In a case that left Utah’s LGBTQ+ community stunned, Jonathan Mendoza Llana, a 49-year-old man from Los Angeles, was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in the Utah State Prison for his role in a heinous shooting incident that resulted in the death of a community activist and left another injured. The incident occurred on May 22, 2019, as victims Dennis Rowley Gwyther, 50, and a passenger were driving from Salt Lake City to Boise.
Llana, who pleaded guilty and mentally ill to charges of murder, attempted murder, and multiple counts of felony discharge of a firearm as part of a plea deal back in April, appeared before First District Judge Brandon Maynard for sentencing on Tuesday. The court handed down a 15-year-to-life prison term for the murder charge, a three-year-to-life term for attempted murder, and two separate five-year-to-life terms for each count of felony discharge of a firearm. The sentences were to be served consecutively, with the exception of the attempted murder sentence, which would run concurrently.
Gwyther and the passenger were SkyWest flight attendants who were heading to Boise, Idaho to work a flight. On I-84, 24 miles northwest of Tremonton, Utah, a Volkswagen Jetta driven by Llana pulled alongside their vehicle. Without warning, Llana opened fire, unleashing a barrage of shots into Gwyther’s car. The attack claimed the life of Gwyther and injured his passenger. Despite a thorough investigation, authorities struggled to determine any motive behind the senseless act of violence, and there was no indication that road rage or a hate crime had triggered the shooting.
The tragedy resulted in a prolonged legal process, complicated by uncertainty surrounding Llana’s mental state. At one point, prosecutors in Box Elder County had sought the death penalty for Llana, though this pursuit was later abandoned. Additionally, Llana’s mental competency was called into question, leading to his placement in Utah’s State Hospital for treatment aimed at restoring his competence to stand trial.
Gwyther was very active in Salt Lake’s LGBTQ community for several decades. He often helped with staging and sound at events, including QSaltLake Magazine’s January 11, 2014 Mass Reception held weeks after marriage was declared legal in Utah, and hundreds of couples, including Gwyther and his husband, Matt, ran to the County Clerk’s office to get married. He also provided a mobile stage for a rally held at the Salt Lake City Building after the Orlando Pulse Massacre, knowing that it would rain that day. He’s helped with events for the Utah Bears, the leather community, the Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire, QSaltLake Magazine, and other groups.
As part of the sentencing, Llana was also ordered to pay restitution fees totaling $18,113.88, plus interest, to the Utah Office for Victims of Crime.