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At vigil for Stewart, a challenge to police power

Published June 6, 2013 7:04 am

Many marching to honor man in deadly raid say they've also had violent run-ins with police.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ogden • For many who attended a vigil for Matthew David Stewart on Wednesday evening, it was their own personal tragedies that tied them together.

In any other circumstance, many of the people who lit candles in honor of the man accused of opening fire on Weber Morgan Strike Force officers serving a search warrant at his Jackson Avenue home on Jan. 4, 2012, would have never met one another.

But Wednesday, as they remembered the Ogden man who committed suicide in jail May 24, they all shared stories about how their interactions with police turned violent or even deadly.

One recounted being beaten by a police officer 20 years ago. Another was arrested after recording a video of police officers.

The stories of others in attendance were more well-known, their names inked in newspapers after their interactions with police turned violent.

Todd May was shot with a Taser twice and punched eight times by Utah Highway Patrol officers after the officers thought the man was swallowing drugs.

Eric Hill was mistaken for a wanted man in December and placed in handcuffs after police armed with assault rifles and shotguns knocked on his door at 2 a.m. looking for a man who had gone AWOL from the military.

And Scott Simons recounted how he lost his daughter, who was fatally shot in Salt Lake City by the Joint Criminal Apprehension Team (JCAT) in January.

Simons said he attended Wednesday's vigil to take a stand against police tactics. He described his daughter, Kelly Simons, as someone who always excelled in school and who lettered in sports. She didn't fit the stereotype of someone who would be mixed up in a police shooting, he said.

"They [police] think we're gang members, but our kids are everyday kids," he said. "She was an everyday girl, and my daughter was murdered by JCAT."

Stewart was facing the death penalty, and had pleaded not guilty to a charge of aggravated murder in the death of Agent Jared Francom and seven first-degree felony counts of attempted aggravated murder for allegedly trying to kill other officers, and one second-degree felony count related to alleged marijuana cultivation. According to court documents, 16 pot plants were found in the home after the raid.

Several of the supporters who attended Wednesday's march wore T-shirts with the words, "I am Matthew Stewart," printed on the back. Sister-in-law Erna Stewart said the message is meant to symbolize that anyone could be a victim of police brutality.

"It can happen to anybody," she said. "It can happen to me. It can happen to her. For Eric Hill, it was just the wrong house."

As part of Wednesday's vigil, held near an elementary school on 45th Street and Madison Avenue, the group of about 50 people marched quietly to Weber County Attorney Dee Smith's nearby home.

Erna Stewart said they chose to stand in front of Smith's house because she believes he used a news conference called on the day of Matthew Stewart's death "to push his agenda."

At that news conference, Smith detailed the man's apparent suicide, then spoke about the details of the case, including addressing criticisms of police practices surrounding the warrant.

"He couldn't give us one day to grieve," Erna Stewart said. "I just want him to feel our pain. We are part of his community too, and you can't ignore a group of people."

But when the Stewart supporters came upon Smith's home, the top attorney was nowhere to be seen. Instead, a group of about 70 people — apparent supporters of Smith and officers involved in the raid — stood on Smith's lawn.

The two groups never exchanged words with one another. After a few moments of silence as the groups faced each other, the Stewart supporters were told by police that they could not stop in the street, and had to keep walking.

While the Stewarts' battle in the courtroom is over, Erna Stewart said their family and Matthew Stewart's supporters will continue to fight to change rules and laws that allow for home raids.

"We're not done," she said. "We're not finished."