Man who fired ‘warning’ shots headed to trial, despite claim of self-defense

Apr 6, 2022, 11:27 AM | Updated: Jun 19, 2022, 10:00 pm

TAYLORSVILLE, Utah – Black and white video captured by a home security camera shows two vehicles accelerating toward the exit of a Taylorsville townhouse complex as eight gunshots ring out in quick succession.

The video of the July 2020 shooting is a critical piece of evidence in the case that is now expected to advance to trial after a judge’s ruling Wednesday against dismissing the charges based on a claim of self-defense.

Faalae So’o, 39, is accused of firing several shots at the fleeing vehicles, wounding two then 18-year-old women inside an SUV and leaving one of them permanently paralyzed.

Case Background

According to court documents, So’o told police after the two vehicles arrived at the complex, he witnessed a few people in the group vandalizing a neighbor’s car, he thought at least one person might have been armed, and he heard a noise he thought might have been a gunshot.

During a preliminary hearing in May 2021, Detective Zach Bench with the Unified Police Department recalled So’o telling him that So’o began to draw his firearm when a member of the group ran toward him, but then the individual retreated, and the group got back into the vehicles to drive away. According to a transcript of the court hearing, So’o told police someone in the group told him, “We’ll be back.”

The vehicles started to drive away, but then So’o reported seeing brake lights illuminate twice, Bench said. So’o told investigators he was aiming at the tires at the rear of one of the vehicles.

“He called it a warning shot because he wasn’t sure they were going to, you know, come back at that moment, or a later time,” Bench said, according to the transcript.

So’o faces eight felony firearm-related charges, the most serious count being first-degree felony discharge of a firearm with serious bodily injury.

‘I can’t feel my legs’

During the same May hearing, Jatavia Smith testified that she was riding in the back seat of one of the vehicles and thought she and her friends were headed to a party, according to the transcript. She said she had no prior knowledge of plans to make a detour and so she stayed in the SUV while others started to vandalize the car.

“After they broke the windows, I was like, ‘OK. Guys, let’s just go.’ You know. And then we got in the car, and then as we were coming out, we heard a loud bang. And then that’s when started like — really, like, rushing to get out of there,” Smith testified, according to the transcript. “And then that’s when somebody, somewhere started shooting at us.”

According to the transcript, Smith said the final bullet ripped through the car and traveled straight through her T-12 vertebrae, severing her spinal cord and leaving her permanently paralyzed from the belly button down.

“When I first got shot, it felt like someone had slapped me in my back, and then everything went quiet. I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t see anything,” she testified. “But then I felt my back wet. And I was like, there’s no way I just sweat this much. So I touch my back, and I look at my hand, and there’s blood all over my hand. And then the first thing I said was, ‘I can’t feel my legs.’”

She said another 18-year-old woman in the car then held up her arm revealing a bullet hole through her elbow.

Utah’s new self-defense law

So’o sought to have the case dismissed under Utah’s new self-defense law that went into effect in May 2021, nearly a year after the shooting. The law triggers a new pre-trial process for cases in which the accused claims self-defense.

Under HB227, prosecutors must now prove by clear and convincing evidence in a pre-trial hearing that the defendant did not act in self-defense or in the defense of others. If prosecutors cannot prove that an individual’s use of force was not justified during the justification hearing, the case is dismissed before it ever goes to a jury.

In November, the KSL Investigators first reported on unintended consequences of the controversial new law, a near copy-paste of a Florida statute.

‘It’s not working’: KSL Investigates unintended consequences of new Utah self-defense law

So’o filed a motion for a justification hearing in July 2021. The hearing was held in December and continued with arguments from attorneys during another hearing on Wednesday.

‘Warning shots are not justified’

During Wednesday’s hearing, prosecutor Melanie Serassio reminded the judge about Smith’s prior testimony.

“It was the last shot that she heard when she then felt herself getting shot,” said Serassio. “So, if even conceivably one shot was justified – which the state argues it was not – eight shots were not justified.”

She argued So’o was angry at the vandals, rather than scared for his safety or the safety of others.

“She’s paralyzed for life based on the defendant’s decision that he was angry at the situation, and that he was going to take this into his own hands and show these people not to come back and not to do anything like this in his, in that complex,” said Serassio.

So’o’s defense attorney, Christine Seaman, noted witness testimony that corroborated So’o’s account of hearing a loud noise that could have been a gunshot, as well as the possibility that one of the individuals had a weapon. She said his actions were reasonable, under the circumstances.

“He didn’t put himself in this situation,” said Seaman. “He didn’t do anything to create this threat, to create the terror that was going on. He was simply trying to get rid of the threat and to deal with it the best that he could.”

Third District Court Judge William Kendall denied the defense’s motion to dismiss the case, saying that evidence presented by prosecutors showed So’o and his family were not in imminent danger when he opened fire.

“Warning shots are not justified under Utah law,” Kendall said.

The ruling represents a win for prosecutors, but under the new law, they are prohibited from relying on the outcome of the justification hearing during a jury trial. So’o will be able to once again claim self-defense.

The decision comes a month after a different judge ruled in favor of a man who also fired shots at a vehicle and claimed self-defense. In that case, a stray bullet narrowly missed a child in a nearby, uninvolved vehicle. The judge said he felt a jury should decide whether the man acted in self-defense, but the new law ‘tied’ his hands.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

KSL Investigates

Matt Gephardt & Sloan Schrage

Get Gephardt: How cybercriminals use social engineering to get us to hand over our sensitive info

You can have the strongest, most secure password in the history of cybersecurity, but the bad guys know there is one weakness they can use to hack into your system - you!
6 months ago
Delric Ellington and Kael Ellington talk about a stray bullet that entered their Salt Lake City hom...
Annie Knox and Daniella Rivera, KSL TV

Amid increase in youth shooting deaths, Utah pediatricians push for tougher gun laws

The number of Utah children and teens killed by gunfire reached a record high in 2020, in part because of a spike in homicides. Two Utah pediatricians are calling on the state to pass what they see as solutions to the troubling trend.
6 months ago
Albee Bostrom and Sissy McDade turned their love of thrift store shopping into a business: Thrift H...
Matt Gephardt

Gephardt Busts Inflation: Second-hand shopping, selling surge as Utahns try to beat rising prices

Data shared with the KSL investigators shows Utahns are trying to bring in more money and reduce spending as they try to bust inflation.
6 months ago
Bry Hansen visits his son's grave in South Jordan. (Tanner Siegworth/KSL TV)...
Annie Knox and Daniella Rivera, KSL TV

The number of Utah kids and teens dying by gunfire hit a record high in 2020

The state hit a devastating milestone in 2020, recording the highest-ever number of shooting deaths among Utahns 18 and younger.
6 months ago
Matt Gephardt & Sloan Schrage

Get Gephardt: What can you do if you pay someone to do work but they disappear with your money?

Imagine paying a deposit only to have them take your money and ghost you.
6 months ago
Photo illustration (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)...
Matt Gephardt

Get Gephardt: Your credit card can up your interest rate without telling you

If your credit card company raises your interest rate even just a little bit, it could have a significant impact on how long it takes you to get out of debt. A relatively new law means your credit card company can do just that and they do not even have to give you the heads up.
6 months ago

Sponsored Articles

Hand turning a thermostat knob to increase savings by decreasing energy consumption. Composite imag...
Lighting Design

5 Lighting Tips to Save Energy and Money in Your Home

Advances in lighting technology make it easier to use smart features to cut costs. Read for tips to save energy by using different lighting strategies in your home.
Portrait of smiling practitioner with multi-ethnic senior people...
Summit Vista

How retirement communities help with healthy aging

There are many benefits that retirement communities contribute to healthy aging. Learn more about how it can enhance your life, or the life of your loved ones.
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to choose what MBA program is right for you: Ask these questions before you apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Cloud storage technology with 3d rendering drawer with files in cloud...
PC Laptops

How backing up your computer can help you relieve stress

Don't wait for something bad to happen before backing up your computer. Learn how to protect your data before disaster strikes.
young woman with stickers on laptop computer...
Les Olson

7 ways print marketing materials can boost your business

Custom print marketing materials are a great way to leave an impression on clients or customers. Read for a few ideas to spread the word about your product or company.
young woman throwing clothes to organize a walk in closet...
Lighting Design

How to organize your walk-in closet | 7 easy tips to streamline your storage today

Read our tips to learn how to organize your walk-in closet for more storage space. These seven easy tips can help you get the most out of your space.
Man who fired ‘warning’ shots headed to trial, despite claim of self-defense