Closing Words by Rev. Tom Goldsmith Volume 3

17 September 2020


With much national attention focused on police brutality, unleashed mostly in communities of color, I want to remind us all (for the record) that our church got embroiled in this issue back in 1987. It was a tragic episode in our church’s history that bears retelling. We have no written account of the circumstances surrounding the police shooting that brought tremendous sorrow to our congregation. 

It happened almost immediately after I arrived in Salt Lake. Barely two months into my ministry here, I was leading the congregation in a wrongful death suit against the Salt Lake Police Department. I left New England Unitarianism looking for a more engaging congregation, but I was not expecting anything quite this fast or intense.   

My ministry in New England suddenly seemed far away. I felt compelled to seek a church that was not preoccupied with its own 17th century historical roots, or simply busy counting the largess of its long-accumulated endowment. It was on a beautiful late afternoon with Salt Lake flashing its exquisite autumnal foliage when I received an unforgettable call from the church’s custodian, Sonja Garcia.  

The church’s campus looked quite different in the late 80’s. There was a bungalow on the plot where we currently find the Memorial Garden. The CCNS pre-school used the bungalow as their facility. Before that, it served as the church’s manse or parsonage. The ministers who lived there did not have far to commute, but it was a bit too close to the church to allow the parson as much as room to sneeze that wasn’t within earshot of the congregation. 

The church also owned another bungalow where we currently find the garden. That is where the Garcias lived. Sonja would clean the church in exchange for free rent. It was a good arrangement for everyone. She was young and vibrant and we all enjoyed one another’s company. Her husband, who spoke virtually no English, was extremely shy with a kind smile, would often wait for Sonia while sitting on a pew in Eliot Hall. He liked to escort her home, all 200 feet. 

Tragedy strikes unsuspectingly, even on a splendid afternoon when the world seems at peace. Sonja called me at home, terribly concerned about her husband. He was feeling depressed and brandished a handgun. She worried he could be of danger either to himself, or possibly someone else. She called the police to get help for her husband. He jumped into his car and drove off with the police in pursuit. Hours had passed, and Sonia still received no word. I told her I would call the hospitals to see if we could locate him.  University Hospital told me that the cops brought in a corpse that still needed to be identified. I picked up Sonia and we went to the ER. A sheet was pulled away from his face, and our worst fears were confirmed.

News accounts the following day proved extremely suspicious. Eight cops chased Mr. Garcia up Emigration Canyon until the road ended. One cop, David Madsen, who won Policeman of the Year the previous year, quoted the victim as threatening the cops with a stream of violence as though it flowed from the tough-guy mouth of John Wayne. Madsen ended Garcia’s life with a shotgun blast. He claimed it was self-defense.  

The image of Garcia screaming a bucket load of abuses in the vernacular was a distant reality for a shy man who could speak maybe a half dozen words in English. Our church members felt strongly that the police version was totally fabricated. We held an emergency Board meeting and voted to file an unlawful death suit against the Salt Lake Police Department. We held a press conference in Eliot Hall the next afternoon. The room was flooded with media. We were gaining traction in the court of public opinion. 

The church secured the legal services of Kathy Collard, one of the best attorneys in the city, and who handled many high-profile cases. She was outraged by the police actions and worked pro bono. Kathy said only one of the seven cops who witnessed the murder would need to break rank to have a case. She would interview each cop separately. None of the officers veered from the storyline. Our faith in human decency began to wane. 

I received an unexpected call from Channel 4 news anchor, Phil Riesen. He wanted to thank our church and encourage us to continue our pursuit of holding the police accountable.  Riesen had compiled a very long list over the years of Officer Madsen’s brutal and cruel treatment of people of color.  

But over time, the wrongful death suit dissolved as we had no legal recourse. Although all police witnesses of the murder refused to cooperate with our attorney, we knew we had made a powerful statement to the community and put the police on notice.  

After a few more years passed I received a final call from Phil Riesen. His first words were: “We got our man.” He explained that Madsen left the Salt Lake Police Force not long after we pursued the wrongful death suit. He went to work for the police department in Phoenix. He was now in prison there for shooting and killing his wife.  Riesen concluded: “I wish we could have stopped him.” I agreed and added, “We tried.” 

Thirty-three years have passed since Garcia’s body was identified. There were no video cams on police officers then; no witnesses up Emigration Canyon who could have filmed the incident on their phones. This past summer finally gave the public enough footage of the horrors inflicted on people of color that rage could no longer be contained. The protests this summer, ignited by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in particular, were really an extension of a brutal reality known by black and brown communities for a very long time. Our church experienced it up close, and asked the same question as raised today: Where are the social services that could de-escalate tensions with the police? Where are the professionals who can help people suffering through depression and other mental health crises? Aren’t there trained personnel for such life-threatening encounters? 

Today we hear the call to “defund the police.” The law and order folks in our country deliberately misinterpret this as stripping police officers of their firearms. This was never the intent. The call to defund signaled a redistribution of funds to pay for professional social workers and mental health experts who can save lives. This is the protocol of all civilized nations around the world.  

I want to take a moment to share my initial impression of our church, as it moved quickly into high gear. It confirmed for me an unyielding commitment to justice. Not all accounts of our church filing a wrongful death against the police were well received by the public. Nevertheless, we pursued that which we felt needed to be done to give a voice to those living on the margins who are so easily discounted.  

Some of you noticed, without knowing the history, how emotional it was for me to present former Salt Lake Police Chief, Chris Burbank with our Fairly Free Thinker award. I felt proud of the progress made over the decades in our relationship with the Salt Lake Police. Our current police chief, Mike Brown, gave me his private cell number in the event we needed help as a sanctuary church.  

But the police force, even now, has not demonstrated best practices in several circumstances. A tremendous amount of retraining still needs to be done. Bringing new professionals on board to help people suffering from mental anguish will help tremendously in avoiding unnecessary deaths.  

In some small way we played a role in the continuing struggles felt in cities across our nation in repairing relationships between police and community. It’s a poignant part of our church’s history. We are indeed an institutional champion of human rights. I could not be more proud.

Tom Goldsmith