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Driver charged with manslaughter in 2019 death of Valley police officer

Jerry Sanstead (Maricopa County Sheriff's Office via AP)

PHOENIX – The man behind of the wheel of the vehicle that struck and killed a Valley police officer in Scottsdale was charged with manslaughter last month, nearly two years after the incident.

On Nov. 17, a grand jury indicted Jerry Don Sanstead Jr. in the Jan. 8, 2019, death of Salt River Police Officer Clayton Townsend.

Sanstead, 42, was issued a summons, and his arraignment was set for Dec. 17, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office said Thursday. The trial is scheduled to start in May, according to court records.

The indictment accuses Sanstead of recklessly causing Townsend’s death. The indictment also alleges that the manslaughter count is a dangerous felony because it “involved the discharge, use, or threatening exhibition of a vehicle, a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument” as defined under state statute.

In June 2019, the Arizona Department of Public Safety released a 254-page report on the incident, which occurred on the northbound Loop 101 near McDowell Road around 6 p.m.

Townsend was conducting a traffic stop and talking to the driver through driver’s window when he was hit.

According to the report, Sanstead drifted across three lanes of traffic and “failed to observe the police vehicle for approximately 17 to 28 seconds” before the collision.

Sanstead admitted to officers that he had been using his phone to send voice messages and read texts from his wife before the crash, police said.

According to the report, he also told officers that he did not see the police lights and was “in the process of a cleanse” at the time, which may have caused him to pass out.

Witnesses told police that they saw Sanstead in his car holding a phone and not paying attention to the road.

The report also stated that during the booking process, Sanstead suffered “an unknown medical condition and fell and struck his head.”

He was then transported to a medical center where a nurse said he had suffered an injury to the left side of his tongue from him biting it, an injury consistent with seizures, according to the report.

After the collision, Sanstead was booked into jail on charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and endangerment, but the indictment is just for manslaughter.

Townsend sustained head trauma during the impact and later died at a hospital. The driver of the vehicle that he had pulled over suffered non-life-threatening injuries.

Townsend worked for the Salt River Police Department for five years and left behind a wife and then-10-month-old child.

His death fueled efforts to pass a statewide ban on distracted driving, which was enacted in April 2019 and will take effect next month.

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