As trial begins for three Utah men accused of gang raping a 9-year-old girl, the defense points to lack of physical evidence in the case

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jerry Flatlip sits by attorney Brain Sidwell, as he listens to proceedings, at the Matheson Court House in Salt Lake City. Larson RonDeau, 38, Jerry Flatlip, 31, and Randall Flatlip, 28, were charged in 8th District Court with one count each of first-degree felony rape of a child and first-degree felony sodomy upon a child. Wednesday, May 2, 2018.

A jury trial began Thursday for three men accused of gang-raping a 9-year-old girl at a Uintah County home two years ago, while her mother was in the garage smoking meth.

But defense attorneys told jurors there is no physical evidence to support the girl’s claims.

Prosecutors have accused Larson RonDeau, 38, Jerry Flatlip, 31, and Randall Flatlip, 28, of holding down the girl in a Vernal home while each took turns sexually assaulting her. They are each charged with first-degree felony counts of rape of a child and sodomy upon a child.

Each man has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and defense attorneys have argued that the sexual assault didn’t happen — and suggested the girl’s account may have been influenced by her mother.

Defense attorney Loni DeLand told jurors during opening statements on Thursday that the girl had no injuries that would indicate she was sexually assaulted, and said they will call doctors who will testify that it’s unlikely the girl could have been abused in the way she described without injury. He also said there won’t be any DNA evidence that ties the men to the girl or the alleged assault.

“What this girl describes, you would expect to see all kinds of evidence, you would expect to see, in an exam of her private parts, trauma,” DeLand said. “There isn’t any.”

Uintah County Attorney G. Mark Thomas told jurors during his opening statement that there isn’t DNA evidence in the case, and said they would “have to weigh heavily” the girl’s account and “analyze critically” the value of that lack of DNA evidence.

The girl, who is now 11 years old, told her mother on March 29, 2016, that four men had held her down and raped her two days prior on Easter Sunday. The mother later told police that the alleged assault occurred while she left her sleeping daughter on a couch and went to a garage for about 30 minutes to get high on methamphetamine, according to charging documents.

In a video interview played in court on Thursday, the girl told an interviewer with the Children’s Justice Center that the men lifted her from a couch and took her into a bedroom.

“They took me to the back and all four of them did that to me,” the girl says in the video. ” … They said if I tell anybody, they were going to kill me.”

The girl went on to detail the alleged sexual assault at the hands of four men, saying they held down her arms and legs and each raped her. At a later interview with a Uintah Sheriff’s Office detective, the girl identified three of the men — Larson RonDeau, Jerry Flatlip, and Randall Flatlip — from a photo lineup.

A fourth man, 22-year-old Josiah RonDeau, was initially charged in connection to the alleged assault, as well, after the girl’s mother identified him as one of the perpetrators in a photo line-up. But prosecutors dismissed the charges in 2016, after the girl’s mother could not be found to testify at a preliminary hearing.

On Thursday, the girl sat in another room of the Salt Lake City courthouse and testified via video feed, as jurors in 3rd District Judge Randall Skanchy’s courtroom watched her intensely and took notes. The three accused men remained stoic as they watched the girl detail the alleged encounter.

When asked on Thursday what had happened to her that day, the girl responded, “They raped me,” and gave a similar account to her earlier video-taped interview.

During cross-examination, DeLand focused much of his questioning on what her mother had told her.

Was her mother the first person to use the word “rape”? Yes, the girl responded.

Did you know what that word meant? No, she said.

DeLand also suggested that much of the girl’s account was based on her mother’s line of questioning after she told her about the assault: Did they beat you, the mother had asked the girl? Did they say they would kill you? Each time, the girl said she answered, “Yes.”

And when DeLand asked whether the girl would say or do anything to keep her mother from leaving her — the woman had just completed a stint in jail shortly before the alleged assault — the girl took a long pause and answered, “I don’t know.”

The defense attorney suggested that the girl had been upset that day because she had had a bad dream while sleeping on the couch — and not because she had been assaulted.

The girl testified that she did have a bad dream, but when asked by a prosecutor whether the assault by the four men was a dream, she replied, “No.”

“Did that really happen to you?” Thomas asked.

“Yes,” the girl replied.

The Tribune generally does not identify victims of sexual assault.

After the alleged assault, the girl was removed from her home and placed in the care of state Child Protective Services. She now lives with an extended family members in Colorado, she told jurors.

The trial, which is expected to continue through next week, is being held in Salt Lake City after the venue was first moved from Uintah County to Summit County, where in December too few potential jurors answered summons for a trial to go forward.