SALT LAKE CITY (KSL.com) — The investigation into a fatal officer-involved shooting from the weekend continued Wednesday.
Matthew Henry Cieslak, 38, exchanged gunfire with Salt Lake City police on Saturday and was killed after being shot by two officers, according to police. The fatal confrontation came minutes after Cieslak allegedly carjacked a vehicle on the 600 South off-ramp on Interstate 15 into downtown Salt Lake City by stopping a car and chasing its two occupants out of the vehicle at gunpoint.
But according to numerous social media posts and emails received by KSL.com from friends and people who knew Cieslak, his final moments were not indicative of the rest of his life, which for many years was dedicated to serving his country.
Cieslak was a decorated war veteran, who, according to one social media post, spent 15 years as a Special Forces medic. He served several tours of duty, and in 2010, received the prestigious Utah Cross award while serving with the Utah Army National Guard’s 197th Special Troops Company and saving a man’s life in Cambodia. The Utah Cross is the second-highest award presented by the Utah National Guard.
“He cared for a scooter driver in Cambodia after he crashed his load of eggs nearby. Matt worked through the broken eggs and determined he needed more help. He put the man in our van and took him to hospital. When the doctor wouldn’t see him, he paid for the bribe out of his own pocket. Matt even visited the man a few days later,” a friend remembered, posting on Cieslak’s obituary tribute page about the event. “He won’t be remembered for how he left this life but how he lives it, with care, professionalism, humor and service.”
“He was a great soldier and a great man,” echoed Marc Cooper, Cieslak’s commanding officer for many years. Like many, Cooper is devastated over what happened.
“That is absolutely not the Matt I knew,” he said.
On social media, Cieslak was remembered by many for his larger-than-life personality, his laughter, his kindness, his musical prowess and his desire to serve his country.
“I cannot think of Matt without seeing that amazing smile and help but smile myself, even now through the tears. I love you, brother! Until we meet again,” a man who said he served with Cieslak in Iraq posted online.
“Matt was larger than life in all he did. He was a loving caring young man. He gave his all to save lives as a medic in the service,” stated another post.
“For those who knew Matt, his smiles, laughter and kindness will never be forgotten,” yet another post stated.
Some used the words “war hero” and “American hero” in remembering Cieslak.
“Matt is a TRUE American HERO with a heart full of love and a contagious laugh. He will be forever in our hearts,” one post read.
“The world has lost an amazing person,” another man wrote on social media. “This one hurts bad.”
But several people, while sharing their memories of Cieslak, also noted that his smile started to fade more in recent times and that he had become “increasingly sad.” Some who knew him stated he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“From what I understand, the difficulties of post-war began to eat way at the carefree parts,” one woman wrote in a lengthy Facebook post about Cieslak, while also noting that “hundreds” of people were in shock over the events of the weekend. “His tragic ending doesn’t define him to anyone that knows his big ol’ goofy heart.”
Cooper said Cieslak was undergoing treatment at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City, but didn’t have all the details about his condition or what he was being treated for.
“As horrible as (the carjacking) was, as horrendous as it was, there can be a lot of speculation, and I’m hoping, at some point, we can have answers to why he did what he did. I don’t want this to be the capstone of Matt’s life,” Cooper said. “He was a stellar individual — super competent, extremely professional, had an amazing sense of humor. Just a happy guy.”
While remembering Cieslak on social media, some people also expressed sympathy for the officers who were shot at, as well as the two men who were carjacked, stating it was not right that they got caught up in Cieslak’s alleged mental health crisis. Those two men also expressed compassion for Cieslak after the incident was over.
“I put myself in his family’s shoes, and imagine the news that they were getting that night was a whole lot worse than the information that my family had just gotten, and my heart just broke at that moment,” said Tyler Goudy, one of the two carjacking victims. “I didn’t know his name (or) know who he was, I just knew that he was desperate and that he was scared. And he had my car and I just felt compassion towards him.”
Friends stated that Cieslak grew up in the small town of Sugar City, Idaho, north of Rexburg. A viewing for Cieslak will be held Thursday in Chubbuck, Idaho, outside of Pocatello, followed by funeral services and interment on Friday at the Inkom City Cemetery “where full military honors will be rendered,” according to his obituary.
Salt Lake police are expected to release body camera video from the two officers involved in the shooting by April 8, per the city’s requirement of releasing video from critical incidents within 10 days. It is unlikely police will discuss Cieslak’s mental health status at that time — something the final report that the Salt Lake District Attorney’s Office may address in their review of the officer-involved shooting.
A spokeswoman for the Veterans Affairs hospital in Salt Lake said Wednesday that she could not comment on whether Cieslak was seeking treatment there. The hospital issued a prepared statement saying, in general, that PTSD symptoms can take a toll on everyone, especially family members of those suffering from it.
“Getting along may be harder than usual and family members may feel hurt or helpless. However, with treatment, people who have PTSD can feel safe in the world again. VA can help veterans get back their life and manage symptoms of trauma.”
Those seeking treatment for PTSD or looking for more information about it can contact Veterans Affairs psychologist Dr. Steve Allen at Steven.Allen@va.gov or 801-582-1565, ext. 2390.
Other resources for anyone seeking help include the Department of Veterans Affairs website and the Veterans Crisis Line, at 1-800-273-8255.
Contributing: Dan Rascon, KSL-TV