseph was charged, a Salt Lake Tribune headline read, “Families Question Rash of Fatal Shootings by Police.” In his federal lawsuit alleging a conspiracy, Joseph alleged that city leaders facing criticism for the spate of police shootings needed a fall guy, and he just happened to be the next officer to fire his weapon. But Joseph was never able to demonstrate a conspiracy to the satisfaction of the federal judge, who in 2005, finally threw Joseph’s 5-year-old civil-rights lawsuit out of court. He blasted Joseph for making “baseless and scurrilous allegations” about city attorneys. n

Few Salt Lake City officials would comment for this story. Police Chief Chris Burbank did not respond to a request for comment. Attorney General Mark Shurtleff declined to be interviewed. The only thing Salt Lake City Attorney Ed Rutan would say is that, “the claims [Joseph] raised have been repeatedly answered in the negative by court after court.” n

Their reluctance to talk is hardly surprising. Officials who have failed to investigate Joseph’s claims to his satisfactoin in the past have found themselves named later as part of the ongoing conspiracy. n

Joseph simply does not take “no” for an answer. He has taken his case to U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, to the FBI, to the Salt Lake City Council and even the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The driver he’d pulled over and shot was never prosecuted. Joseph once accused a judge in his civil-rights case of taking bribes in the form of gifts for his collection of paperweights. n

Rocky Anderson wouldn’t become mayor until after Joseph was fired, but Joseph still called for his impeachment. One of Joseph’s own attorneys would end up suspended from practicing law for filing frivolous lawsuits, one of which was Joseph’s. n

“I spent about an hour and a half listening to his story and I didn’t believe it,” says Dave Lord about his first phone call with Joseph. A former SLCPD officer and instructor to Utah’s police officers on accident scene investigation, Lord would become one of Joseph’s defense experts after becoming a believer. n

Lord marvels at Joseph’s ability to keep up the fight. “In addition to tearing the fabric of his financial life apart, what it’s done to his family and marriage is hard to imagine. It’s a bloody miracle his wife is still with him,” he says. “What has kept him going is he knows he is right. He knows he has been set up, and he’s not going to roll over and spread ’em.” n

Lord says no “honest observer” could look at the aftermath of Joseph’s shooting and determine—as did investigating SLCPD officers—that Joseph had shot from a standing position at an unarmed civilian who was driving away. Lord’s early reconstruction showed what some prosecutors would later come to believe—that Joseph shot at a car that was backing over him in order to save his own life. n

“It was an assassination,” Lord says. “They manufactured evidence, lied, they ruled him a crazy person. It was to make an example of a Salt Lake City cop.” n

After the criminal charge against him was dismissed, Joseph pleaded the case to keep his job before the Salt Lake City Civil Service Commission. Commissioners were presented with an analysis of the shooting from the county district attorney’s office. n

Richard Shepherd, then-director of the DA’s criminal division, wrote the DA “could not convict on the evidence,” but added, “I am still concerned.” n

In his evaluation of the event, Shepherd wrote on Jan. 18, 2000, that neither driving under the influence or speeding justify shooting a suspect: “[Joseph’s] deadly force must be justified in the context of the officer’s belief that the backing of the car was an assault which could cause death or serious bodily injury to him. There was no injury to the officer and most, if not all of the shots were fired as the vehicle was leaving. … I don’t think that our decision not to seek criminal liability necessarily means that the use of deadly force was reasonable or justified.” n

The city Civil Service Commission upheld Joseph’s firing. That hearing would turn out to be Joseph’s last chance to argue the case. No court would take an appeal, saying Joseph had his chance. It would take Joseph one year after the civil service hearing to find evidence he thinks would have saved his job, if he’d had it at the time—evidence that had been in the city’s files all along. n

In 2001, while examining his file at Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), the body that licenses police officers, Joseph noticed out of the corner of his eye two documents that had been set aside from the file. He made a mental note of the page numbers, and later subpoenaed the documents for court. n

One was an analysis of the shot-up Ford performed by the Utah crime lab just days after the shooting. By training lasers through the bullet holes, crime lab technicians traced the position of the shooter to near the ground just feet from the car. The second document was an internal memo written by the district attorney assigned to prosecute Joseph. n

In his Nov. 18, 1999, memo suggesting the charge against Joseph be dismissed, then-assistant district attorney Ernie Jones wrote the crime lab’s analysis, “suggests that shots were fired while the officer was on the ground and in danger of being run over by the vehicle. While the injuries to Wesley Scott were serious it appears that Mr. Scott created the situation which caused these injuries.” n

The memo’s next line was the most galling to Joseph because it directly contradicted what the DA’s office would write two months later: “Officer Joseph was justified in shooting Wesley Scott.” n

In his subsequent federal civil-rights lawsuit, Joseph swore up and down he had never received copies of the documents from the city. City attorneys were equally adamant they had sent the material to Joseph early on. n

“I was blown away,” Joseph says. “You see that, you think, ‘They knew, they knew all along. Look what they were willing to do to set me up and not care about the impact on my life.’”n


n“He Was a Good Cop”
nWhen the Salt Lake City Police Department took Joseph back in early 2000 after the assault charge was dismissed, it was on condition that Joseph undergo a “fitness for duty” examination by a physician the city would hire. Following an interview with Joseph, a review of his personnel file and a memo from City Hall reporting other officers were “concerned that Joseph is near the point of taking out his anger in a violent manner” the physician came back with a diagnosis: Joseph had an Axis II “personality disorder with paranoid and narcissistic traits.” Joseph was ruled unfit for duty and fired. n

A state panel at the Division of Occupational & Professional Licensing that screened the malpractice complaint Joseph filed against the doctor would later rule the diagnosis could not have been made based on such a limited examination. The diagnosis was for a longstanding disorder. Yet the psychological exams Joseph took in applying for the SLCPD and Utah Highway Patrol in 1997 showed no such problems. n

Joseph got some additional props over the years. POST let him keep his badge in November 2000, finding that Joseph acted within Utah’s use-of-deadly-force law. In 2003, a state district court judge ordered Salt Lake City to pay Joseph’s legal fees incurred defending his criminal prosecution. n

But as with all his other court battles, Joseph’s malpractice lawsuit was thrown out of court when a judge ruled the physician who examined him was working for the city and “owed no legal duty” to Joseph. Psychiatrist David McCann stands by his original diagnosis, telling City Weekly, “It was the best professional report I could do.” n

Despite the trouble he’s caused the city, Joseph still has some friends at the SLCPD—though none who are willing to say so publicly. One officer, who spoke to City Weekly only on condition his name not be printed, says, “There’s no doubt [Joseph] got railroaded. They got away with it, too. What happened to him was bad, but no one there was willing to stand up and fix it. It was a justified shoot, and they just found ways around it. He was a good cop.” n

Back in the ’70s, NYPD narcotics officer Frank Serpico was shedding light on police officers taking bribes from drug dealers. Joseph says his campaign is more nebulous: a fight against the “old boys’ network”: the impulse of power to cover its butt rather than “do the right thing.” n

“I’m not exposing bribes, but I don’t see the difference. A lie is a lie. It’s about the public trust. The goal is the truth.” n

If SLCPD offered him a job tomorrow, Joseph says he would seriously think about it. But his fight ceased to be about the job long ago. Originally, Joseph says he battled so hard because, “I felt I couldn’t get on with life until it was over.” Now he realizes this is his life—he has become Serpico, a permanent crusader. n

He has tried to set up a police-watchdog group. He helped investigate the lawsuit brought by the widow of a man who died in police custody while wrongly suspected in the headline-grabbing 2002 kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart. He has been an occasional behind-the-scenes conduit for newspaper stories about small police scandals. n

“I’m kind of just a pariah” Joseph says in a lingering Australian drawl, a hint of an impish grin coming to his face. n

On Jan. 16, 2008, Joseph received a letter from the Grand Jury Panel of Judges saying that the Salt Lake County Sheriff had reported back the results of his investigation into potential crimes associated with Joseph’s firing: n

“The panel believes a thorough, professional and complete investigation has now been conducted. … Based on that investigation the panel has determined there is insufficient evidence to warrant further action in this matter.” n

But getting shot down once again won’t stop Joseph. He has already set his sights on his next target: current occupants of Salt Lake area government he now believes impeded the grand jury panel’s investigation. n

Joseph’s unending crusade causes some to roll their eyes. T. J. Tsakalos at the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office says he can’t imagine Joseph can still be upset with the DA, noting that a judge dismissed the county as a defendant in Joseph’s lawsuit long before current District Attorney Lohra Miller was elected. n

“Why would [the current DA] get involved in a conspiracy years later?” Tsakalos says. “It kind of boggles the mind.” n

Joseph says he’s never looked back, never asked himself what life might have been like had he decided against pursuing a drunken driver while he was off the clock. “There’s no point even thinking about it. I believe life experiences define who you are and give you a mission,” he says. All it took to make him realize that mission was a little tough love from TV host Dr. Phil. n

In desperation this year, Rachelle Joseph telephoned the TV show, seeking Dr. Phil’s intervention. Joseph exposed himself to an on-air emotional wringing and the doctor got him thinking positively. The TV shrink challenged Joseph: What can a person do as an outcast cop? Joseph’s answer: Become a cop-corruption crusader. n

The Dr. Phil appearance didn’t land Joseph a job selling police uniforms, as he had hoped. But it did get Joseph a literary agent who is now shopping a book tentatively titled, The Betrayed: State of Corruption: The Officer Joseph Story. n

Joseph says Serpico has agreed to write the forward. Still to be determined is which Baldwin brother will play Joseph in the movie. tttt

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