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DA rules shooting of Murray woman justified, suggests “systemic breakdown” in mental health response

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill walked through the findings of his investigation on Oct. 16, 2020. Photo: KSL NewsRadio via Facebook Live.

MURRAY, Utah — The Salt Lake County District Attorney Office ruled the shooting that wounded a woman at a Murray apartment complex justified on Friday, seven months after the shooting. However, District Attorney Sim Gill noted shortcomings in the system may highlight larger problems with police and the mentally ill. 

Police arrested Rhonda St. Onge in mid-March after her release from the hospital. At the time, police booked her into jail for investigation of assault on a police officer, aggravated assault and felony discharge of a firearm.

According to Gill, neighbors reported seeing the woman, identified as, walking around the apartment complex, waving a gun days prior to the shooting. On March 5, 2020, an officer accompanied another person performing a welfare check as the result of one of those calls when the officer heard a gunshot coming from inside the apartment and called for backup, Gill said. 

Warning: body camera footage may show disturbing images or language

In the body camera footage Gill played during his announcement, you can hear officers calling through the door to try to get St. Onge to open the door and talk. She does not respond to repeated requests. 

“They’re concerned about the safety of other residents there,” Gill noted as he narrated the video playback, while officers on film knocked on the neighbors’ doors. “Their concern was, maybe she was injured, maybe she had injured herself, and they didn’t know what the status was.” 

The officers eventually used a landlord’s key to gain entry to the apartment. Gill noted they also worried about the safety of the woman’s neighbors. Not all of the officers responding wore body cameras. 

The shooting of the Murray woman

As the officers open the door, the video reveals officers yelling for St. Onge to “put the gun down,” then asking if she has been hurt. Gill said one of the officers testified as the door opened, St. Onge faced them in a “shooter’s stance.” The video itself on this point did not completely corroborate the statement; however, Gill noted St. Onge’s legs can be seen in a position consistent with the statement. Gill also stated other officers at the scene corroborated the testimony. 

One officer fired a shot in the moments of confusion that followed the opening of the door. After the gunshot, officers said St. Onge was on the ground with a gunshot wound. Gill says St. Onge was shot in the abdomen and was taken to the hospital for treatment. No officers were injured during the shooting.

Police found three weapons in the apartment, further backing up the claims of the officers involved. 

The officer who fired the shot was placed on paid administrative leave during the investigation, but Friday, Gill said his office found the shooting was likely justified and he would not charge the officer. 

Ultimately, St. Onge has not yet faced the charges for which she was arrested. The court ordered her to receive treatment for mental illness over the summer with the goal of restoring mental competency to stand trial. 

Systemic breakdown

Gill noted the Murray woman shooting is not an isolated incident. He said police increasingly must respond to situations involving mental health, suggesting systemic breakdown places people with mental illness in positions that make them more likely to encounter police. 

“These individuals are released without the continuity of support [they need],” Gill said. “And then we wait for the intersection of these individuals with our law enforcement… we need to take better resources are made available to these individuals.” 

“I’ve looked at over 103 officer-involved shootings and conservatively, conservatively, one-third of them” involve people with underlying mental health concerns, Gill said. 

Gill also stated families with members who have mental health issues are warry of contacting the police because of how it can escalate, however they are often left with no other choice. 

“My fear is that we’re going to continue to have these interactions,” Gill said. “We need to have a different approach to address this.” 

Gill advocated for a bill before the Utah legislature which would ensure a plan of care for people with mental illness once they leave facilities such as the Utah State Hospital. 

“What is in place [now] is the shell of a system,” Gill said. “It’s a public health issue; it should not be a criminal justice issue.”