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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Jared Nichols’ South Jordan personnel file boasts commendations and letters of recommendation for his dedication to his work. He emerges as an assertive, tenacious officer, valued by South Jordan, according to one commendation, for his experience and knowledge dealing with gangs gleaned from an assignment to the Metro Gang Task Force. Nichols’ “proactive patrolling,” as a superior describes his approach to policing, extends to chasing down an unarmed juvenile Nichols later wrote had been involved “in causing mischief,” with his “duty weapon draw[n] and at low ready.” He also can display a temper. In November 2009, Nichols received a written warning for insubordination after he yelled at Crist following a training session. The warning noted “the current climate” between the sergeant and the officer, although whether that referred to Crist not backing him up while pursuing Pennington is unclear.

One past event not included in the personnel file Pennington’s family received through a records request was Nichols’ involvement in a prior shooting. Prisbey only knew Nichols had shot someone else while on duty because Perez mentioned in his interview with investigators that Nichols had just finished “initiating,” which Prisbey correctly surmised referred to a prior shooting Nichols had been involved in.

Twenty months before Pennington’s death, on July 14, 2007, Nichols and a second officer fatally shot white supremacist Darren Neil Greuber at an apartment complex on 5601 S. Redwood Road. At that time, Nichols was on assignment with the Metro Gang Unit. He had gone with a team of 11 officers, some members of Taylorsville’s SWAT team, to arrest Greuber as “a favor,” to a Taylorsville officer also assigned to the gang unit, according to Taylorsville Police Department documents. When the unarmed Greuber tried to escape by ramming his car against numerous parked cars, two officers, one of them Nichols, shot him.

Prisbey alleges the shooting-investigation team, which included Sgt. Leary of the District Attorney’s Office, failed to address key questions, the most important being a witness who claimed that someone shouted, “He’s got a gun, he’s got a gun.” In a situation such as the arrest of a man records show officers suspected was armed, those words would surely have been Greuber’s death warrant. Nowhere in the reports of interviews with the two officers, however, was that witness’ statement addressed.

A few hours after Pennington’s shooting, Leary and West Jordan Sgt. Travis Rees interviewed Perez. Two days later, they talked to Nichols. Nichols told the investigators that prior to the interview, he and his wife had been taken to dinner by his lieutenant, and Nichols had requested and been given a copy of his dashcam video to study.

Prisbey believes such stark collaboration with someone who is essentially a criminal suspect still pales, however, beside the lack of questions posed by investigators. Family members claim investigators did not ask Nichols why parts of his dashcam video had no audio; why, if he claimed he did not know the man he killed, he nevertheless called out his name; and why he tried to pull the body out of the car. That Leary saw fit not to mention Nichols’ prior shooting, especially since he himself investigated it, is equally difficult for the family to understand.

But the biggest question for Pennington’s family is why Nichols shot him. According to the transcript of Leary and Rees’ post-shooting interview with Nichols, he told Rees he shot Pennington because he “made a lunge towards me,” a move that made him feel “really uncomfortable.” Rees subsequently claimed in a report that Pennington “ignored all of the commands given by the officers and jumped out his window at Officer Nichols.” That Pennington could have managed to, in the last few seconds of his life, maneuver into position to jump out of his car doesn’t ring true for his family, particularly given that he died with one of his legs hooked under the SUV’s steering column.

Nichols went on to tell Rees he did as he was trained, saying, “Freeze or I’ll shoot. Freeze or I’ll shoot,” but Pennington “just kept coming.” Nichols had no time other than to perceive “he’s not complying to what I’m saying,” so he shot him.

Since the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court case of Tennessee v. Garner, officers who use deadly force against a fleeing suspect have to show he or she poses a significant threat of death or physical injury to the officer or others. After Leary and Rees took a break, they came back into the West Jordan interview room and pressured Nichols on one point: As Pennington “lunged” toward Nichols, “Were you scared?” Rees asked.

“I’m cornered,” Nichols said. “I don’t have anywhere to go. I’m—I don’t know what he’s going to do. I’m stuck in a car.”

“Were you scared?” Rees repeated.

“Yes, I was scared, I guess. I—I don’t know.”

No trajectory evidence, according to the reports provided to the Penningtons, was gathered to determine where Pennington was shot. If Pennington’s location when shot was shot isn’t clear, neither is when he died. Nichols requested medical care for Pennington but did not check Pennington’s vitals, he told the investigators, as he appeared dead. “I just walked away from the scene,” He was pissed, he said, that Pennington “made me do what I had to do.” The lawsuit claims “neither Nichols nor Perez did anything to assist Pennington, even though Nichols knew Pennington was still alive.”

Of all the lingering questions surrounding the death of Wade Pennington, one of the most painful for his family is why he ran in the first place.

Dawn Boggs, the mother of Pennington’s son Tyler, says Pennington was afraid of very little. One day, while out fishing, she joked, “Wade, the cops are gonna get ya.” He replied, “They won’t shoot a guy like me.”

But when she saw him on the dashcam video, “I knew by the look on his face, he was scared to death. He knew they were out to get him.” Normally, she says, after a few minutes, Pennington, who had successfully evaded capture by the police in the past, would have given himself up. But that night “he knew something was wrong,” she says. “At some point in those [final] minutes, he knew if he didn’t get away from [Nichols] he was going to die.”

A year and half after Pennington’s death, the wound it opened in the lives of those who loved him refuses to heal. “None of us can get past it,” Boggs says. “We meet up at La Frontera” where he used to gather the family, “but it’s not the same.” His son, Boggs says, has been plagued by depression since his father’s death, and will “literally not come out of his room.”

Girlfriend Russell says, her voice breaking, that law enforcement “has no idea what they took away.” His mother says she can never “be fully happy again,” can never forgive Nichols nor the police departments that lied to her family, painting Pennington as a dangerous, violent man that he never was.

“No dollar amount can bring him back,” Judy Pennington says about the family’s lawsuit. “They took something very precious to me. They took my son.”

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