How one woman sued her childhood sexual abuser years later — and won — thanks to a change in Utah law

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ginger Utley loved playing the piano as a child and it helped her get lost from the abuse by her Sunday School teacher. Now, out of practice, she says she only plays when she is alone but it brings her joy. Utley successfully sued the man who sexually abused her as a child, thanks to a 2016 change in the law that extended statute of limitations for adults to bring civil cases against their childhood abusers.

When Ginger Utley was 22, she wasn’t ready to sue the man who had sexually abused her for years when she was a teenager. So she missed the deadline set by Utah law, which had required her to file her claims within four years after her 18th birthday.

But last year, Utah legislators gave abuse victims a new chance — opening a three-year window of opportunity, and even longer in some cases, to bring lawsuits that had been considered too late to file.

That changed everything for Utley.

Now 42, the Salt Lake City woman filed a civil action a month after the law took effect — and won a settlement.

“I felt like I had been given a second chance to do what I couldn’t do before,” she said in a recent interview. “... At 22, there was no possible way I was ready for that or even considered it at that time. For the next 20 years, I thought, ‘How am I going to do something? He got away with something horrible.’ So when this law passed, it meant everything.”

In 2015, Utah lawmakers had erased the deadline for filing lawsuits that allege more recent childhood abuse. But older cases like Utley’s were still blocked.

Utley now wants to spread awareness about the newer change, so others who were abused years ago as children know the option is available.

‘Nobody did anything’

It was 1989 when Utley’s neighbor and Sunday school teacher, Jesus “Jess” Hurtado, first kissed her. She was 13 years old and at the Hurtado home baby-sitting his children, according to a 1993 American Fork police report.

It would be the start of five years of emotional and sexual abuse that didn’t end until she was 18, when her mother noticed bruises on her neck and chest after a violent encounter with Hurtado, Utley said.

Utley said she asked Hurtado and others to stop the abuse. She wrote “breakup notes” to Hurtado, according to her 3rd District Court lawsuit, and told his wife about what was happening.

Utley confided in her cheerleading coach about the abuse and eventually told her mother. She also told two bishops with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — her own and her coach’s.

But for years, no one alerted authorities about the abuse.

Her coach’s bishop instructed her to repent, according to the lawsuit, and her own bishop said he would no longer allow Hurtado to be her Sunday school teacher.

“It was kind of like, everybody just said, ‘OK, you [Hurtado] should stop that,’ ” Utley said. “But nobody did anything. Nobody called the police.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ginger Utley of Salt Lake successfully sued the man who sexually abused her as a child, thanks to a 2016 change in the law that extended statute of limitations for adults to bring civil cases against their childhood abusers.

Her mother eventually did call law enforcement in 1993, and Hurtado was charged in 4th District Court with four felony counts of forcible sexual abuse of a child. He was allowed to plead guilty the following year to misdemeanor lewdness counts — an offense that did not require registration as a sex offender.

Before his sentencing in 1994, leaders in his Mormon church wrote letters to the judge asking for no jail time. He was a good man, they wrote, who had changed and was no longer a danger to anyone. Jail time would cause “irreparable damage,” wrote his stake president, who oversaw a number of LDS congregations.

Hurtado was sentenced to 90 days of home confinement, according to a transcript of his sentencing hearing. He was also ordered to pay for Utley’s therapy costs, the lawsuit states, but he never did.

‘I wanted a public way of saying that he did this’

Years later, Utley believes Hurtado’s public admissions in the criminal case helped her settle her civil lawsuit quickly, because she had proof that the abuse happened. The parties agreed to an $875,000 settlement, according to court records, and Hurtado was banned from having unsupervised contact with minors for a decade.

She felt a “huge sense of relief,” Utley said, and vindication.

“I had never had the chance to tell what he did,” Utley said. “Even when [Hurtado] was charged criminally, he told me what I could say and how much I could say about what happened, and I stuck to that. The impact on my life was enormous. I just wanted to say what he had done. I wanted a public way of saying that he did this.”

Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor and a former federal judge, was one of Utley’s attorneys. He said last week that the change in Utah law recognizes that it may take years for someone who has been abused to be ready to take on an emotionally taxing lawsuit.

“Society over the last decade has come to understand the plight of sexual assault victims much better,” he said.

Hurtado’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins pointed to the following statement on the faith’s newsroom website:

“The church has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to abuse. This means that if we learn of abuse, we take immediate steps to protect the victim and help them with healing,” it states. “We cooperate with law enforcement to report and investigate abuse.”

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, first brought legislation in 2015 that eliminated the deadline, or statute of limitations, for victims to bring civil lawsuits against their childhood abusers. But the law didn’t apply to older cases, and anyone who was a day older than 22 when it took effect was still unable to sue.

For a year, Ivory said, he fielded calls from Utahns who were abused as children, who shared their stories and asked if the law helped them.

He would ask them, “How old are you?”

Many were over 22 years old. He told them the law wouldn’t apply in their case, but promised he would work to remedy that.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Rep. Ken Ivory talks about his federalism bill HB207, at the Capitol, Friday, February 17, 2017.

A year later, Ivory proposed legislation that revived previously barred claims, but with a narrow window. Those who could not bring a civil lawsuit under the old law now had either a three-year window starting in May 2016 to file suit or until 35 years from their 18th birthday — whichever is longer.

“Honestly, this is one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done as a legislator,” Ivory said last week. “If I did nothing else, this was worth the time, the grief — all that goes along with the good and bad of public service.”

Utley had tried to bring a lawsuit against Hurtado before 2016 and had sent a demand letter to his attorney, citing a recovered-memories statute that would allow her to sue past the statute of limitations. But the law was weak, she said, and Hurtado’s lawyer threatened to ask for sanctions against her attorney if they filed in court.

And after she received an anonymous death threat at work, according to the lawsuit, she called off the legal action.

But after the law changed last year, Utley decided to try again. She said she wants people to know about the law, especially because half of the three-year window for older victims has elapsed.

“Even just telling your story, whether you win anything or not, having your family hear, having your friends hear, having people who love you know what happened ... is probably the most important thing that came out of this,” she said. “Way more than a settlement.

“It’s getting to feel like you’re a whole person without having to have this big secret in your life.”