Mother seeks answers in daughter's fatal shooting in Utah

Vancouver woman will attend protest in that state today

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian breaking news reporter

Published:

 
photo Police officers investigate an officer-involved shooting in West Valley, Utah, on Nov. 2 that took the life of Danielle Willard of Vancouver.

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More than two months after she learned her daughter was shot and killed by police in Utah, Melissa Kennedy of Vancouver is unable to accept the loss of her child. The reason for that is that most of her questions have gone unanswered.

"They talk about the different stages of grief that you go through. You say, 'It must be a mistake, it can't be my daughter.' Then realization hits, and you just crumble. It didn't take long for me to ask, 'Wait, what's going on here?'" she said.

Police remain tight-lipped about the events that led them to shoot 21-year-old Danielle Willard of Vancouver twice in the head.

Detectives from West Valley City Police, which borders Salt Lake City to the southwest, were conducting a drug investigation at an apartment complex about 1:30 p.m. Nov. 2 when the officer-involved shooting took place. Two detectives involved in the incident were put on administrative leave.

But beyond that, Kennedy said, she doesn't know much.

When contacted for this story, West Valley City Police Deputy Chief Mike Powell said he would not release any more information until the completion of the investigation.

Protest set for today

The lack of information is a focus of a protest scheduled today in Utah outside of the West Valley City Police Department. It would have been Danielle Willard's birthday.

"She would have been 22," her mother said. Kennedy has flown to the area for the occasion to act as her daughter's voice.

She admits that her dedication to learning the truth is a way for her to avoid dealing with the grief.

"Right now, as long as I stay focused on finding out what happened, I'm OK," Kennedy said. "It's when I sit down and think about the fact that she's not here anymore, that she won't be here anymore … that's when I can't handle it."

Kennedy sent Willard to a sober living rehab facility in Utah in April after watching her daughter struggle with heroin addiction for two years. From what Kennedy could tell, her daughter was doing well when she visited Vancouver in August and when she talked to her on the phone.

Willard had called her mother the day before her death, telling her how excited she was that her application had just been accepted for a one-bedroom apartment.

Coworkers told Kennedy that Willard left work to turn in her deposit when police contacted her at the apartments, where the shooting took place.

"The only thing I know is, she left work at 1:09 p.m. and she was pronounced dead within 25 minutes from the time she got off work," Kennedy said.

Others also find the Vancouver woman's death suspicious.

Jesse Fruhwirth, an activist in the Salt Lake City area, has helped organize the protest. He has never met Willard, but said he's behind the demand for justice because something doesn't seem right.

"Police almost always have a story that tends to make it seem reasonable that they killed someone," he said. "They haven't accused her of holding any weapon, they haven't accused her of driving a vehicle. … They haven't said anything; and to me, that is highly indicative of guilty individuals."

Kennedy said that many of those she has talked to in Utah take one look at a picture of the 100-pound, 5-foot 7-inch girl and know that the story doesn't add up.

She is quick to add, though, that the only thing that will help her move forward is to get more information.

"I don't think anything will give me closure, but it will help me understand what happened -- whether it was her fault or not," she said. "Just getting the truth out will help me so that I'm not so focused on what happened … So I can focus on how to live the rest of my life knowing my oldest daughter is dead."

Emily Gillespie: 360-735-4522; http://twitter.com/col_cops;emily.gillespie@columbian.com.