MCAO to dismiss charges against man charged in Valley officer’s death

Jun 25, 2021, 3:05 PM | Updated: 3:13 pm
Jerry Sanstead (Maricopa County Sheriff's Office via AP)...
Jerry Sanstead (Maricopa County Sheriff's Office via AP)
(Maricopa County Sheriff's Office via AP)

PHOENIX — The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office filed a motion Friday to dismiss charges against the man behind of the wheel of the vehicle that struck and killed a Valley police officer in Scottsdale more than two years ago.

County Attorney Allister Adel said that a key witness’ pending criminal charges out of state and an expert medical opinion offering a non-criminal explanation for the Jan. 8, 2019, crash led to the decision to drop the manslaughter charge against Jerry Don Sanstead Jr.

Salt River Police Officer Clayton Townsend, 26, died after he was hit by Sanstead’s vehicle on Loop 101 while conducting a traffic stop.

“This office sought charges based on the evidence we had at that time,” Adel said in a press release. “However, over the life a case, information sometimes becomes available that impacts our ability to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt.

“In this case, two new crucial pieces of evidence came to light after the presentation to the grand jury.”

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.

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.”

Two experts concluded in March that a seizure was more likely the explanation for the crash than Sanstead’s phone usage.

The dismissal was issued without prejudice, meaning charges could be re-filed.

“I want the community to know that we do not take decisions of this nature lightly,” Adel said. “The loss of life that night will be felt by Officer Townsend’s family and friends as well as the entire law enforcement community and the local community he served forever.

“Officer Townsend gave his life in service to his community and should never be forgotten.”

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 is now law.

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MCAO to dismiss charges against man charged in Valley officer’s death