Shoot First | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

December 08, 2010 News » Cover Story

Shoot First 

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

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Wade Pennington grew up in Murray, the son of a Chicago Bridge & Iron Co. welder and a mother who was a medical clerk. His father recalls Pennington as an avid bowhunter, fisherman and camper, who struggled with addiction most of his adult life. To support that addiction, he burgled commercial properties at night, throwing a large rock through a store or business’ front window and then running through the business with a crowbar to grab cash or items he could pawn for crack money. Prisbey says Pennington’s choice to burglarize stores after they were closed reflected his fear “of hurting people or being hurt himself.”

In 2001, 3rd District Court Judge Leslie Lewis sent Pennington to Utah State Prison in Draper for a probation violation for felonies he’d committed in West Jordan. While in prison, Pennington achieved the dream of many inmates and convinced Utah courts, through his own pro se representation, to send his case back to court for review. That ultimately led to the sentence being “reversed/vacated,” according to prison records and his release just before Christmas 2005.

On Jan. 4, 2007, Sandy City Police detective Chuck Thoman arrested Pennington as he fled a business he had just burglarized. In the Sandy police station, relatives say, he made a deal with Thoman that, in exchange for confessing to more than 22 burglaries in Sandy and in South Jordan, the officer would help him get into drug court. Thoman filed charges for the Sandy-based crimes, while South Jordan Police Department Sgt. Allen Crist filed the South Jordan charges.

In exchange for pleading guilty, 3rd District Court Judge Robert Adkins placed Pennington on probation and put him into drug court in Vernal, which was the only available drug court at the time. He and Kristi Russell built up a burgeoning roofing business in Duchesne County, even purchasing seven acres of land on which they began building a home. But the Pennington family lawsuit alleges that both West and South Jordan police “were upset” at Adkins’ decision and that when Pennington was visiting friends and family in the valley, police routinely pulled Pennington over “without reasonable suspicion or probable cause” in order to get his probation revoked and Pennington back behind bars.

After a fellow drug-court client in Vernal reported Pennington for buying beers, Pennington was jailed and transferred to Salt Lake City to appear before Adkins. Letters to Adkins from Pennington’s family, girlfriend and roofing clients all attested to how much he had turned his life around in the past two years, and after Pennington passed several comprehensive drug tests, the court apparently agreed. Adkins told Pennington, his parents say, that if he paid $2,000 in restitution by June 2, 2009, and continued doing one-on-one counseling for his addiction, he could forgo drug-court supervision. “Wade was so happy,” Russell says.

The court docket, however, shows only that Pennington was to return on June 2 for sentencing on violations of his original agreement to plead guilty in exchange for entering drug court.

Three days later, just after 1:24 a.m. on May 28, 2009, Sgt. Crist spotted a black SUV outside the now-closed Family Motor Sports store near Bangerter Highway in South Jordan. When the SUV took off, Crist radioed its description and plate, but rather than follow what he described as a burglary suspect, stayed at the premises and waited for a K9 unit to inspect the building. When Perez radioed he had spotted the car, Crist told him not to pursue but to confirm the plate.

Fourteen minutes later, Pennington was dead.

Piecing together what happened that night is much about what isn’t in the videos, audio recordings and subsequent interviews. Along with missing audio, Nichols’ dashcam video has no time code. In addition, either the camera was pointed to the right side of Nichols’ windshield, or the driver’s side of the image has been removed, the remainder then elongated into a widescreen image. “To me, the video doesn’t tell the tale,” Prisbey says. “It doesn’t tell you it’s not justified.” The truth, he argues, emerged as he contrasted the videos with the transcripts of the investigators’ interviews with Perez and Nichols. “Their story was made out of old cloth.”

After months of reviewing official documents, Prisbey and Pennington’s brothers assembled what they believed were the events of that night after Crist alerted colleagues to the fleeing SUV. Why Crist did nothing as subordinate officers ignored his direct order and went after the SUV isn’t clear. The store that Crist saw Pennington outside of was later found to not have been burglarized.

According to a South Jordan report from that night, the police dispatcher radioed that the car belonged to Kristina Russell, although the lawsuit claims the South Jordan dispatch tape “has been edited,” with several minutes missing, including any reference to Russell. The lawsuit alleges those missing minutes would have shown that South Jordan law enforcement “did in fact know the identity of Pennington before he was shot and killed.” Perez radioed dispatch that Pennington tried to run him over, thus justifying the chase Nichols had already begun. Yet Nichols’ dashcam video, according to the lawsuit, “demonstrates that Perez was never in danger of being hit by Pennington at any point.” Even more disturbing, Perez told investigators he did not believe Pennington was trying to run him over. “I’m not saying that he was—I mean, I think, if he wanted to run me over, he would have hit my car.” Later in the interview, he states, contradictorily, that Pennington “tried to run me over.”

Nichols chased Pennington through West Jordan residential neighborhoods. While Nichols radioed in several times that Pennington had rammed him, his video shows that, on more than one occasion, Nichols was the aggressor. “I’m going to take him out,” Nichols radioed dispatch, and then proceeded, along with Perez, to repeatedly ram the SUV, Pennington’s vehicle finally wedged between a cinder block wall by the side of a house and Nichols’ patrol car.

Perez leaped out of his patrol car, gun drawn, and took aim at Pennington from the passenger side of the SUV. He shouted at Pennington, whom he told investigators he could see with his hands on the steering wheel, “to get out on the ground. Stay where I can see you.” Perez told investigators he did not consider shooting Pennington because he “didn’t perceive a threat,” but rather circled around, intending to tackle him as he got out of the car.

Meanwhile, Nichols’ and Pennington’s cars were facing in opposite directions, the two drivers’ windows directly across from each other, barely three feet apart. While Pennington’s window was rolled down, Nichols’ was rolled up. Whether or not Pennington could hear him, Nichols shouted, according to the lawsuit: “Freeze or I will shoot you. Freeze.” He then shot Pennington through the closed police-car window twice in the chest. Although he later told investigators he did not know the driver, on Nichols’ audio recording, he shouted Pennington’s name while ordering him to the ground.

Nichols got out and then tried to pull the wounded Pennington out of the car, but his foot was stuck behind the steering column. “Fuck,” Nichols said, and left Pennington hanging upside down, the last seconds of his life pulsing away.

As law enforcement officials gathered in the driveway, the Penningtons’ lawsuit claims Nichols said, “There goes my job,” after realizing Perez’s dashboard camera was still on. Perez replied, “Sorry, man.” Documents from South Jordan Police, however, show that officers claimed it was Perez who bemoaned the future loss of employment, in reference to his previous demotion for violating chase policy.

A subsequent South Jordan Police internal review of the pursuit included several officers criticizing Crist for not supervising his subordinates’ chase, one officer even going so far as to say he would not work with either Crist or Perez after their behavior that night. In November 2009, Perez quit the South Jordan Police Department.

Nichols, on the other hand, despite violating policy by driving at high speed through two red lights in West Jordan without slowing before each intersection, was nevertheless deemed by one sergeant to have done “a great job.”

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