Police video shows how drug raid turned deadly
By Erin Alberty
The Salt Lake Tribune
Published: December 24, 2010 06:54AM
Shouts break the evening silence.
“Police! Search warrant!”
Officers burst through the door. A man appears across the room. Metal glints from his clasped hands. Shots echo from a police-issue Glock 22. Todd Blair slumps to the floor.
“Five seconds,” said Blair’s mother, Arlean. “In five seconds, he was dead.”
Officers entered Blair’s home Sept. 16 during a drug raid when he stepped into the hall, wielding a golf club, police video shows. Ogden police Sgt. Troy Burnett shot Blair, 45, in the head and chest.
The shooting was deemed legally justified.
“They could have handled it a lot better,” Arlean Blair countered. “They could have tasered him. They could have done a lot of things other than shoot him.”
Investigation reports obtained by The Tribune depict an operation that took some unexpected turns away from protocol before that one explosive moment.
Grounds for search • Whether Todd Blair was a meth dealer or just a well-connected addict is a matter of dispute. Investigators from Weber and Morgan counties began watching Blair in 2009 after hearing that he was letting drug dealers live at his home in exchange for their products, according to the search warrant request. There were previous reports of meth traffic to and from the home, near 5900 South and 2600 West in Roy.
Investigators gathered evidence that it was Blair’s roommate, Melanie Chournos, buying and selling meth — a factor in the no-knock search that would precede Blair’s death.
Detectives later saw Blair leaving for short, nighttime trips, which suggested drug trades, they wrote. Two tipsters claimed that they had seen Blair — not just Chournos — handing drugs to customers.
Investigators, however, didn’t report seeing Blair make a transaction.
“He was not a dealer,” Arlean Blair insists. “I know that he used ... but he was not a drug dealer. A drug dealer has lots of money and nice things. If you looked in his house, he had nothing. He gave everything away to people who were having trouble.”
Two of Blair’s friends claimed they never saw him even use drugs, but others told police he had caved in to his meth addiction.
“He was paranoid,” Candice Coburn — Blair’s on-again, off-again girlfriend — is quoted as saying in a police interview. “His brain was fried. He would punch and yell at invisible people and me.”
Coburn has told The Tribune that she described no such delusions to police, nor did she ever witness them.
“He really was a nice person,” she said. “We had our fights, but ... he was always giving, always helpful.”
On Sept. 16, the day of Blair’s death, Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force investigator Shane Keyes received word that Blair had 2 ounces of heroin and would be getting more that night. Keyes asked 2nd District Judge Scott M. Hadley for a no-knock, nighttime search warrant because house “lookouts” were known to give warning when police were nearby. Meth dissolves quickly, Keyes added, and “if given the opportunity, Chournos will destroy the evidence.”
However, the warrant doesn’t mention that Chournos had already moved out of Blair’s home — a development officers noted in interviews after his death.
“I had been told that there was some ... domestic violence,” said Weber County sheriff’s Sgt. Nate Hutchinson, who was involved with the raid.
Blair was living alone. Because of the reports of violence, officers decided to wait until he left, pull him over in his Pontiac Grand Am and then search the empty house.
“Dynamic entry” • That night, officers saw people come and go from the home. Finally, a man matching Blair’s description got into the car with a woman and drove away.
Officers pulled them over, but instead found it was Blair’s friend, who had been staying with him. Police released the couple and returned their attention to Blair’s home.
The SWAT team prepared for a “dynamic entry” — breaking through the door and subduing anyone inside.
Normally, that involves extensive planning, officers said in investigation interviews.
“A PowerPoint presentation is typically put together (and) a briefing of everybody sitting around the round table in our office ... and all the details are laid out as far as the suspect, the location, the route in, the ... evacuation points and ... where the closest medical [facility] is,” officer Brandon Beck said in a transcribed interview with county investigators.
Instead, the team gathered at a nearby retirement home to go over the plan.
To do a dynamic entry without the in-office briefing is “absolutely not our standard,” said Burnett, the officer who shot Blair, during an interview with investigators.
On the video, minutes before the raid begins, an officer can be heard asking the group, “Did somebody grab a copy of the warrant off my desk?”
“Oh, don’t tell me that,” Burnett replies. He then tells the other officers, “He doesn’t have a copy of the warrant.”
Because the warrant was for a no-knock search, the copy wasn’t necessary to enter the house, Weber County Attorney Dee Smith said.
“Someone could have easily hurried and brought it back [from the office],” he said.
There is no time limit for when a warrant should be presented to a subject, agreed Ogden Police Chief Jon Greiner — “it depends on the situation” — but generally when a warrant is served, “It’s in [officers’] possession at the time.”
As the raid played out, Blair wouldn’t ask for the warrant anyway.
Officers rush in • Burnett was assigned to lead the team in. It wouldn’t be his first use of deadly force — in 2006, he shot and killed white supremacist William Glen Maw after Maw fled from a traffic stop and then turned and pointed a gun at Burnett. Then-Weber County District Attorney Mark De Caria commended him for his bravery.
Outside Blair’s house, Burnett held his .40-caliber Glock 22 “at the low ready,” with a round in the chamber. Six other officers were behind him. It was about 9:30 p.m. when they began to yell, “Police! Search warrant!”
After three strikes on the door, it burst open.
Accounts of what happened next vary by a second here and a foot there.
Those minutiae matter, Smith said.
“We actually broke [the video] down frame by frame,” he said.
The second man in, Ogden officer Jared Francom, said Burnett had gotten “about one foot in the door” when gunfire erupted.
“The door flew open. I was first in the door. I went to the right to ... a living-room area. ... I moved to the right to dig my corners.
“[The number of] feet from the front door to where I first saw him, I don’t know ... eight feet from inside the front door, but I had went ... to the right. I don’t know how far.”
Blair appeared in the door frame holding a MacGregor Lite golf club in the stance of a right-handed batter.
“He had some silver thing. ... I thought it was a sword or something,” Burnett said. “It was silverish and thin.
“I didn’t think about saying words. I just thought about not getting hit, or slashed or whatever.”
The distance from Burnett to Blair has been estimated between “a little more than an arm’s length away,” according to Burnett, to 8 feet, as reflected by a scale diagram showing positions of the shell casings.
“There’s no way to say an exact measure,” Smith said.
Also important is whether Blair was moving toward the officers. Blair initially wasn’t in the doorway but appeared about a second later — technically an “approach,” Smith said. Then he appears to take “about two steps into the doorway with the club raised,” Smith said.
Burnett didn’t remember Blair advancing.
“I’m sure that I was moving forward,” he said. “I don’t know if he was. He was just — it seemed like he was just kind of still. ... I can’t recall him chasing after me. I don’t recall that. He was just right there.”
Francom said, “It appeared to me that he was coming toward us. But there wasn’t much time for him to make too much of an advance before.”
Ultimately, Smith said, it was Burnett who didn’t have time to wait.
“Our best conclusion is it would have taken less than half a second for Mr. Blair to close that gap and strike the officer,” he said.
Aftermath • Video after the shooting shows an officer putting handcuffs on Blair and searching for a pulse. Burnett orders a call to medics and stays in the front room, while other officers search the house.
“Everybody out,” Burnett says. “This is a different crime scene now.”
It isn’t clear from evidence logs whether investigators found the drugs they were looking for. There was paraphernalia and “a small, pink plastic bag with a white crystal substance.”
But neither the substance nor its amount is identified, and officials with the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force didn’t return The Tribune’s calls for comment.
Ogden police investigated the shooting independently and agreed it was justified.
“He had less than a second to make a decision with a guy swinging what looked like a sword in his hands,” Greiner said. “We train these officers regularly on how to defend themselves and be able to go home at night.”
He said his department also reviewed strategies for no-knock search warrants.
“We’ve discussed a couple of ways as to how we can be more careful,” he said without elaborating. “The problem is, what you’re looking for could easily be destroyed and there’s generally weapons. ... I just don’t know an easy way to get in there.”
Blair’s family has obtained a copy of the video and reports. Neither Arlean Blair nor her two daughters have viewed them.
“No way,” said Todd Blair’s sister, Delene Hyde. “How could I watch my brother’s murder?”
The family has discussed suing police but hasn’t finalized anything.
“We decided to let it rest until after Christmas,” Arlean Blair said. “Christmas is a special time in our family — him [Todd Blair] included.”
Editor’s note: The story has been updated to reflect that Candice Coburn’s remarks were quoted from police reports. Coburn has since told The Tribune that she never saw Blair “punch and yell at invisible people” and made no such statement to police.
Utah’s deadly force law
76-2-404. Peace officer’s use of deadly force.
(1) A peace officer, or any person acting by his command in his aid and assistance, is justified in using deadly force when:
(c) the officer reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to the officer or another person.
(2) If feasible, a verbal warning should be given by the officer prior to any use of deadly force under Subsection (1)(c).
In order to show the public how the events unfolded, The Tribune has posted a video of the raid online at www.sltrib.com
Disgusting. I used to respect cops when I was a kid. Now - well - we will leave that alone.
Taxpayer financed street gangs.