A former Wasatch County Deputy Sheriff indicted in U.S. District Court for allegedly sexually assaulting a female inmate while working as a guard at the county jail pleaded not guilty Wednesday to additional criminal charges in connection with a second alleged victim.
Christopher Stein Epperson of Heber City, 33, was charged in June with two counts of “deprivation of rights under color of law” for his purported sexual misconduct, according to an indictment filed in federal court. A recent second superceding indictment filed in court, however, added more counts of “deprivation of rights under the color of law,” and a count of unauthorized access to a computer.
Epperson made an initial appearance on the newer charges Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Robert Braithwaite in Salt Lake City, where he entered not guilty pleas.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Esqueda said an investigation into Epperson that followed his initial indictment revealed another female inmate whom Epperson allegedly assaulted at the jail.
In the first set of charges, Epperson is accused of touching the breasts of a 34-year-old inmate, identified as “J.H.” in court documents, in December 2009. He is also accused of peeping on the inmate as she undressed, forcing her into a corner where he groped her and forced her to fondle him, sexually assaulting the woman in her cell, and attempting to sodomize her, according to court documents.
The Utah Department of Public Safety and FBI investigated the inmate’s claims, which led to the indictment.
Epperson faces up to life in prison and a $250,000 fine if found guilty.
The “color of law” charge is one reserved for public officials such as judges, prosecutors or those in law enforcement who abuse their authority, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The term “color of law” means that a public official is lawfully using the authority given by a local, state or federal government agency. The FBI generally investigates “color of law” cases.
The woman, whom The Salt Lake Tribune is not identifying because she is an alleged victim of sexual assault, filed a civil lawsuit in 2010 against Epperson, the county and the sheriff’s department. Investigators approached her about the abuse after an outside witness reported what went on at the jail. She filed the lawsuit after the criminal investigation into Epperson was underway.
Her civil complaint states that she was an inmate at the Wasatch County jail from September 2009 through April 2010, after being convicted for falsely distributing prescription drugs. In November 2009, Epperson began making comments about her physical appearance.
“He overtly flirted with her by smiling and winking at her,” the complaint states. Mild flirting turned into “lurid, sexual comments” as the months passed, and in December 2009 Epperson ordered the victim to display her breasts so he could photograph her, according to the complaint.
The victim alleges several other jail guards witnessed the harassment and did nothing to stop it, the complaint states.
Epperson also showed the inmate photos of his own genitalia on several occasions, according to the complaint.
The victim’s civil complaint alleges that Epperson’s conduct violated her constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment, her due process rights and her right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. She is asking for an unspecified amount of damages. The case is pending before U.S. District Judge David Sam.
“Deputy Epperson’s conduct summarized what constitutes willful misconduct, assault, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Wasatch County is responsible to ensure the safe and appropriate treatment of inmates by its guards, deputies and other inmates,” the complaint states.
“Wasatch County failed to provide appropriate mechanisms, including policies, procedures and monitoring devices and mechanisms, tor prevent and discover sexual abuse of inmates by guards.”
Attorney Frank Mylar, who is representing the county in the case, said the county did not have knowledge of Epperson’s behavior, but believes the sexual abuse occurred.
“At least one inmate is a witness to some of this misconduct, yet that inmate failed to disclose this misconduct to jail officers,” the attorney wrote in court documents.
“While defendants lack personal knowledge of any of this misconduct, upon information and belief, Epperson did engage in the alleged ... misconduct with [the victim].”
Epperson was terminated from his position at the jail, Mylar wrote in court documents.
The second alleged victim reported similar abuses, according to court documents.
Epperson remains out of custody while awaiting trial.