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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Utah man tied to death of South Salt Lake police officer gets up to 30 years in prison

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That’s all the time it took for Felix Calata to make the decision to aim his Chevrolet Impala at police who were trying to stop him, step on the gas pedal, and run over South Salt Lake Police Officer David Romrell.

Jeffrey Black was sitting in the passenger seat that November afternoon in 2018 when Romrell was killed. But his defense attorney said at Black’s sentencing hearing Tuesday he didn’t know Calata ran over a police officer and didn’t have the time to try to stop him.

“He would have tried to do something, but he didn’t know what [Calata] was going to do,” attorney Heidi Buchi said Tuesday.

After Calata struck Romrell with his vehicle, police opened fire and killed the 31-year-old man.

Black pleaded guilty to manslaughter and burglary, both second-degree felonies, for his role in Romrell’s Nov. 24, 2018 death. His attorney asked for leniency Tuesday, saying he wasn’t the one who killed Romrell. He knew he was coming along with Calata to “tax” someone and collect a debt, but didn’t ever intend to kill a police officer.

(Photo courtesy of South Salt Lake Police Department) Officer David Romrell

Black sobbed as he apologized to Romrell’s widow.

“I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” he said. “I’m just heartbroken for you and your family. I’d ask the court just to help me.”

But prosecutors say Black is not blameless. He went with Calata knowing they would be committing a crime. He made choices that led to Romrell’s death — and should pay that penalty. They urged 3rd District Judge Royal Hansen to hand down back-to-back sentences.

Hansen did just that, ordering Black to serve two one-to-15 year terms consecutive to one another. The parole board will have the ultimate say in how long Black remains behind bars, but the judge urged that Black be incarcerated for the maximum time.

“Defendant Black is responsible for the events as being party to these crimes,” the judge said. “He’s responsible for the carnage and death that took place … It’s logical to consider Officer Romrell a hero, performing his duty to protect our community.”

Romrell and his partner had responded to a report of a burglary that day at a business complex when they confronted Calata and Black in the Impala. A woman had called police, according to charging documents, telling them two people were trying to break into her home.

When the two officers spotted the Impala, they got out of their vehicles and yelled for the driver to stop. Calata instead accelerated, striking Romrell with the car and dragging him several feet.

Black later told police that they had been in the area to “tax” or take money from the woman, and they had tried to use a crowbar to pry open the woman’s door.

After Calata hit Romrell with the vehicle, police fired and killed the driver. Black ran away and hid in a boat for more than an hour to avoid being captured.

Prosecutors never accused Black of being behind the wheel. But he was still eligible to face the same penalties as the driver if prosecutors could show the homicide was committed “incident to an act, scheme, course of conduct, or criminal episode” where a serious crime was committed. In charging documents, prosecutors alleged Black was liable because the officer’s death occurred while Black was fleeing from a robbery and attempted burglary.

Black later told police he saw the police officers yelling for them to stop, according to charges, but thought they had hit a mailbox — not a police officer.

When it was Elizabeth Romrell’s chance to speak Tuesday, the police officer’s widow directed her tearful comments to her late husband. She recalled how their son was just months old when her husband was killed. He had given her the pet name “Critter,” and their son was “Baby Critter.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jackson and Elizabeth Romrell speak at the dedication ceremony of the David P. Romrell Public Safety Building on Sunday Nov. 24, 2019. The building is named after Officer Romrell (Elizabeth’s husband, Jackson’s father), who was killed in the line of duty on Nov. 24, 2018 .

She talked about how painful it has been without him, how people have asked her time and time again to recall their relationship and what their love was like.

She read letters that David had sent to her while he was training for the Marines.

“I love you, Liz,” one letter reads.

“It keeps me going knowing that you love me so much,” he wrote in another.

These were letters that the widow had only recently found, correspondence that she thought she had lost until she started the painful process of sorting through her husband’s belongings. They’re now a cherished possession, something she can show her son as they talk about who his father was.

“Your love was unconditional,” she said. “You loved me until the end of your days. I will never forget that.”

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