Five women now say they were sexually harassed or assaulted by former Provo Police Chief John King — and a new criminal investigation could be coming

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Former Provo police chief John King participates in a discussion about hate crimes in Salt Lake City on Thursday August 4, 2016.

Five women have now come forward alleging that then-Provo Police Chief John King sexually harassed or assaulted them during the three years that he led the Utah County police department.

And as attorneys for the women have filed notices in recent weeks that they intend to sue Provo, city attorneys have indicated in emails that they may ask for a criminal investigation into King’s conduct.

In a demand letter filed with the city earlier this week, attorney Michael Young alleges Provo officials were “deliberately indifferent” to complaints from several women in the department alleging that King leered at them, groped them and made inappropriate comments.

The letter also claims the city was negligent in hiring King and did not complete a thorough enough background check — which would have shown that King was forced to resign from a high-profile law enforcement position on the East Coast after accusations of sexual assault.

King resigned as Provo’s chief last March after being accused of sexually assaulting a volunteer who was conducting research with the Provo Police Department. The chief told investigators that he had sex with her on several occasions — though the woman said the sexual contact was never consensual, according to a Unified Police Department report released last year.

The volunteer is one of the five women who intend to sue the city. Documents detailing their claims were released by the city Friday in response to a Salt Lake Tribune records request.

Young said Friday that Provo officials could have looked into King’s actions in the year since he left the department — but they didn’t begin investigating until they learned of the potential lawsuit.

“Provo City hired somebody to be chief of police who shouldn’t have been hired,” Young told The Tribune. “That person hurt a lot of people. They had information that John King was a bad actor for more than a year. They had plenty of time to look into his actions. It took a lawsuit for them to get motivated to make changes.”

Provo Deputy Mayor Isaac Paxman said in a Friday email that Mayor Michelle Kaufusi, who took office in January, continues to monitor an investigation being conducted by city officials.

In the meantime, Paxman said, Kaufusi is meeting with Provo’s police officers and dispatchers to let them know that any sexual harassment concerns can be brought directly to her.

“So while she knows these claims pertaining to Chief King will need to be fully addressed,” Paxman wrote, “her main focus is forward-looking.”

‘Nothing was ever done’

The five women all say King either sexually harassed them or assaulted them. They allege the following in the demand letter:

A dispatcher who began working for the city in 2010 says King sexually harassed her on multiple occasions beginning almost immediately when he came to Provo in 2014. He told her he had dreams about her, and made comments about her breasts. When she left the department in 2014, she made a formal complaint of sexual harassment, and followed up twice with an employee in human resources. That HR employee later told the woman that then-Mayor John Curtis informed King of the complaint. King later told another employee that “it had been brought to his attention that he leers at breasts of female subordinates.” The mayor’s and chief’s reaction to the complaint “only served to chill the reporting of any other misconduct,” the demand letter alleges.

A police department employee says King groped her breast and pulled her close to him several times during a March 2015 encounter when she was trying to help him with a copy machine issue. She says King also stared at her breasts, and told her after she took an extended medical leave that he “missed the scenery.” When King resigned last year, the woman says she told two police supervisors, the city attorney and others about her experience.

“[The woman] further indicated that because of Chief King’s position of power, no one felt comfortable coming forward about his actions,” the demand letter reads. “Upon information and belief, nothing was ever done in response to this report.”

A dispatch supervisor says that after King was hired, he often visited the dispatch center, where he would stare at her breasts, comment on how attractive she was and touch her without her consent. On one occasion, King insisted the two have lunch. They drove separately to the restaurant, but after finding it was closed, King told her to get into his car. When she was in his car, King started rubbing her leg and asked if she wanted to “go for a drive.” She refused, and instead asked to go to a different restaurant. On another occasion, King rubbed her back, and told her that some female employees had complained that he looked at their breasts. He asked whether she agreed with these complaints.

“To [her], Chief King’s message to her was unmistakable,” the demand letter reads. “Provo City was doing nothing with regard to complaints against Chief King, no complaint would be kept confidential and any complaint would lead to Chief King retaliating against the complainant.”

A female police officer says King sexually assaulted her on four or five occasions, when he pressed his fingers underneath her bullet-proof vest and groped her breast while hugging her from the side. The woman says King also openly leered at her breasts, and made her “extremely uncomfortable” — but she felt she had no one to report the behavior to and feared retribution.

The fifth woman, the volunteer with the police department, reported to city officials that King sexually assaulted her in January 2017. Unified police investigated the woman’s report, but prosecutors declined to file charges against the police chief. This report, however, forced King to resign under threat of termination, according to emails from a Provo City assistant attorney obtained this week through a records request.

A new investigation?

Assistant Provo City Attorney Gary Millward wrote in an email to Young this week that the city has “been unable to independently verify” that either HR or former Mayor Curtis knew about the reports of inappropriate touching until the notices of claim were recently filed.

Curtis, who is now a U.S. congressman for Utah, declined to comment for this story through a spokeswoman. An email sent to King seeking comment went unreturned.

In a Thursday email, Millward said that several of the women’s reports indicate King had possibly committed a crime. He wrote he intends to forward the complaints to the Utah County Sheriff’s Office so it can conduct a criminal investigation — but Utah County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Cannon said Friday that they had yet to receive such a request.

Young requests in the demand letter that Provo City agree to mediation before mid-March, or the attorney plans to file a lawsuit on behalf of his five clients in court.

King became Provo’s police chief in 2013. A year before he was hired in Utah, he was investigated and forced to resign as the Baltimore Police Department’s director of education and training after a female staff member accused him of groping her in a patrol car, according to public records obtained by The Tribune last year. Prosecutors declined to file charges in that case.

There, a secretary reported that in 2012 she went to lunch with King. On the walk back to King’s police car, he told her he “had an inappropriate dream involving her,” according to a Baltimore County police report. On the return drive, King placed his hand on the woman’s thigh, she said, then began moving it under her dress. She said he then moved her underwear and sexually assaulted her with his fingers, according to the police report. The woman said she pushed away his hand.

In an interview with Baltimore County detectives, King denied assaulting or touching the woman inappropriately, the records show.

The chief’s departure

Provo officials said last summer that they were unaware of the Baltimore case — which led to the Maryland city paying the woman a $24,000 settlement — until a Tribune reporter told them about it in July. Officials said a background check conducted by a recruiting firm found nothing negative on King before he was named chief in late 2013.

Curtis said last July that had he known about the previous allegations in Baltimore, it “clearly would have been a deal breaker.”

But Young wrote in the demand letter that a simple search of King’s name online should have been enough to raise red flags. The Baltimore Sun detailed King’s abrupt resignation from the department there in 2012, and a Gaitherburg, Md. newspaper published another article about King suddenly quitting as chief of that city’s department in 2010.

“In our interviews with individuals in Gaithersburg and Maryland, all are uniformly surprised that Provo hired Chief King in the first place,” Young wrote in the demand letter, adding that the hire was “an unmitigated failure.”

Provo City officials have said background and reference checks for King were conducted by Citygate Associates, a California recruiting company hired by the city.

The city went with another search firm to find applicants for their next chief before deciding to hire in-house candidate Rich Ferguson in September. Previously a captain in the department, Curtis named him interim chief after King’s sudden departure last March.

When King resigned, police officials initially said he was leaving due to family health issues out-of-state.

Young alleges Curtis “kept up the ruse” for a time — despite having demanded the chief’s resignation after he became aware of the allegations — and told employees King was leaving to tend to his sick mother. The then-mayor also planned a going-away party for King, according to Young — a party that went forward even as news got out that King had been under investigation for sexual assault.

Curtis held a news conference the following day revealing he had requested the chief’s resignation because of the volunteer’s sexual assault report.