John A. Steakely

Attorney John Steakley is a 1996 graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law. He began his career as the Special Prosecutor for Drug Crimes for a multi-county, multi-agency drug task force in Tennessee, where he represented the State of Tennessee in thousands of felony and misdemeanor cases in a 5-county judicial district.

War on Drugs Claims Another Officer's Life

War on Drugs Claims Another Officer's Life

In Ogden, Utah, the War on Drugs has claimed the life of another officer.  

The tip about the marijuana plants came from an ex-girlfriend of Stewart's named Stacy Wilson. They had dated for about a year and a half but broke up in the summer of 2010. Erna Stewart introduced them. "I still feel guilty about that," she says. "He caught her cheating on him, they broke up, and it ended really badly. She was angry with him. He was heartbroken. She tried to get him fired from his job. She really had it out for him."

. . .

According to police documents, Wilson called the tip line in November 2010, two months before the raid, and spoke with Officer Jason Vanderwarf. Vanderwarf visited Stewart's house three times, but no one answered. After finding what he described as signs of a marijuana grow, however, he filed an affidavit to get the warrant.

That appears to be the extent of the investigation. The police never ran a background check on Wilson to assess her credibility. In fact, after their initial conversation, Vanderwarf said that he was "unable to contact her." He later told investigators that "She kinda fell off the face of the earth."

While there has been outrage over the death of the officer and the wounding of five others, there is also outrage over the use of military-style, life-or-death tactics employed in response to a victimless, non-violent crime such as growing marijuana. 

In the months following the raid, a number of other controversial police actions hit the news. Police in Salt Lake City broke into the home of a 76-year-old woman during a mistaken drug raid. A SWAT team in Ogden went to the wrong address in search of a man who had gone AWOL from the Army and ended up pointing its guns at an innocent family of four. Two narcotics detectives shot and killed a young woman in a suburb of Salt Lake City as she sat in her car.

Together, these incidents have spawned a budding police reform movement in Utah. At the head of it, Stewart's family members have been joined by a political odd couple: Jesse Fruhwirth, a longtime progressive activist rabble-rouser, and Connor Boyack, a wonky libertarian with a background in Republican politics. And independently, in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, the police chief and lead prosecutor have already begun to adopt some unconventional, reform-minded approaches to crime and punishment.

In the Ken Burns documentary "Prohibition", Burns interviews the son of a law enforcement officer shot and killed in an alcohol raid during Prohibition, just a few years before alcohol was re-legalized.  I would wager that years from now, the loved ones of this officer will look back and question why officers were expected to risk their lives over something like marijuana prohibition.  Applying a cost-benefit analysis, I question whether it is worth it.

This is one of a six-part series on the Utah movement to reform aggressive police tactics in drug cases.  

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