On the Death of Lt. Fred House

Addam Swapp, Remorse, Rehabilitation, and the Death of Utah Department of Corrections Lieutenant Fred House

By Ken K. Gourdin

The following was posted by a commenter to a story regarding Addam Swapp, a figure in one of the most notorious episodes of Utah criminal justice history.  Addam’s father-in-law, John, refused to allow his children to be educated in public schools, in contravention of the law then in effect.  John was shot while collecting his mail after he pointed a gun at a police officer.  Addam Swapp upped the ante by bombing an LDS Stake Center in Kamas, Utah, several years later, which led to a lengthy standoff with police in which Utah Department of Corrections (UDC) Lieutenant Fred House was shot and killed.

Addam recently met with a member of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole and provided a written statement expressing remorse for his actions and pledging to live a vastly different life when he is released.   For coverage of that meeting, see http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/55780873-78/swapp-hearing-singer-law.html.csp#disqus_thread, last accessed today.  I am one who often lends a jaundiced ear to prisoners’ attestations that they have been rehabilitated, particularly when they are incarcerated for events which led to the slaying of a police officer.  That having been said, Mr. Swapp’s assurances that he has been rehabilitated and that he feels genuine remorse for the events which led to Lt. House’s do strike me as incredibly sincere.  Indeed, the person most affected by those events, Lt. House’s widow, is not opposed to Addam’s release.

In response to the story linked above, one on-line Tribune commenter (who identifies himself in his handle as an ex-cop) opined that he felt that the UDC bore responsibility merely for allowing Lieutenant House to respond to the incident.  He said,  “In my way of thinking Fred House should not have been there in the first place, he was a corrections officer ([Category] 2), Who should be in the cell next to Mr. Swapp is the director of corrections that allowed Fred to be there in the first place.”

I responded:

Thank you for your service. You should read the entry for Lieutenant House from Robert Kirby’s “End of Watch.” (I thought I had the book close at hand, but it’s eluding me at the moment.) [The book’s full title and citation is Robert Kirby, End of Watch: Utah’s Murdered Police Officers, 1858-2003, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press (2004).]   While I was not personally acquainted with the Lieutenant, and while it’s been awhile since I’ve read what Mr. Kirby wrote, Mr. Kirby characterizes Lieutenant House as not the kind of officer who would (absent a direct order from a superior) allow himself to be kept out of action if he felt like he could be of service.

Also, while agencies today more commonly employ canines, that was probably a much rarer practice in 1988 than it is now. (A lot has changed in 25 years.) It was probably fairly common for agencies to request the help of a Department of Corrections handler-and-canine team then, considering how much less likely it was for field agencies to employ such teams themselves.

And, with due respect, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Lieutenant House based on the officer categorization system then in effect. Yes, field officers deal with their share of dangerous people and situations, but in contrast to that, take that danger factor, multiply it, and concentrate it: correctional officers who are assigned to the most high-risk areas deal with nothing BUT people who have been deemed highly dangerous (which is the very reason why they have been put in those areas in the first place). And since many of those individuals have been incarcerated long term if not for life, when it comes to deciding whether to attack a correctional officer or not, they no longer have the one thing that dangerous people who are on the outside still have left to lose: their freedom. Whatever the likelihood that field officers will have to with deal dangerous individuals in the course of performing their duties, that likelihood is significantly greater for correctional officers.

After responding, I located my copy of Robert Kirby’s End of Watch: Utah’s Murdered Police Officers 1858-2003 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press [2004]).  Kirby writes that House had an unconventional approach which, while it sometimes made his superiors uneasy, also made him the kind of guy everyone wanted to have around when things were going badly.  Despite my correspondent’s dig at Lt. House’s credentials, Kirby notes that House “commanded the department’s K-9 program, supervised the fugitive apprehension team, and was a member of the prison’s SWAT team” (234).  I wonder how many of those credentials my law enforcement correspondent, above, possesses?

Having lauded Lt. House’s credentials, however, it should be noted that a case can be made that perhaps UDC does bear some responsibility for his death.  Lt. House was attempting to get the dog he  was handling to attack the Singer-Swapp compound from an adjacent house.  The dog, however, had not been trained to go outside from inside a house to attack, but rather the other way around.  I have no doubt that this deficiency in dog-and-handler training has been addressed in the 25 years that have intervened since this tragedy.

While I know that litigation was brought by Mrs. House against the maker of her husband’s body armor (and possibly against other parties), I am unsure whether she ever named the UDC or its director at the time in the suit.  Absent any evidence to the contrary, I have no reason to suspect that her claims (whatever they may have been) received anything less than a fair hearing.  In any event, whatever claims she may have had against UDC or its officials at the time, if she did not raise them then, the statute of limitations on those claims long since has run out.

Yes, Lieutenant House’s death was a tragedy.  Yes, he is still missed by those who loved him and by those who held him in high regard, as he should be.  But perhaps the best lesson that can be learned (even from such a tragedy as this) is that people survive; they can, and often do, change for the better (even the Addam Swapps of the world); they grow.  Perhaps the one thing those who go on ahead and leave us behind would have us know (even when they leave us under tragic and untimely circumstances) is that life should not stop for us.  As difficult as the prospect is of forgiving and moving on, that’s exactly what they would have us do.

Update, 2 October 2013:  I posted the following in response to a comment regarding a report on line at SLTrib.com, that the alleged shooter in another law enforcement line-of-duty murder (which resulted in the death of Draper, Utah P.D.’s Sgt. Derek Johnson [for more of my commentary on Sgt. Johnson’s death, see the following links, last accessed today: http://www.greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/end-of-watch-sergeant-derek-johnson/ and http://www.greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/sgt-derek-johnson-and-pretrial-publicity/.])  The comment to which I responded criticized the suspect’s alleged expressions of remorse by saying that he had “destroyed” the lives of Sgt. Johnson’s wife and children.  I said:

As I come from a law enforcement family, I have exactly zero sympathy for this man. And I do have sympathy for Sergeant Johnson’s colleagues, family, friends, and associates. However, whether this incident destroys their lives is almost entirely up to them. Personally, although I am fortunate enough to never have had to face the prospect of losing someone close to me in the line of duty (which, I realize, makes it easy for me to say this), I believe that the only thing that could destroy the lives of those left behind is an all-consuming hatred. It is the absolute right of those Sergeant Johnson left behind to want, to expect, and indeed, to demand justice. (I feel the same way, and I never even met him.) But, with due respect, the only way his loss could destroy their lives is if they let it.

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About kenngo1969

Just as others must breathe to live, I must write. I have been writing creatively almost ever since I learned to write, period! I have written fiction, book- and article-length nonfiction, award-winning poetry, news, sports, features, and op-eds. I hope, one day, to write some motivational nonfiction, a decent-selling novel, a stage play, and a screen play.
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2 Responses to On the Death of Lt. Fred House

  1. Pingback: End of Watch: Sergeant Derek Johnson | My Blog

  2. Pingback: Another Story of Forgiveness | Commentary on the passing scene

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