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Hometown, U.S.A.: Eagle Mountain, Utah

A small-town mayor, a big-city crime

Christopher Pengra was just beginning his tenure in this bedroom community when a sheriff's deputy was gunned down. He grappled with how to respond.

February 08, 2014|By John M. Glionna
  • Mayor Christopher Pengra of Eagle Mountain, Utah, has struggled to strike the right tone with residents after a sheriff's deputy was shot and killed last month.
Mayor Christopher Pengra of Eagle Mountain, Utah, has struggled to strike… (John M. Glionna / Los Angeles…)

Barely a month ago, Christopher Pengra became mayor of a bedroom community outside Salt Lake City, anticipating the usual headaches of a fast-growing area, such humdrum fare as traffic congestion and zoning disputes.

But there was nothing in his newcomer's manual to handle this: A Utah County sheriff's deputy was killed late last month, gunned down on a lonely rural highway in Eagle Mountain after stopping to assist a stranded motorist. Sgt. Cory Wride, 44, a father of five whom friends knew as a "shy cowboy," had served the town for two decades.

The incident was part of a violent day that saw another deputy shot in the head and seriously wounded in a nearby community before the suspected gunman was killed by authorities in a rain of gunfire.

So what is a mayor's role in such a crisis, Pengra asked himself: mere government administrator, or parental figure for an emotionally wounded populace? In the days between the shooting and Wride's funeral last week, the boyish-looking 35-year-old mayor acted cautiously, often on instinct, as he tried to lead his city with grace and strength.

Word that Wride had been killed had come at the end of another long day. From his City Hall office desk, Pengra first called his wife, who had worked for the city and knew Wride well. She wept on the line.

Then he prayed with a city staffer who is a member of the Mormon Church. What he did not do, Pengra said, was make any public statements, unsure whether the families of the downed officers had been notified.

Pengra served in the Air Force and knows how close-knit such organizations can be. He knew that, for the sheriff's department, Wride's death was like losing a family member. The next day, he was back at City Hall, sitting beneath the portrait of two eagles, his city's namesakes, and trying to write a letter to Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy.

At first the words wouldn't come. Numerous backspace keystrokes later, he struck the right tone, writing from the heart.

"We cannot comprehend the senseless and cowardly act that has taken place, so we choose to focus on that which we can understand: the love, service and sacrifice a great man has made to serve and protect our community," the mayor wrote, offering his city's help in the coming months.

"All you need to do is ask and we will be there for you," he added, closing the note, "with sorrow and admiration."

He drove 25 miles to hand-deliver the letter.

Nobody knows why Jose Angel Garcia-Juaregui opened fire on Wride on Jan. 30. The previous day, authorities had issued an arrest warrant for parole violations against the 27-year-old, who had served time in prison for attempted homicide. After shooting Wride, he fled, later firing on Deputy Greg Sherwood before being shot 50 miles from the roadside shoulder where Wride had died hours earlier.

This was not the kind of urban-type drama Pengra and his wife sought when they moved to Eagle Mountain several years ago. They liked the planned community for its outdoor spaces and starry nighttime skies. Once a stop on the Pony Express route, the city covers 50 square miles, making it the state's third largest by land mass.

Though Eagle Mountain incorporated in 1996 with 250 residents, the latest census listed the population at 25,000. Despite its growth, the city just wasn't used to crime. Eagle Mountain endured teen pranksters or a few garage burglaries, but never a killer's rampage.

Yet even before the shooting, the community made news — often for political infighting that led to 10 mayors in 13 years. An out-of-state newspaper once wrote a story about the large number of polygamists in Eagle Mountain, a claim city officials vehemently denied.

Pengra chooses to see this town as a quaint locale where residents celebrated the recent arrival of a Starbucks. He points to the local cupcake charity sale that raises funds for neighbors with medical problems.

And he's proud of the community's tradition of honoring military men and women stationed at nearby Camp Williams National Guard Base. When they return from war duty, the soldiers ride in a firetruck down streets lined with waving residents and small U.S. flags.

That's the community, Pengra says, that reached out after Wride's death. On the weekend after the killing, the mayor received numerous calls and emails from residents and friends, wishing him strength. People suggested ways to honor the sergeant, such as naming a park after him, and wondered how they could help his widow, who lives about 35 miles away.

On Monday, just four days after the shooting, hundreds turned out for a vigil for Wride held at the local high school. For Pengra, it was his first major address to residents since he took office in December, and he worked hard on his speech.

"I wanted to give them closure," he said. "But what do you say to people who are your neighbors, people who just lost a good friend?"

He stood at the lectern, moved by the sight of the officer's family. Then, as they had with the letter, "the words came pouring out."

"Last Thursday, Jan. 30, not far from where we stand tonight, a good man lost his life while protecting our community and another was seriously wounded in the aftermath," he began.

He quoted a resident who described how Wride had once pulled him over and noticed a bumper sticker proclaiming the motorist a Vietnam veteran. Instead of issuing a ticket, Wride saluted the man, saying, "You might not have gotten any thanks when you came home, but I am going to give you that now and it's long overdue."

Now a mayor and his community gave thanks to Wride.

In the days since, Pengra has been back at his City Hall post, back to the world of traffic congestion and zoning disputes — his other life as mayor. But his mind is never far from the shy cowboy.

john.glionna@latimes.com

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