This Utah agency has seen 2 unattended patrol cars stolen in the past year — with guns inside

When a car passed two Juab County deputies last May, traveling 10 mph slower than the 80mph speed limit, they noticed the driver seemed to be trying to hide his face.

Deputies Taylor Hurst and Mike Nielsen thought it seemed suspicious, they later wrote, and pulled the car over, noting that the driver didn’t signal for at least two seconds before switching lanes.

Their hunch was apparently right: Klein was hiding 9 pounds of meth in his rental car, a police report states. He was also wanted out of Minnesota, where he was suspected of stealing ammunition and shooting at police officers.

Minutes after being pulled over, Klein was presented with an opportunity to steal Hurst’s vehicle, along with the deputies’ guns inside of it, records show.

And while sitting unattended in the passenger seat of Hurst’s truck, Klein seized it — leading Utah Highway Patrol troopers on a brief chase toward Yuba Lake, where Klein lost control.

The pursuit culminated in a shootout with police near the state park. Bullets pierced police vehicles and debris whizzed past troopers. One of the trooper’s rounds struck Klein in the leg. He was taken into custody hours later, hiding in a riverbed.

Documents show that the sheriff’s office later reprimanded Hurst for “lapses in officer safety that contributed to the loss of department issued property.”

He didn’t secure his car, they found, and he wasn’t wearing “appropriate department issued attire” or body armor. He received a verbal warning, documents state.

Less than a year later, another Juab County deputy’s patrol car was stolen, according to a news release this month. The vehicle had been left unattended as it warmed up in the sheriff’s office parking lot on a chilly March morning.

The traffic stop

Deputies Hurst and Nielsen first spotted James Klein around 4 pm on May 19, driving a 2021 Nissan Altima on Interstate 15.

“The driver’s body language seemed unusual and not commonly observed as to what I would consider normal from my training and experience,” Hurst wrote in a police report. “Individuals displaying this type of behavior are likely to be engaged in some illegal activity.”

Hurst pulled over the car at 4:05 pm and asked Klein to get out, placing him in his patrol vehicle as he checked Klein’s records. Nielsen stayed with Klein’s girlfriend, who was in the rental car.

Hurst asked Klein — whose driver license was from Minnesota — what he was doing in Utah, according to the report. As Klein sat in the patrol vehicle, “beads of sweat r[an] down the side of his forehead.” He was breathing quickly.

At about 4:09 pm, trooper Dustin Griffiths arrived. The three law enforcement officers then gathered around Klein’s car before Hurst searched it, going through the trunk at about 4:13 pm, when he asked Griffiths to keep an eye on Klein.

“As Trooper Griffiths agreed and turned around, he stated the male (Klein) was stealing my patrol vehicle,” Hurst wrote. “I turned around and observed Klein in the driver seat of my patrol vehicle as it accelerated at a high rate of speed away.”

It was 4:17 pm Hurst’s loaded AR-15 and a K-9 officer named Thor were inside the representative’s car.

Klein lost control of the vehicle about a minute later, as Griffiths and another Highway Patrol trooper followed him. In the ensuing shootout, Klein allegedly fired first, at 4:19 pm

Over the course of the next minute, investigators believe Klein fired about a dozen rounds at responding authorities. He hit Griffiths’ patrol car 11 times. One bullet pierced his windshield and broke his computer.

Griffiths later told investigators that he felt debris hitting his legs as he was being shot at; he wasn’t sure if it was bullets or shrapnel.

At 4:20 pm, a white SUV pulled up on the scene near the state park. The occupants, a man and woman, saw the flashing lights of police vehicles and stopped. Klein ran out in front of them, holding the rifle.

Griffiths screamed, waving for the SUV driver to “go, go go.” Klein tried to open its driver’s side door, pointing the rifle through the window at the man and woman and threatening to shoot if they didn’t give him a ride, according to a probable cause statement.

The passenger grabbed the barrel of the gun and pushed it away just before a bullet fired, the dashboard and deploying the airbags hitting. The pair were able to drive away as Klein fired again, hitting the passenger in his knee.

With the SUV out of the way, troopers shot back at Klein, who ran for cover behind a sheriff’s vehicle. Trooper Jeff Blankenagel then shot at the only target he said he could see: Klein’s legs.

Struck, Klein soon snuck away, down an embankment and into a culvert under the highway before following a wash to the Sevier River. About three hours later, Utah County SWAT found him hiding, just before 7:40 pm

Klein was charged with 12 felonies in Utah’s 4th District Court in connection with the alleged theft and shootout, including four counts of attempted aggravated murder. He faces drug trafficking and weapons charges in federal court.

Records show an internal investigation found Hurst violated department rules by turning his back on Klein, failing to search him and leaving him alone in his car.

The second deputy, Nielsen, also was given a written “counsel,” instructing him to have all the necessary on-hand tools for a traffic stop, like body armor and portable radio, records show.

The Juab County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on the case. The Salt Lake Tribune learned of Hurst’s discipline in a letter from the Juab County Attorney after monthslong open records dispute.

The sheriff’s office has denied requests for internal affairs and disciplinary records related to the shootout, arguing that their release would jeopardize Klein’s chances for a fair trial. The case is scheduled to go before the State Records Committee in April; Klein’s federal jury trial is currently slated for May.

The second stolen vehicle

In the latest case, two guns were left inside the unattended Juab County patrol vehicle that was stolen early March 8, according to a news release.

A deputy had left the car running in the agency’s parking lot to warm it up around the same time that a man arrested the day before — on suspicion of breaking into someone’s car — was released from jail.

The man walked up to the running vehicle, opened the door and drove off, according to a probable cause statement.

Police later punctured the vehicle’s tires, stopping it on I-15 in Millard County. They returned the man to jail. He’s since been charged with three felony counts of theft.

The Juab County Sheriff’s Office attributed the theft to a malfunction of the representative’s truck, which “did not lock, even after the Detective locked it with his key fob,” according to the news release.

But warming a vehicle unattended is something authorities routinely warn residents not to do. In February, Salt Lake City police advised: “Leaving a vehicle running and unattended is an easy target for a thief…A slightly cold ride is better than a really cold walk.”

It’s unclear if Hurst or Nielsen were involved in the second case. Officials declined to release the name of the officer who left his vehicle unattended that morning, citing an ongoing internal investigation.

It remains unclear if the unnamed deputy has faced, or will face, any discipline in connection to the theft.

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