Former prosecutor questions WCSO’s handling of fatal Conklin Road crash investigation

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Nearly a year after investigators said a repeat DUI offender drove drunk, crashed and ultimately killed a woman before fleeing to Mexico, the district attorney and sheriff say they continue to stand by every decision they’ve made in the case, but a former prosecutor now says the Washington County Sheriff’s Office could have and should have arrested the illegal immigrant shortly after the crash.

“I told them to arrest him and they never did,” Joe Shults said of Alan Mogollon-Anaya. “I said, ‘If you can’t arrest him right now due to whatever his medical condition is, you be ready to arrest him if he ever leaves that hospital. If you can arrest him right now, arrest him.'”

While Shults maintains he repeatedly voiced his opinion to the investigating deputy that the sheriff’s office needed to arrest Mogollon-Anaya early on, WCSO administrators adamantly deny his claim, saying his first documented conversation with the deputy in question came five days after the deadly crash.

“I don’t know the young man,” Sheriff Ed Graybeal said. “If he walked through the door right now I wouldn’t know who he is, but he doesn’t make the decision for me when or what I do.”

Friday marks a year since Shirra Branum died after the fatal crash on Conklin Road. Her mother Cindy Scalf said she too talked with Shults in recent weeks.

“He thinks he should have been arrested,” Scalf said of her conversation with the former prosecutor. “Joe felt like they had enough to hold him on.”

Citing the sensitive nature of this case, Shults would not talk on-camera, but did grant us an interview. Before he left the Washington County District Attorney’s Office last year to join his family’s law practice, he said he prosecuted Mogollon-Anaya multiple times for DUI. Knowing the man’s criminal history, Shults said at the least deputies could have and should have charged him with driving on a revoked license.

“He should have been arrested that day,” Shults said. “He would still be in jail awaiting trial or sentencing. There’s no reason legally in the world to not have arrested him. None.”

Shults eventually shared his displeasure with his boss almost two weeks after the crash, which led to a meeting with WCSO and the filing of an arrest warrant.

“When he came to me and said, ‘I’m having some real trouble. I’m having a rough time with this. He needs to be off the street,’ we tried to get him off the street,” First Judicial District Attorney General Tony Clark said. “I don’t know what else we could have done and I wouldn’t have changed anything.”

By the time the sheriff’s office filed the original warrant on March 31, 2017, investigators could not find Mogollon-Anaya. Sheriff Graybeal has maintained the sheriff’s office did not rush to file charges against the man for a variety of reasons.

“There were so many open-ended questions, reconstruction, there were so many questions about that that we wanted to be sure that we didn’t cause something to happen with this case and get it kicked out of court,” the sheriff said.

He said investigators wanted to build the best possible criminal case to ensure a felony conviction.

“What good is a really good case if the man is not here?” we asked.

“Well, the thing about that is, there’s no way you can tell if anybody’s going to leave,” Sheriff Graybeal said.

The sheriff also said investigators had no reason to believe the man would run. After all, Mogollon-Anaya quickly hired an attorney, has small children here, had a job and previously posted bond and served prior DUI sentences.

“He was indicating to us he was staying here,” Sheriff Graybeal said. “I think the biggest part of this case is misunderstanding about what took place, how it took place and what it took place for.”

“Do you have any regrets about the way the sheriff’s office handled this case?” we asked him.

“No. Not at all,” the sheriff replied. “We did our job by what the state law says totally and completely.”

Despite his former prosecutor’s criticism of the sheriff’s office, Clark said he continues to support the decision to wait to file felony charges. He argues the sheriff’s office handled the case appropriately from the start.

“We knew within hours of this crash that he had an attorney,” Clark said. “I say hours, 12 hours or so I received a letter from Gene Scott saying he was representing him, so given all that, I didn’t want to take a chance and to be honest with you Nate, I wasn’t thinking at that point in time, ‘charge him with something,’ because he’s not guilty of anything yet,” Clark said. “We assumed who was at fault, but we didn’t know for sure who was at fault and taking out a charge without having all the evidence at that point in time, a day or two after the crash, I don’t think would have been, in my opinion, 24 years’ experience, would have been the right thing to do.”

Clark said investigators also considered other variables, some of which are still not public today.

“We have to show the proximate cause of the crash was either impairment or recklessness on the part of Mr. Anaya and I don’t think a day after the crash or two days after the crash or three days after the crash we had that,” Clark said. “Did we know he was driving? Yes. Was he driving on a revoked license? Yes. Could we have charged that? Yes, but that in my opinion legally was not the prudent thing to do, because I’ve had cases in the past where someone’s been charged with a lesser offense go in and plead and that jeopardizes the more serious charges of vehicular homicide.”

Clark said there’s one more thing to consider. During the suspect’s hospital stay, Branum’s father said he called the hospital to check if Mogollon-Anaya was still there and accidentally got connected to the man’s room where he then angrily informed Mogollon-Anaya he killed his daughter; possibly the first time the man learned the crash involved a fatality.

“I’m certainly not blaming them, I may have done the same thing, but I think that did lead to him maybe thinking, ‘I need to get out of here,'” Clark said.

Both Clark and Sheriff Graybeal said they’ve spent a significant amount of time communicating and sharing information with the U.S. Department of Justice in hopes of finding Mogollon-Anaya and bringing him back to the region to face his charges.

“We have been working with the Department of Justice on extradition if he is in Mexico and countless hours have been spent back and forth with them, with the families trying to locate him,” Clark said. “It’s been really non-stop to try and find him. Now you go back and say, ‘Well, could we have done things different?’ Could we have charged him or should we have charged him? I don’t think that’s a relevant question. My issue is to get him back here and get him tried for the offenses.”

“We probably put two weeks solid on a bunch of paperwork at DOJ on it, so our case has been done for a long time,” the sheriff said. “It’s in their hands now. We haven’t heard back from them, so we try to at least call twice a week to see where we’re at.”

Friday marks a year since the crash.

“It’s been a miserable year,” Branum’s father Hugh Scalf said.

“We’re still in the same boat we were in,” her mother said. “We have no answers. We’ve gone a year without justice and it’s time that justice is served.”

Copyright WJHL 2018. All rights reserved.

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