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Before Aaron Lowe killing, suspect told a judge he’d avoid ‘the wrong people at the wrong time’

SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City man accused of shooting and killing University of Utah football player Aaron Lowe has cycled in and out of jail for a string of crimes in recent years, including two that involved guns.

But 22-year-old Buk Mawut Buk, of Salt Lake City, managed to avoid any prison time before his arrest Sunday.

While Utah’s former top federal prosecutor says Buk’s criminal history reflects a “slap on the wrist, revolving-door approach” to gun crimes within the state’s criminal justice system, another former prosecutor says the issues at play are complex.

More than a year before Lowe and his 20-year-old girlfriend were shot several times outside a house party in Salt Lake City, officers found Buk running from a stolen car with ammunition in his pocket that matched the caliber of a stolen handgun recovered from the car’s floorboard, court records say.

His arrest on Nov. 1, 2020 followed two robbery convictions in Salt Lake County from 2019.

“It was something that I really regret,” Buk told a judge in March, according to an audio recording of the hearing. “It was just me being around the wrong people at the wrong time, you know, but, I’ll make sure that won’t happen again.”

He was charged with having a weapon despite being a dangerous person, a second-degree felony. But there were several other people in the car that day, so prosecutors came to realize they didn’t have the evidence they needed to pursue the case, said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.

Buk ultimately pleaded guilty to failing to stop at the command of police, a class A misdemeanor, as part of a plea bargain.

He was granted credit for 115 days he’d served in jail and was released in March.

Gill’s office had a warning for Buk, however: “He needs to understand, if he’s going to be riding around with people with firearms in the car, he’s going to have much more serious problems and probably end up in prison,” prosecutor Roger Baylock said in the March hearing.

Gill declined to provide details about the earlier cases and the risk Buk may have posed before his arrest this week.

For now, Gill said his office is focused on getting justice for Lowe’s death and the woman’s injuries.

Buk has not been formally charged in that case.

“I think there may be another time to talk about anything else,” Gill said. “Let’s not conflate the two issues, because our focus right now for this office is the screening of this homicide.”

Buk was convicted of robbery twice in 2019:

  • He met a father and daughter in October of that year who wanted to buy a phone, but robbed them at gunpoint, police said. He originally faced four charges, including aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony. As part of a plea deal, he admitted to a lesser charge of robbery, a second-degree felony. A judge suspended a prison sentence, ordering him to serve about four months in jail and giving credit for roughly eight months he’d spent in custody.
  • He’d pleaded guilty to the same charge for a similar offense in May 2019, when someone tried to buy a phone from Buk but he took $300 and ran, court documents say. He was ordered to a concurrent jail sentence and three years of probation.

Former U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber said the penalties Buk faced for earlier offenses were too light. He believes Buk should have been sent to prison for violating his probation and riding in a stolen car with a gun and ammunition.

While they don’t typically end in such a tragedy, “there’s been far too many such examples” that don’t meet meaningful penalties, Huber said.

“It’s unfortunate that the prosecutor didn’t have the confidence to have the court stop and pause and consider the out-of-control behavior,” Huber said. “It’s unfortunate that the judge did not pause and exercise his or her judgment to give individualized justice to this out-of-control offender.”

Law enforcers at the state level sometimes lined up outside his door during his six years in the job, he said, hoping to persuade his office to take over their cases because offenders in the federal system generally face heftier sentences.

He called for lawmakers to examine the case and give prosecutors and judges more tools to deliver justice, but declined to give examples of possible changes.

“The trigger-puller is to blame for the tragic death of Aaron,” Huber said. “But we must learn from such tragedies.”

Daniel Strong, director of the Utah Sentencing Commission, said those who carry out violent crimes repeatedly are a top concern for state leaders, but addressing recidivism is difficult.

Strong’s office advises lawmakers and crafts guidelines for how long a person should spend behind bars.

The public may be more safe while a person is in prison or jail, he noted, but most offenders eventually are released. Research shows that a person can be held for too long, Strong said, and become more dangerous than if held for a shorter time.

“It’s a difficult balancing act,” said Strong, a former prosecutor in the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

Still, he added, “cases like this certainly make you think about if we’ve drawn the line in the right place in this particular case or in the system at large.”

Other factors come into play, too, such as little space available in the Utah state Prison.

“We have a dwindling number of prison beds in Utah per capita as our population grows,” Strong said. “That is another factor weighing on courts and prosecutors as they try to determine who to put in the space we have.”

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